by Margalit Rosenthal
Senior Director, Birthright Israel Experience at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
When a young Jewish leader signs up to serve as staff (madrich) on a Birthright Israel trip, they may think about room assignments, counting heads, and making sure everybody has enough water. What they may not think about is their role as therapist, relationship counselor, educator, and above all, friend.
The LA Way Birthright Israel Experience initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles recognizes the multifaceted role of a staff member and is striving to better equip our seasonal staff to serve these varied roles. Beyond that, we are striving to truly practice what we preach when it comes to an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming community for all Jews, regardless of race, gender, background, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious practice. To address both of these needs, we recently invited JQ International’s Executive Director, Asher Gellis (a past staffer himself) to come speak at our semi-annual Madrichim (staff) Workshop to teach us how to be more welcoming and sensitive ambassadors of the organized Jewish community during this 10 day, high-impact Israel experience.
Asher’s enlightening presentation covered everything from basic vocabulary (cis-gender, transgender, queer, etc.) to how to make the trip comfortable for participants who may identify as LGBTQ Jews. Asher pointed out the power of language and how simply defining our terms, including Hebrew or Jewish terms, can be a great way to invite people in instead of making them feel like outsiders. In peer groups, it’s unusual to find the person who revels in raising their hand and asking “what does that mean,” and it is far easier and more inclusive to provide definitions up front, leveling the playing field.
Asher also helped us understand why some trip participants may choose to go “back into the closet” during this journey – 10 days with strangers and a deeply emotional experience – and how we as their staff and friends could be more supportive and sensitive to the unique needs of our diverse participants. Just because we may not have participants who are openly gay, does not mean that all of our participants are openly straight.
The second annual LA Way LGBTQ+Allies Birthright Israel trip in partnership with JQ departs on June 1, and we felt strongly that this sensitivity and diversity training was a universal need. I personally was surprised on my first trip to hear people still casually tossing around the word “retarded” or taking on a stereotypically “gay voice” as a joke. My team at the Federation and I felt that it is our role to bring in expertise like Asher’s to remind our staff that they represent the Jewish community that we want to live in. It is our role and obligation to model the welcoming and comfortable environment that we all need to grow and thrive together.
Our staff was beyond thrilled with Asher’s presentation. They were impressed that JQ International and the Jewish Federation are working together in this way, that we are demonstrating the values we speak about. One participant told me that he had never thought about most of this before and that his mind was really opened. That is exactly what we are trying to do—to get people to think!
Everyone deserves positive Jewish experiences, and every Birthright Israel participant deserves a comfortable environment in which to explore their Jewish identity. Some might disagree that a free trip to Israel is a “birth right.” But what is a birth right – a human right – is to be treated with respect, dignity, and empathy. Our work with JQ and our Birthright Israel staff is helping us move in that direction as a greater community.