Leaders from Israel's newest LGBT center visit SF
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Members of the LGBT Jewish community crowded into a small room at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center recently to hear Haifa LGBT leaders speak about their movement and the work they are doing at their new center.
The Haifa Communities' House for Pride and Tolerance leaders Arnon Allouche, CEO, and Adi Sadaka, program manager, were on a tour of the United States as a part of A Wider Bridge's speakers program.
A Wider Bridge is a pro-Israeli LGBT organization promoting relationships between U.S. LGBT individuals and organizations to support Israel.
Haifa is home to the fourth and newest LGBT center in Israel. The center is also the second in the country to be completely funded by a municipality. Tel Aviv's LGBT center is fiscally supported by that city.
The LGBT leaders from Haifa visited Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago before arriving in San Francisco in late March.
The northern Israeli port city is a sister city with San Francisco.
The two leaders were joined by the Israeli Consul General of the Pacific Northwest Shlomi Kofman, gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, and other LGBT community leaders.
"The delegation from Haifa here with the leaders of the LGBT community reminds us of the special bond the communities have in the challenges of today's world," Kofman said.
"Haifa and San Francisco are special cities," Kofman added. "They are two cities that are centers of tolerance, pride, humanity, and acceptance. They were and are supported by wise people and tolerant people."
Sheehy said that the city supports Israel.
"We can never forget that the threats that are faced both within the region, where this is the only state that recognizes our civil rights, and also within this country where you have the [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] movement, which is truly sinister, where they turned truth into lies," he said reaffirming San Francisco's support for Israel and presenting a certificate to the Haifa LGBT community leaders for their work.
This was the first time the Haifa leaders visited the U.S. Their goal was to meet with U.S. LGBT leaders and network to support their efforts at the new center as well as educate American Jewish LGBT leaders about the queer movement in Haifa.
Bringing community together
Haifa, Israel's third largest city, has no qayborhood and it didn't have a queer center until last year. The Haifa Communities' House for Pride and Tolerance opened in February 2017.
The lack of a singular neighborhood or center made it challenging for LGBT people to connect and communicate with other queer people and build a movement, Sadaka, a 34-year old lesbian, explained to the nearly 30 people who came out that evening to meet the queer leaders.
Since the center opened, Sadaka and Allouche have worked with community members to build programs and events. During its first year, Allouche told the Bay Area Reporter that the center had become a gathering place for the city's LGBT community, helping an estimated 800 people.
The most recent event before they departed on their American tour was the city's first Queer History Festival, which showcased Haifa's LGBT movement for the past several decades.
"If we are talking about communities, history is something that makes you feel that you belong too," said Allouche, 45, who is a Haifa native.
It's that importance of people feeling like they belong that prompted them to launch Haifa's LGBT program.
"There were people who actually built the path for more freedom and more diversity in our own city which is an amazing city, but it's not Tel Aviv," said Allouche.
Sadaka was born and raised in a small town near Haifa, but she lived in Tel Aviv for a decade after her military service ended before returning to Haifa, four years ago.
The two Israeli cities are worlds apart, she said.
Haifa is considered to be a feminist city due to feminism coming to the city in 1979, and women continuing to hold seats of power throughout the city, Allouche and Sadaka said.
"I think that the connection between feminism and LGBTQ is the fact that women are always the most oppressed group," said Sadaka, noting that the room filled mostly with men at the San Francisco center reflected many organizations in the LGBT community. "In Haifa it's different. In Haifa, usually, you see more women" activists at the center.
"Haifa [is] ... very special and very unique," she continued. "I think that Haifa is an example for everybody that women can actually bring a change to this world."
However, Allouche said the center tries to create more awareness of gender equality and feminist struggles.
"The voice of women in our community is not as strong as it should be and I find it very problematic," Allouche added. "It's very important for us and I'm very proud that our center might be the only center in Israel that has more women's programming than men's programming."
While Haifa could be considered Israel's feminist center, Tel Aviv could be thought of as the "gay mecca" of the Middle East with its thriving LGBT community and openness.
"There is almost no violence [toward LGBT people] in the streets [in Tel Aviv]. It's very safe and very comfortable. Anywhere you look there are gays or lesbians or homosexual couples," she said.
Haifa is a diverse port city with a large Arab-speaking population. Residents struggle with understanding the LGBT community.
"I moved to Haifa and almost immediately, I felt a difference," Sadaka said. "We still have violence in the streets," among other issues.
To tackle the issues and build bridges between Haifa's diverse LGBT community, the two have been working with city leaders, community leaders, and local schools to bring Haifa into the 21st century regarding queer rights.
Upon learning about transgender sex workers in the neighborhood where the center is located they launched a monthly luncheon for the women. Prior to the program the women didn't leave their flats, said Allouche. The program is funded by a one-year grant awarded by A Wider Bridge's Impact Fund.
"Helping a transgender woman having food ... was a very moving experience for me," said Allouche. "Seeing her coming after a year to give us a hug and have a cup of coffee in the sun for the first time felt like I'm doing something right."
The center is also working with schools to help teachers provide safe spaces for LGBT youth and working on reaching out to the large Arab community. During the past year, the center provided multi-lingual safe-space kits to teachers. Two days after a teacher put up the signage an Arab girl and a Jewish boy came out to her. Due to not having an active program at the center yet, Allouche immediately reached out to an LGBT Arab expert in Tel Aviv who traveled to Haifa to not only provide support to the girl, but also the school.
"That's the most moving, encouraging story that I have to share," said Allouche. "Being able to create a change" through building more awareness, accessibility, and services for the LGBT community, "this is our job and I'm very proud of it."
The center also transformed the neighborhood where its single floor flat is located. The once drug-infested park and building has become safer after being cleaned up, and security has been installed at the building, they said.
When asked about the center's future, Allouche said, "Our goal is to create a more involved community ... through building this very small, very personal bridges."
Sadaka agreed, adding, "My mission is to make Haifa relevant," and to make the LGBT community feel that the center is "their home and they have a place to be. A place where they can build a future," rather than leave for Tel Aviv or other parts of the world.
"The Israeli LGBT community, they have the same life experiences that we do here in the U.S., regardless of how you feel about the political situation happening there," said Tyler Gregory, executive director of A Wider Bridge. "These are real people with real challenges that deserve to be embraced.
"It's tough, but the key is that they don't stop trying. Just like we shouldn't stop trying to achieve peace. We shouldn't stop trying to reach out and extend a hand. Ultimately, peace isn't possible until we see the humanity in each other," he continued. "I think they're walking in the right direction.
"We could take a lot of lessons about the multiculturalism, the inclusion, and the feminism that they [are] bringing and find lessons that they can apply here in San Francisco," Gregory added about the work Allouche and Sadaka are doing in Haifa.
Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or firstname.lastname@example.org.