I sit on the sofa looking at my still packed suitcase, it often takes me a few days to get to, the moment that I unpack my laundry into the washing machine – that’s when the group has really ended and I need time to relive memories in my mind.
You see I have had this amazing Queer Jewish professional moment working with an LGBTQ* Birthright group and I really want the Jewish world to know all about it.
It all happened in the middle of the night when the manager of the guiding department with the travel agency that I work with called me and asked me if I was available to get to the airport immediately in order to guide a Birthright trip. The whole of the month of August was cancelled for me and the dates allowed me to be home just about in time for my better half’s birthday…
I have been in this situation before, twice in fact and both times I turned down the opportunity and then regretted it afterwards. This time I would not make that mistake and I whirled around the house packing up educational resources, clothes and a washbag. A few hours later and I was with the group getting all the relevant tests.
The Birthright Israel programme travels through a large chunk of the country, it is an intense programme in almost all ways. There are long days with lots of walking and bus journeys, there are intense social situations, there are deep conversations about Jewish identity.
I have worked with young Jewish adults pretty much all my life and as I progress on my journey they get older and the work gets more complex but this was the first time that I was working with my peers that were literally my age and in some cases, older. This provided a fascinating challenge as a Jewish educator. I grew up fiercely believing in the concept of ‘Dugma Ishit’ personal example I incorporated the idea that I am an educational example to those who I am working with into all my work. I am committed to creating educational experiences in which I centre as an educator, but as a social character stand three steps back. Friendly but not your friend – this means that the social experience is about you and not me.
But my being the same age as the group and a proud member of the LGBT* community, they sought from me much more than any of my previous groups have done. They sought my humanity and taught me lessons about my teaching style. I willingly provided and as I allowed some of my professional boundaries to fall – their safety and security as well as the level of education on the programme held strong.
I adapted my normal Birthright Israel programming to make space for discussions about our Queer identities – Birthright Israel is all about exploring Jewish identity here in our ancient homeland; but we LGBT* Jews don’t have the privilege of discussing only our Jewish identity because our Queerness is so often deeply intertwined with our Jewish identities sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse and sometimes both simultaneously. We had to navigate the issue of gender often in religious contexts, which can be particularly painful for us.
Empowered and lead by my co-staffer, a talented Jewish educator; this group of Adults who had never met before were singing Shabbat songs together only a few days after meeting and a week later; many of them wrapped in my Talit received adult Bnei Mitzvah blessings as they presented their personal Torah readings to the community which they had created. These moments were moments of ‘tikun nefesh’ spiritual healing.
We sung ancient words together in safety. These were moments of deep spiritual connection, they were holy and Queer. They were for some, the first-ever moments of Jewish ritual engagement because of the rejection – or the fear of rejection that Queer Jews face.
As sometimes the non-Jewish world is hard to navigate for Jews in turn the Jewish world is sometimes hard to navigate for us Queer Jews, both in Israel and also in diaspora… however together they built a beautiful community, bound by support, mutual respect, acceptance and love. I have spent the last 15 years working with young Jewish adults; I have run camps, leadership training programmes, I’ve trained the leadership trainers and all this before my work as a professional Tour Guide.
I’ve done group dynamics. But I have never seen a group come together like this before, it was nothing short of extraordinary. They also welcomed the other LGBT* people from other busses who naturally were drawn to us. I believe this is as a result of us being of deep, dual shared experience.
This group bond led to the creation of an educational environment in which I was listened to – this medium and perfect sized group that was very well bonded to each other and also to me the guide, became the foundation for an educational and emotional journey that was awe-inspiring.
The programme itself was adapted for us too, I as the lead educator without any background preparation for the group was thrilled to find an LGBT* Themed Israeli Movie and TV workshop, an LGBT* Themed tour of Tel Aviv, a meeting with an East Jerusalemite Palestinian Activist and a talk from the IDF’s first openly transgender officer all added to the itinerary to make it an experience which was educationally focussed on Israel and Judaism but through a uniquely Queer lense; a lense that fit us perfectly.
I dreamed of making Aliyah to Israel and guiding for Birthright Israel, but I could never have dreamed of the experience that I was blessed with by this group. The professional and personal development that I went through as a Jewish educator has left my head spinning and all this whilst facilitating the experience itself for my participants, who lovingly called me ‘Dad’ and sometimes ‘Mom’ either worked.
I’m excited to be back home working on Birthright Israel trips as well as in other informal-educational Jewish frameworks and this transformative moment of Jewish education will stay with me for a very long time. A moment in which I was truly privileged, honoured and blessed to be a guest on their journeys and also by our Maker.
I wish other educators in the field such meaningful, Jewish, transformative experiences.
If you are eligible to come on a Birthright Israel trip, sign up; it could change your life, we the Bus Educators are waiting for you with open arms.
** I write this post in the knowledge that thousands of Tour Guides in Israel are out of work, there were a few short months in which a relative handful of pre-organised specific types of groups were able to get permission to enter Israel which meant there was quite simply not enough work for people to even receive. I am lucky to have guided one day and I am lucky to have been able to work as much as I did, when friends that I trained with have worked less.**