In openly displaying his homosexuality while serving as an Orthodox rabbi, Ron Yosef has broken a major taboo in the closed religious world that he inhabits.
Although May 17 was marked International Day Against Homophobia, the biblical stance on homosexuality remains clearly laid out in Leviticus, one of the five books of the Torah, which says that the sexual act between two men is an “abomination.”
But 38-year-old Yosef, who holds an Orthodox rabbinical diploma, believes it is possible to be “both gay and observant.”
He first became aware of his sexual orientation in his early 20s, with the realization forcing him away from the faith and into the welcoming arms of secular Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East.
But it didn’t last long.
He soon realized his faith meant too much to him, and he returned to the fold, taking the road less travelled by many of his peers in the same situation.
“By the age of 30, I was finally at peace with myself after deciding I could be both Orthodox and gay even though many observant people in the same situation had left the religious world,” he told AFP.
In 2008, he set up a website to help others in his situation which soon turned into an organization known as HOD, the Hebrew acronym for “Orthodox Jewish homosexuals.”
“We wanted to educate the religious community about this phenomenon and offer a solution to people who are both gay and religious, by letting them reconcile their double identity,” he explains.
A year later, Yosef became the first – and still is – the only Orthodox rabbi to come out, in an interview with Uvda, one of Israel’s leading investigative journalism programs.
Three years later, he could finally say he had “broken the wall of silence in the religious world.”
More than 6,000 people have turned to HOD since it was set up with the goal of initiating “a public dialogue in the religious community, among its leaders, its rabbis… that would lead to an improvement of the social situation of the religious homosexual man, within the religious society.”
“We are pioneers who are walking an unpaved path, who are part of the religious community, and who wish to remain part of it. We do not give up on our religious identity, nor do we wish to abandon our homosexual identity,” the association’s website says.
Although his group has won the support of more than 150 Orthodox rabbis, Yosef is not always welcomed within religious circles.
“Since I came out in 2009, I have been threatened but overall, I was surprised by the welcome I received in religious circles,” he said.
Today he lives in a religious neighborhood in the northern coastal resort town of Netanya, where he gives courses in Judaism and looks after his flock of around 50 families that attend the synagogue where he serves.
“I was ready to resign my post when I first came out about my homosexuality, but they decided to keep me on,” he smiles.
But rabbis who try to “cure” observant Jews of their homosexuality make him angry.
One such group, Atzat Nefesh, was set up in 2001 by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading figure within the religious Zionist movement.
The group bills itself as a hotline for people looking to change their sexual behavior or orientation and offers help to those struggling with “contradictory homosexual tendencies in order to bring them back to the right path,” its website says.
“I’m not asking the rabbis to authorize what is forbidden but to find answers for those who want to stay religious,” says Yosef, who believes Atzat Nefesh is a “dangerous” organization.
Unlike other religious gay groups, members of HOD don’t participate in pride parades.
“We want to integrate ourselves into (religious) society without pushing our sexual differences in people’s faces, but while being accepted by all,” Yosef explains.
Although he lives with his partner, who is also Orthodox, they do not go out in public together as a couple, and Yosef says the life of some homosexuals who live in communities ironically “resembles the ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in ghettos” because of the resultant reclusiveness.
“I’m not ashamed of my sexual identity, but there’s a difference between that and systematically bringing it up,” he says.
Thousands are taking part in the celebration which is the culmination of Israel’s Pride Month events. Many tourists have arrived in Israel specifically to participate in the parade.
Among those who spoke at the event were Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Opposition Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat.
Minister Lapid declared that “any couple is entitled to get married” and said he would promote legislation legalizing gay marriage.
Yachimovich stressed that the issue of gay marriage is a cross-party affair. “We’re all with you, we’re all committed. But – and it’s a bug but – it’s not enough to say that we love you. Don’t let us off the hook – demand concrete steps.”
Earlier, thousands are gathered at the Meir Park where a makeshift chuppah has been erected. Lior and Assaf have already “tied the knot” there. “We’re not partners, just good friends, but believe in the rights of same sex couples.”
Two women arrived at the park with the three-year-old daughter. “It was important for us to come to so that people can see families, not just young guys in shorts. It was important for us that our kids see other families like ours. We’re no different than any other married straight couple with kids.”
Among the tourists who arrived in Israel to take part in Pride Month events were Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau – the first gay couple to get married in Fance. “We are here for the first time on an invitation to discover the city,” they said.
Autin and Boileau will be in Tel Aviv especially to attend the Pride Parade. In addition to the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, the couple is also being hosted by the French Embassy in Israel.
