Queer Israelis and Americans have a lot in common, say leaders of Israel Gay Youth.
Queer Israelis and Americans have a lot in common, say leaders of Israel Gay Youth.

Queer Israeli leaders build bridges with American peers in Bay Area

Ofer Newman and Liana Meirom Asif know how divisive Israel can be for some American Jews, especially young adults. But they also know there’s a bridge narrowing that gap when it comes to queer identity.

While in Israel that bridge brings together LGBTQ members from disparate communities, such as Israeli Jews and Arabs, or people from diverse economic classes, for American Jews “it can really bring a different perspective, or a different way to look at Israel,” Asif said.

Newman and Asif are the CEO and vice president of Israel Gay Youth, an organization that supports LGBTQ young people from across the religious and ethnic spectrum. They’re in the Bay Area, finally, after a year and a half of Covid restrictions, to meet with American Jewish partners including JCRC and San Francisco synagogue Sha’ar Zahav, where they were scheduled to speak on Friday.

Newman said queer Israelis and Americans have a lot in common.

“The connection between Israel and American Jewry must stand strong on values of openness and liberalism, and the ability to accept each and every one,” said Newman. “And I think, in both societies, American Jewry or Israeli society, those values are being attacked in the last few years.”

IGY, which was founded almost 20 years ago, offers a series of affinity groups for young queer people ages 12 to 23.

“We operate groups and clubs … for around 4,000 [LGBTQ] members throughout Israel,” said Newman, who heads the organization (he was previously the spokesman for now-president Isaac Herzog).

The connection between Israel and American Jewry must stand strong on values of openness and liberalism.

But its reach goes far beyond that. With funding from the government and private donors, the organization also works with Israelis going into the armed forces, and in a few weeks will launch a professional training program for students via IGY’s new vocational program “Marsha College” (named in part for Marcia Freedman, the first out lesbian in the Knesset who died in Berkeley on Sept. 21). Through outreach to Arab and religious Jewish communities, IGY connects with young people who may not be affiliated with a queer community.

“We have Arab members, we have groups for Arab LGBTQ youth, we have Arab volunteers, all educational materials are translated to Arabic,” Newman said.

While the secular gay community is well established in Israel, it’s harder for religious queer people who want to embrace all parts of their identity, which are sometimes in conflict, Asif explained.

Two years ago, an IGY delegation visited New York. “We had in our group an ex-Orthodox woman, who after she left her community never stepped inside a synagogue. We went to one of the LGBT synagogues in New York, and she literally started to cry, because she never thought that she would be welcome again within a synagogue,” Asif said.

Newman sees that as a space where U.S. groups can be a great example. “For a young, religious person, a gay person from Israel trying to understand this whole idea of pluralism and Judaism, working together in the United States is very, very inspiring,” he said.

And the inspiration can go both ways. Asif is aware that young Americans sometimes expect something “different,” maybe more conservative, from the visiting Israelis. But “we are more progressive, we fight for equal rights — and not only for LGBT, for everyone in Israel,” she said.

Those relationships are important for the queer community, and for the relationship between young Israeli and American Jews, she said. “As people to people, our LGBT identity is something that really connects us.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.