BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
SOUTHFIELD – When P.J. Cherrin walked into a gay bar in Israel last month, he saw something he’d never see in the U.S. – soldiers free to be openly gay while they protect their country.
“They don’t have a ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy,'” said Cherrin, a member of the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan. “You can be openly gay in the army.”
That’s just one of the discoveries Cherrin made on his recent trip to Israel with 44 other travelers, all participating in the United Jewish Communities Pride in Israel Mission.
The LGBT visitors met Israeli leaders, like Professor Uzi Ewen, the first openly gay member of the Knesset, Etai Pinkas, the first openly gay man in Tel Aviv’s city council and Saar Nathaniel, the first openly gay city council member in Jerusalem.
Pride participants also visited with Yael Dayan, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and daughter of the famous Israeli general Moshe Dayan, an Israeli civil rights activist, a journalist and a representative of a LGBT drop-in counseling and social center.
“It was an exploration of the intersection of Jewish and gay identity,” said Cherrin, who is gay and an Orthodox Jew. “I learned from our Israeli GLBT counterparts about the types of initiatives taking place there.”
One of these initiatives is “Choshen,” an organization that sends out volunteers to discuss issues related to sexual identity. Military officers, school counselors, and other professionals benefit from Choshen’s outreach efforts.
Choshen is the educational arm of Aguda, an Israeli GLBT organization founded in 1975, in order to stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians.
“They have the same teasing issues, but as a civil society, Israel is more progressive,” said Cherrin.
The group’s guide and scholar was Rabbi Steve Greenberg from New York, who was featured in the film, “Trembling Before G-d,” a documentary about gay and lesbian Jews in the Orthodox community.
JGNM member Andy Teitel said the trip had a deeply spiritual side.
“It was an amazing event,” he said. “We had 15-hour days.”
Participants learned about programs that helped Ethiopian-Israeli children, visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to victims of the Holocaust, saw the Western Wall in Jerusalem and went on an archeological dig.
The group also had the opportunity to meet members of the Israeli LGBT community, said JGNM member Ron Elkus.
The men spoke about their experiences to fellow JGNM members last week at a meeting held at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
JGNM is a loosely formed organization of Jewish gays and straights who advocate building bridges between the Jewish and gay communities, said JGNM member Deni Rome.
Rome said 160 people are on JGNM’s mailing list.
“We do community service, and social and Jewish educational events,” she said. “We advocate for political issues that encourage acceptance of the Jewish gay community.”
There’s no charge to belong to the group.
For more information about JGNM, visit their website at http://www.jgnmi.org.