This year’s Parade will be marking 20 years of pride in the city. From its humble beginnings in 1998, today the parade has become a major annual municipal event, as well as a ‘must do’ on the international gay calendar, drawing tens of thousands of participants and supporters from Israel and around the world, with over 100,000 expected to take part this year.
That Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, let alone the Middle East, needs no introduction. In 2011, the city was even named ‘Best Gay City’ in a major survey conducted by the popular GayCities website
Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo, Ron Huldai: “The Pride Parade has turned into one of the symbols of the city of Tel Aviv with tens of thousands of participants and tourists from all over the country and the world. I believe that Tel Aviv-Yafo, a city of tolerance, is a beacon to other cities in this issue”.
According to Nadav Peretz of ‘Fabulous Israel’, which specialize in boutique travelling experience for the LGBT community to Israel, the reason Israel has become such a popular destination for gay travellers is due to its mix of “hot guys, hot girls, a dynamic nightlife, the beach, such and Middle Eastern cuisine, together with opened minded and liberal Tel Avivians.”
The Parade will kick off at 13:00, with floats, music, DJ’s, costumes and every which colour under the rainbow you can imagine! It will be formally launched by the Mayor Ron Huldai, together with leading politicians, including Yair Lapid (Minister of Finance), Limor Livnat (Minister of Culture), Tzipi Livni (Minister of Justice) and Shelly Yachimovich (Head of Opposition).
After a procession through the streets of central Tel Aviv, the Parade will culminate with a mega party on the beach, hosted by none other than Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli
The Parade is the jewel in the crown of Pride Month in Tel Aviv, during which the City will hold an array of cultural events, lectures, exhibitions, festivals and special attractions.
For all the info, make sure to check out the website at the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality
Israel’s Pride Month events will kick off this Friday in Tel Aviv, considered one of the most popular cities in the world among tourists from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The month, which will be filled with pride events, will be launched with the official opening of Tel Aviv’s Hilton Beach, the first “proud” beach in Israel.
According to estimates, some 20,000 tourists visited Tel Aviv last year during the Pride Parade period, and this year organizers expect even more foreign visitors.
Most tourists are set to arrive from Germany, the United States, France, Spain, Holland and England, but few visitors are also expected to arrive from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon, where life as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is mostly spent in hiding.
The main event of Tel Aviv’s Pride Month is the Pride Parade, which will be held in the city for the 15th year in a row on Friday, June 7.
Some 100,000 people are expected to participate in the parade, which will leave from the Gay Community Center at Meir Park and will be kicked off by Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai. The event will be hosted by actress and comedian Orna Banai and journalist and filmmaker Gal Uchovsky.
According to the organizers, this year’s Pride Parade will also be attended by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, Opposition Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On and Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash).
The Tel Aviv pride events will include cultural shows, lectures, exhibitions, festivals, parties and special activities. They are already been promoted at the city’s Rabin Square with a huge rainbow flag which includes pictures of Facebook users from the Municipality’s official page, who were asked to pose for a photo under the banner “Proud in Tel Aviv.”
Dozens of additional rainbow flags are expected to be hung across the city, and the Rabin Square fountain is lit up with the colors of the rainbow every evening.
The Tel Aviv Municipality’s Gay Center will hold a series of activities and cultural events throughout the month, and will host the eighth International LGBT Film Festival together with the Cinematheque. The City Hall will host a festive cocktail ahead of the Pride Parade on Thursday, June 6.
The municipal budget dedicated to the pride events this year totals some NIS 500,000 (about $135,000), and another NIS 1 million ($270,000) have been invested in a campaign mostly targeting foreign tourists – which was also funded by the Tourism Ministry. The campaign, which has been going on for six months now, included the introduction of an English-language website which has been visited by some 200,000 people so far.
According to Tel Aviv Council Member Yaniv Waizman, who is also the mayor’s advisor on gay community affairs, “There has been a breakthrough in terms of public visibility. I believe the public atmosphere is improving year after year – from the cultural, media and political aspect – and this year senior ministers have confirmed their participation. We are a liberal country, and it’s not just happening in the Tel Aviv bubble.”
Despite his optimism, Waizman says there is still room for improvement. “There is a long way to go in terms of surrogacy, the family unit and the community’s economic strength,” he explains.
Commenting on claims that there is no longer a need for a pride parade as the LGBT community is already part of the consensus, he says: “The parade is an opportunity to increase the community’s visibility and raise awareness. As long as ‘homo’ is still the most common swearword in schools and on the most popular television program in Israel, the parade should still be held.”
According to Mayor Huldai, “The Pride Parade has become one of the city’s symbols, and I believe that Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a city of tolerance, will serve as a lighthouse and compass for other cities in the country in regards to this issue.”