Irit Zvieli-Efrat Reflects on Her US Meetings

Irit Zvieli-Efrat, Executive Director of Hoshen (Education and Change) has just returned from another round of meetings, during which she also met with A Wider Bridge. In an exclusive column, she describes some of the highlights of her journey, and shares some of the things she learned.

iritttt_cAs part of my job as Executive Director of Hoshen, I come to the U.S. twice a year and each time I find that the personal story program that I teach in Israel has a bit of a different meaning in the U.S..

This time, during my visit to Los Angeles, I had many meetings, but three meetings were particularly moving to me, and I found myself facing two different audiences.

I met with a group of high school students from Monroe, located in one of the least popular neighborhoods of Los Angeles. It’s mostly students of Latino descent; some of them came with their families by swimming or by a boat from Mexico and showed up at the school the next day.

I started by asking them if they find themselves different from others regarding certain things, something that they have been feeling the need to hide or be ashamed of.  One girl said her parents are from the Philippines, and another boy said he was an only child. Then there was a teacher who mentioned that he has a special needs child and another teacher who said she is a Jewish grandmother. From this point the conversation rolled in a really emotional way to talking about being LGBT, and they asked a lot of questions and even asked me what would have happened if I had waited until today to come out – for example, do I think it would have been easier for me?… and all sorts of other amazing questions.

During my stay in Los Angeles I also met with A Wider Bridge. Hoshen’s connection with A Wider Bridge has lasted for four years; this is a very special and moving relationship not only because of the inspiring vision of the organization but also because of its leader, Arthur Slepian.

Arthur and I have come a long way together. It’s not taken for granted that someone on the other side of the sea recognizes the importance and power that can be generated in a connection between two communities. With determination and consistency, I see how this bridge between the communities is being built. It begins with the delegations that come to Israel and meet us time after time, and with the financial aid to projects Hoshen heads both in academic institutions and in front of mass organizations in Israel and abroad.

My final meeting in LA was with religious representatives- Christians and Jews alike. This is also where I found myself talking with the group about the significance of the different identities which we hold and what happens when one identity conflicts with another. The conversation became rich and fertile, the clerics asked many questions related to dilemmas that concern them,  and it was very exciting to me to see again how the LGBT community can serve as a bridge  between communities.

The next stop on my journey to the U.S. was Las Vegas, where I was invited to take part at the HRC convention.

Working in Hoshen brings me quite a few exciting moments. I experienced such a moment during the opening event of the annual meeting of the HRC .

Around 600 educators had gathered for the weekend, for a workshop that aims to give tools for producing a safer environment for LGBT youth.

I heard many speakers, including  Ellen DeGeneres’ mom , Magic Johnson, and other leaders who talked about the responsibilities of educators in creating a safe atmosphere. While they were talking, I was thinking to myself  that despite the vast differences between us, differences in budgets and other resources, we in Hoshen are doing the exact same thing.

At one of the more significant panels in the conference, a panel of teens said some things I intend to take with me and to use in my dialogue with the education system in Israel.

1.  One participant called for educators not to make assumptions about their students. She said that those assumptions are putting those who stand before them in  great distress . She advised them just to ask and thus to create an open dialogue.

2 . Another participant made ​​a distinction between tolerance and acceptance. To her, tolerance means the teachers are very passive, thus preventing action on their part. She advocates acceptance, which is recognition that encourages activism and creates a safer climate.

3 . Another participant called for educators to encourage their students to make their voices heard. Every voice has  great significance for the atmosphere in school in general and particularly in class.

All the panelists talked about how important it is to expand the field of view of educators. Expansion allows the capability to contain a variety of opinions, identities and shades.

This journey, as well as other trips which I’ve made over the years, was enlightening as always and this time perhaps even more than at any other time, due to the fact that the focus was actually meeting with youth. Hearing the voices of the youth gave me, as  executive director, the ability to  look at things from another angle from what I was used to.

This year Hoshen celebrates a decade since its founding, and I wish for us all that the beginning of a new decade will bring  fresh action , new sounds and a lot of collaborations such as those created in the first decade of the life of the organization.

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Irit with Monroe high school students. Irit’s US visit became possible thanks to the help of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.