By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
“It’s a deconstructed Star of David,” said Amy Osaiason, showing off the arm tattoo that she and two other LGBTQ Birthright Israel trip participants had just gotten in Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel market.
“This is the 18th tattoo for the two others, and this is my second,” she said. “It’s symbolic of this trip to Israel and it points to my other tattoo, the chai (the Hebrew word for ‘life’ and the numerical equivalent of 18) on my wrist that I got as a result of my first trip to Israel.”
Bex Zank, another participant on the trip, then showed a tattoo, a “95,” which represented both the year Zank was born and the group’s Birthright bus number.
Zank recounted the events of the previous night, which some trip participants called the most meaningful night of their lives and the first time they could be exactly who they are. The group sat around a campfire, sharing their coming-out stories. Bex came out as non-binary—not fully identifying as male or female.
As Zank began to cry, describing coming out on Instagram while riding a camel in the mountains, a group of new friends linked arms and hugged each other in support.
“I’ve cried more this week than I’ve ever cried in my life,” Zank said.
Since 2000, Birthright has provided free 10-day educational and cultural trips to Israel for nearly 600,000 Jews ages 18-26. Niche Birthright trips like the LGBTQ trip ensure that all eligible participants feel they have a place in the often transformative experience of discovering Israel.
The trip taken by Zank and Osaiason could be seen as particularly symbolic coming on the heels of June’s anti-Semitic incident at the Chicago Dyke March, where three people were kicked out of the event because their gay pride flag featured the Star of David.
LGBTQ trips cover the usual Birthright itinerary, including classic sites like the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. But participants also have LGBTQ-relevant experiences, such as visiting the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance or participating in Tel Aviv’s gay pride parade.
While participants mentioned challenges such as trans and non-binary individuals trying to choose between the men’s and women’s prayer areas at the Western Wall, they also spoke of intensely positive emotions and finding a sense of meaning. Osaiason, who used to visit the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., left a note in the Western Wall for her friend who survived the shooting attack that killed 49 people at the gay nightclub in 2016.
Many participants felt an intense sense of community among their peers. For most on the trip, it was the first time they met fellow LGBTQ Jews.
“I feel more connected to Judaism and Israel now,” said Osaiason, who dismissed anti-Israel boycotts and claims of “pinkwashing”—the idea that Israel promotes gay rights as a means of covering up alleged human rights abuses against the Palestinians—as “propaganda and nonsensical.” At the same time, some participants maintained that Israel has a long way to go on improving LGBTQ rights and addressing the issue of homophobia outside of Tel Aviv.
Osaiason expressed the desire to bring home some of the traditions she learned in Israel, such as lighting Shabbat candles, having a family Shabbat dinner and speaking Hebrew. She also wants to return to Israel for another visit.
“It was so raw and emotional,” Osaiason said. “Something about being in the desert with each other allowed us to be our true selves.”
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, New York Daily News, Forbes, and The Hill.