Israeli activists discuss challenges, rewards of LGBT advocacy in Jerusalem

Matthew Choi, Assistant Campus Editor

Although trials persist and tragedies linger, it is getting better for one of the most prominent LGBT rights organization in Jerusalem, said Sarah Kala, executive director of Jerusalem Open House.

Kala spoke to a crowd of about 15 at Fiedler Hillel on Thursday with her colleague Tom Canning, director of development for JOH, an LGBT organization in Jerusalem that organizes the city’s annual March for Pride and Tolerance.

Their visit came five months after a fatal stabbing during the Jerusalem Pride parade organized by JOH in which a man stabbed six participants, CNN reported. One of the participants, a 16-year-old girl, died soon after the attack from her wounds.

Kala, who was present during the attack, discussed her experience.

“I’m still in shock,” Kala said. “It’s been six months, and it doesn’t matter what I do, where I go. … It’s still inside everyone who was there.”

However, from the attack came a new sense of solidarity, Canning said. Many organizations who had previously avoided contact with JOH expressed their condolences and condemned the attack.

“From this, we tried to make change, we tried to make progress,” Canning said. “And what we saw was some of the religious communities that weren’t willing to talk, that were afraid of us, suddenly realized how important it was to engage with LGBT community and reach out to us.”

Canning said he and Kala work with about 200 volunteers providing services to the community, including HIV testing and counseling. They welcome a diverse range of clientele, including ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs, who face cultural challenges to coming out, Canning said. The organization started as a few friends who recognized the need for social work for the LGBT community, Kala said. She said it has since grown considerably.

“It wasn’t easy at all,” Kala said. “Year after year, it got bigger and bigger. Now we are huge. … We are just like people used to say about Israel: We are small but have a large impact.”

JOH faces numerous challenges, Kala said at the event. Although many may perceive Israel to be welcoming to the LGBT community, many parts remain less so, she said. Kala differentiated the LGBT experience in more progressive cities like Tel Aviv from the more conservative Jerusalem.

“They come (to the pride march) to have fun in Tel Aviv,” she said. “In Jerusalem, people come to say something. We’re here. We want to be here.”

Hillel executive director Michael Simon said inviting JOH to NU was important in advancing Hillel’s mission of inspiring every Jewish student to make a meaningful commitment to Jewish life.

“(Their visit) may inspire students here to think about how are we, in our own community, making sure that we’re embracing people from all different backgrounds, different ways of living, and in our community, different ways of expressing their Judaism,” Simon said.

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