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A Significant First: 'This Was About Being Proud of Who We Are'

September 21, 2006 By:
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Christine Baker and Phyllis Ehrlich Photos by Carin M. Smilk

And then there were 14.

Twenty-six people were supposed to participate in the Philly Pride Mission, the first-ever gay and lesbian mission to Israel sponsored by a local federation -- in this case, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In theory, it was groundbreaking; after all, you'd expect that "first" to go to San Francisco, New York, Miami, even Chicago.

But it didn't. For a period of 10 days in early August -- in the middle of a war with Hezbollah, when rockets were landing by the hundreds and coverage of the Middle East saturated the media -- Philly was the city that drew some attention in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A handful of Philadelphians were the ones who got a little royal treatment not just by activists in the Israeli gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, but by museum tour guides, bus drivers, shop owners, and hotel and wait staff.

Most tourists stayed away from the Jewish state once war broke out on July 12. A banner year for tourism suddenly turned sour, and the expected 10,000 people coming for World Pride in Jerusalem -- an international roster of programs that included a youth day, health conference, film festival, rally and religious services -- dwindled to less than 1,000. Attendance at most individual events numbered in the hundreds, at most.

But five couples and four singles -- 11 of them Jewish, three of them not -- boarded an El Al airplane on Aug. 3, and entered Ben-Gurion Airport the next day relieved just to have landed. The group may have been halved, but it was happy.

Lee Rosenfield, the 38-year-old chair of the mission, said he owed much credit for the trip to Harold Goldman, former president of the Philadelphia Federation, who retired this spring after six years in the job. Goldman had the acclaim of being the first openly gay president of a local federation, as well as the honorary chair of the mission, though he did not wind up joining the group.

The goals, explained Rosenfield -- who was accompanied by his partner of 10 years, 42-year-old Jack Fastag -- were threefold: to participate in World Pride, to bridge participants' identities as gays and Jews, and to showcase the good work of Federation.

"I think we met all three," he stated.

Was war a deterrent? Was he nervous once the situation had changed?

No, he replied without hesitation, even though his co-chair, Lynn Zeitlin, decided at the last minute not to go.

"I was reflective of the rally, and uncertain as to what would happen," he said, alluding to the violence of last year's gay-pride march in Jerusalem, where an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed three people. As it turned out, this year's march was postponed, though a smaller-scale gathering took place.

"I was impressed at how serious the gay community in Jerusalem takes that city, and how much they want to make it their own. They have such respect for the city; it was not typical of other pride events -- just party, party, party. This was about being proud of who you are -- being out and being spiritual. That was the tone World Pride captured."

Responding to critics who expressed that far too much attention has been paid to such a small contingent, Rosenfield explained that "the idea behind niche missions is to bring together a like-minded group that feels safe and connected. This group would not have felt as comfortable in a different context. Gay Jews are full members of the Jewish community, and want to fully participate in what the community stands for. And I'm proud that Federation takes this group seriously."

Many Motives for Going

The reasons that others gave ran the gamut.

David Katz, who was born in Haifa to Holocaust survivors but has spent the majority of his life in Philadelphia, came to rediscover Israel and see family. At 52, he's dabbled with the idea of renting or buying property in the Jewish state.

Jeff Orlow, at 32 the youngest member of the group, had no qualms about traveling, war or no war. He'd been to Israel at age 15 as part of a synagogue trip, years before he came out in his freshman year at college. He said that he struggled for a time since then: "I was closed to everything. I kind of lost my Jewish identification. I wanted to reconnect with other Jewish people who happened to be gay."

David Gold, chair of the Federation's Chester County region, also came to reconnect -- with the people and the state. He, too, had family there. And though he visited several years ago on Jewish communal business, the 45-year-old said he barely saw a thing, and spent most days in meetings. This time, he wanted to get out, to go places.

And go they did. The group experienced the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv, as well as Independence Hall, where Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state on May 14, 1948. They saw a kibbutz; spent time at an Ethiopian outreach center; visited an emergency summer camp for kids, set up during the war; swam in the Dead Sea; toured Masada; explored the new Davidson Center in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park in the Old City; went to Vad Vashem; and prayed at the Western Wall.

They met in Tel Aviv with leaders of Aguda, the National Association of GLBT in Israel; with gay soldiers; representatives of youth groups; volunteers at the gay and lesbian Open House in Jerusalem; and citizens in their homes. They attended the opening ceremonies of World Pride on Aug. 8, a gay film-festival screening on Aug. 9, a rally in Liberty Bell Park on Aug. 10 and Friday-night services at Hebrew Union College on Aug. 11.

The film festival received a good deal of attention from the Philly Pride group, mainly because one of its members, Malcolm Lazin, just so happened to be the executive producer of "Saint of 9/11." This documentary about the life of Father Mychal Judge, a gay chaplain of the Fire Department of New York City killed in the World Trade Center attacks, celebrated its premiere in Israel as part of World Pride activities.

Lazin's no stranger to the limelight. Early in his career, he attracted national attention for his work as a federal prosecutor. In 1977, he ran on the Republican ticket for district attorney against Ed Rendell -- longtime mayor of Philadelphia and current governor of Pennsylvania -- and said he lost "by a little better than 3-2."

