ז׳ בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (June 1, 2017) FEATURE STORY: A Visit to the Jerusalem Open House
As I got into the cab on my way to the Jerusalem Open House I was feeling very anxious. As the ride went along, the driver began asking me questions. He first began asking me the normal questions I get, like where are you from, what are you doing here, and all the other stereotypical questions Israelis ask students who are studying abroad. Eventually he started to challenge my political views and my and my parent’s political stances on the election. When I got out of the cab I felt a little shaken, but then I entered the Jerusalem Open House and felt free. I had just gone from a non-accepting environment to a place where you are treated normally and fairly no matter what you believe or identify as.
The Jerusalem Open House is an organization that helps everyone no matter their sexual orientation, race or religious views with the process of (or any issue associated with) coming out of the closet. One of the organization’s seven staff members, Nadav Schwartz, who is the educational and community coordinator, was able to sit down with me and chat for a while. Nadav, 34, is an openly gay man originally from Petah Tikvah now living in Jerusalem. His job includes addressing school groups, dealing with communal issues, giving talks to people of all ages about tolerance, and simply addressing the needs of the community.
I was fortunate to talk to Nadav for some time on the issues he and the organization face. We discussed the LGBTQIA community in Israel and how it differs from others around the world, and also why Jerusalem is different from other cities when it comes to openly gay people and communities.
How do you help people come out, and provide them support and help assure their safety?
We never tell people to come out. We never know their situation. If somebody decides that is what they are doing, we have the groups. We have psychosocial therapy in case somebody needs. We have ties with the police, and with a psychologist that helps families. If there is a specific need we have the means to help them.
What is unique about working in Jerusalem, which has great deal of religious importance and a mixed population?
Before the last Pride Parade I was on the Knesset channel, I was debating with someone from the Bayit Hayehudi, and she was asking how we can do the Pride Parade in a city that is important to three religions. I responded by saying, “Suddenly Bayit Hayehudi cares about three religions?!” Jerusalem is sacred to three religions, and interestingly enough being the Open House allows us to be without religious affiliation even though we do a seder, and other holidays. But everyone is welcome here. Just like I don’t ask someone’s orientation, I don’t ask someone’s religion. We have a security code in the entrance, and we learn security issues, because there are threats. It isn’t as open as Tel Aviv. Every few days we have government officials trying to take our money and reduce our budget and cancel Pride in Jerusalem. There are conflicts, but for me it is more exciting.
How is helping secular Israelis different from helping religious Israelis?
I want to break a myth. Secular families sometime have trouble, and some religious families sometimes find it easy. It is not black and white. It’s not that different, we cannot generalize that much. I will say, when you are talking to religious people you have to explain to them that their problem with LGBT is not religious—it is social. I explain to them it isn’t halacha, it is social norms, and if your problem is a social norm than you have to change. I do say there are halachic issues, but the hatred is not about religion.
Do you only meet with the people in need of assistance or do you help families with the process?
Anybody—we have parent groups, we have parents who are LGBT. We have people who come from an LGBT background. The answer is everyone. I am working a bit on a group for people who were married to an LGBT person who came out only after the divorce.
What is your goal—for you and for the organization?
I will start with the organization: The Open House’s goal is to answer as many needs of the LGBTQIA community of Jerusalem. My personal goal is on one hand that nobody would care, and that it would be a non-issue. Short term, I want rabbis to have a halachic discussion where they take an Orthodox halacha and take me as a gay person and be able to have a real discussion on what we have to do. For example, I am shomer negiah, but am I supposed to be shomer negiah for men, or women, or both? But nobody is willing to talk to me about it. When I go to daven, where do I sit? Next to my partner? And where do transgenders sit?