“A Wider Bridge’s Support Helps Our Story To Be Told”

One of AWB’s longterm Israeli LGBTQ partners is the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH). We recently chatted with Irene Rabinowitz, JOH Director of Outreach and Development, about the recent leadership transition and her own story.

AWB: How did you become involved in the Jerusalem Open House (JOH)? 

I made aliyah in 2014 after living in Provincetown, MA for 28 years working in the NGO sector.

Not long after I arrived, I met the JOH CEO at the time, Elinor Sidi. We discussed how I could help, despite my very minimal Hebrew skills, and it was suggested that I could work with Dana Sharon, the chairperson of the board of directors at the time, with some coaching regarding board management issues and best practices for NGOs in general. In early 2017, I was contacted about a position at JOH and I followed up on it in the spring.

This past June, I joined the JOH staff as Director of Development and Outreach. My responsibilities include grant writing and reporting, donor cultivation and retention, and outreach to English speaking communities, both here and abroad.

Ofer Erez is the new JOH CEO

AWB: Tell us about the exciting new leadership at the JOH.  

The staff is sad to say goodbye to Sarah Kala as our CEO. She compassionately and professionally led the organization through a tough time after the murder of Shira Banki z”l at the 2015 Jerusalem Pride March. Her professionalism was a gift to JOH during a difficult time.

We are, however, excited about the appointment of Ofer Erez, the first transgender officer (attaining the rank of Captain) in the IDF as our new CEO. He brings new energy and commitment to Jerusalem’s LGBTQ community and to our goal to provide quality services and programs to our diverse constituency.

Discussion at the JOH

AWB: What’s the JOH‘s vision for next year? 

As usual, we listen to the community and respond to the needs expressed by those who we serve.  As we enter 2018, we are excited about our new program to serve Jerusalem’s elderly LGBT community. We presently have support groups for older men and women, but now we are expanding services to include advocacy with health and social service organizations to ensure that our elderly LGBT community remains safe in their homes and receives culturally appropriate services to help them maintain a good quality of life as they age.

Our core services continue to thrive: the Teen/Youth Program, Open Clinic (HIV/STD testing and counseling and medical assistance), Open Counseling (mental health counseling and training for providers), and the Tolerance Education Program in memory of Shira Banki z”l.

Our Transgender Program, support group for Ultra-Orthodox, a group for younger women, a Family Group, and our Arabic Speakers Group also continue to fulfill the essential need for community building and support among peers.

A Wider Bridge board member Bruce Maxwell (left) with former Jerusalem Open House leaders Tom Canning (second from left) and Sarah Kala (third from right) ahead of Jerusalem Pride Parade in July 2016

“Because A Wider Bridge, as an organization, understands Israeli culture and supports Israel as a democratic and Jewish nation, it is a beneficial partnership for both of our organizations. “- Irene Rabinowitz

How has A Wider Bridge assisted and impacted the JOH?

The work we do in Jerusalem has a large impact on the LGBTQ community here, both as a direct service provider and as an advocacy organization. A Wider Bridge is just that….a bridge to the LGBTQ and Jewish communities in the United States so that they can learn about our work and the uniqueness of the community we serve.

JOH can provide a window into the lives of our community for those who are eager to learn and support LGBTQ life in Israel, especially in the amazing and holy city of Jerusalem.  A Wider Bridge’s friendship and support helps to open that window so that our story can be seen and told. Because A Wider Bridge, as an organization, understands Israeli culture and supports Israel as a democratic and Jewish nation, it is a beneficial partnership for both of our organizations.

So, can you also talk about meeting with A Wider Bridge when we visited the JOH on a tour. Do you have any favorite memories of this encounter? 

One of things I enjoy doing in this job is having the opportunity to speak to visiting delegations from abroad. Last fall, A Wider Bridge, in partnership with Olivia Cruises, brought a delegation of lesbians from the United States to Israel.

When in Jerusalem, AWB arranged a panel discussion with three presenters from different LGBTQ organizations and I represented JOH. On a personal note, it was great to see Rachel Wahba, co-founder of Olivia Cruises, but also to connect with lesbians who had attended Women’s Week in Provincetown and talk a little one on one about their experiences.

As a presenter, it was a great opportunity to tell JOH’s story and about the challenges that LGBTQ individuals and families face in our capital and how we work to fulfill the needs of the community. This group included non-Jews and first time Israel visitors, and I was impressed with how engaged they were and the questions that they asked the panel. It was a great experience all around and I look forward to spending time with future AWB missions.

“At JOH, we see the diversity of the LGBT community which includes Orthodox men and women, Israeli Arabs, young, old, and secular. ”  –  Irene Rabinowitz

At JOH, we see the diversity of the LGBT community which includes Orthodox men and women, Israeli Arabs, young, old, and secular.  We see the vibrancy within our walls, while knowing that for some of the community, life within their families or communities of origin can be very difficult.  Abuse, shunning, threats of expulsion from the home, even death threats are not uncommon within certain cultures.  Our goal is to provide a safe space, supportive services, and assistance for those in difficult circumstances. Through advocacy and activism, such as our education program, we strive to change the atmosphere of bias and intolerance so that families and the wider population see LGBT family members, neighbors, or colleagues in a different light and as welcome members in a greater civil society.

Yonah Branden Johnson leading a Tu B’shevat Seder at the JOH

AWB: What’s your most memorable experience/s at work so far?

For me, as a relative newcomer both in Israel and at JOH, seeing the impact that we have on individuals’ lives is life affirming. From long conversations with a 17 year old from a Haredi family exploring gender identity to sitting with a group of Arab LGBTQ youth, I have seen how making a culturally appropriate and empathetic safe space available can help change the course of young people’s lives when they are seeking their own authenticity.

A Wider Bridge wishes you, Ofer Erez and the JOH much success in the future!

Thank you!