He was a private-practice attorney and the president of a real estate development company before taking on his current role as executive director of Equality Forum, a GLBT civil-rights organization that's produced two other films besides "Saint." This was his third trip to Israel.

The oldest member of the group at 62, he was once married, though never had children. While he identifies with his Jewishness, for him, he noted, it's not so much a religious issue: "I really associate Judaism with civil rights."

He also felt that through his work, he could serve as a role model. Being out, he said, "makes your life more open and honest, and it helps to change perceptions and attitudes toward the next generation."

A role model -- that's what Rabbi Jacob Staub felt as a central leader of a local movement. And that's the status he was most in fear of losing when he finally revealed he was gay, back in 2000.

After five years of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he was ordained in 1977, and has taught there since 1983. He's spent most of his adult life linked to the RRC and most of it married -- for 25 years, in fact. He and his wife raised three children together, even as the rabbi wrestled with his sexuality.

It took a brush with mortality for him to accept what he'd always known: In December of 1999, he underwent an angioplasty, and afterward "promised not to go back to the closet." He said he even dwelled on his own eulogy, and how unhappy he'd be that no one really knew him: "I was fooling everyone."

Yet revealing the truth, he relayed, proved exceedingly difficult: "It was the hardest work I have ever done. I was really scared." After finally telling his wife and kids, he said "colors were more vivid. Everyone said I looked better. I had no idea how much energy it took every day of my life."

Now, at 55 and divorced, he explained, "I built a life based on honesty and courage, even if it's unpopular. The shame of being in the closet was overwhelming. I'm working on my spiritual life, on feeling loved by God. And believe me, I'm much harder on myself than God is!"

Staub participated in the mission with his partner of 18 months, Michael Spitko, who turned 40 in April; this trip was part of that celebration. Spitko, who's been studying toward conversion to Judaism, traveled to Israel at age 15 with a Catholic student group. This time, he wanted to see it from a different perspective, and to share the experience with Staub.

Phyllis Ehrlich, 54, and Christine Baker, 56, wanted to see it for the very first time. Ehrlich said the minute she heard about a gay mission forming last year, her reaction was: "I'm in!" Baker confirmed that level of excitement; plus, she admitted in the way couples do, "it was her turn to pick a vacation."

Both women had husbands in the past, and Baker, who is not Jewish, also has two sons and a 2-year-old granddaughter. She said in her decision to go that she "wanted to walk the land where Moses and Jacob, and all of the prophets walked," while Ehrlich was "looking forward most to seeing the Western Wall."

The two have been together for almost five years.

Lisagail Zeitlin, 36, and April Miszler, 50, have also been a couple for five years, and just bought a house together this summer -- a first such purchase for both of them. They, too, were married to men earlier in their lives; neither have children.

Zeitlin viewed the trip as part-birthday celebration for Miszler, a first-timer to Israel who's not Jewish, and also because she had a personal reckoning to make. When she was last there in 1991 as part of a teaching program near Haifa, her living quarters were vandalized with the words "lesbian." The incident affected her enough that "it was definitely on my mind going back with a gay group."

Because of that, she began telling Israelis that she came as part of a Federation mission. But about a third of the way through, she noted that she started saying, "We're part of a gay mission. And I felt prouder and prouder about that as the week went on."

She acknowledged those feelings in full force at Friday-night services, the fact that "we were not just there as Jews in Jerusalem, but as gay Jews in Jerusalem -- and that's huge. At no other time could I have had that; I didn't have enough confidence to live the way I wanted to."

An 'Automatic Commitment'

That seemed a theme as the week transpired -- living honestly and confidently, leaving the fear behind and moving forward. And it aptly summed the experiences of Jay Henshell, 54, and Steve Mostert, 55. Both men were married young, and each have two children with their ex-wives. Both men went through the motions of a conventional marriage, only to realize that they were hurting their families -- and themselves.

The break-ups did not go so smoothly, but today, nearly 10 years after their first meeting, the two have tried to bridge past with present, their former lives with the new. They are close to their children -- all of them -- and now maintain amicable ties with their former spouses.

While Henshell had been to Israel before, Mostert went there for the first time; in fact, it was his very first trip abroad.

A convert to Judaism, he said it was important to go because while he was living Jewishly since 1997 -- the year he met Henshell -- he wasn't tied directly to Israel.

"Jews have this automatic commitment to Israel that I didn't have," stated Mostert. "If the common question to gays is, 'When did you come out?' then the common question to Jews is, 'When have you been to Israel?'

"Now I can say: August 2006."

Mostert remarked that he was still processing the trip, but Henshell got what he wanted out of it already -- "that renewed connection, the reinforcement that this is a place that is part of me."

And yet, he observed that the group as a whole seemed to feel similarly: "To a person," he summed up in writing weeks after he returned to Philadelphia, "each of the participants on our mission was well past their 'initial' coming out. We each shared in a desire to further that process and integrate our Jewish identities -- or that of our partners -- into the fabric of our lives.

"The mission afforded us an opportunity to further unite the various 'threads' of our identity: father, son, mother, daughter, spouse, partner, sexual orientation, religious and cultural background, much as a weaver gathers and overlays threads to create a whole cloth."

Then, in a footnote, perhaps alluding only to himself -- perhaps not -- he added: "Still weaving."

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