To many Americans, Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Jerusalem's GLBT community center, is in a shocking position.
Shocking because he heads up a gay organization in a place that most in the U.S. associate with religious intolerance, conservative politics and violence —not gay rights.
But El-Ad said there is more to Jerusalem, Israel's capital, than what you see on the nightly news.
"Israel is much more progressive than people might think," El-Ad said. "I think people really didn't believe this was going to happen in Jerusalem, and also so successfully."
El-Ad was in Chicago recently during a whirlwind fundraising tour of North America. His other stops included Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and a big Israeli Independence Day event with New York's Jewish GLBT community. The center gets 90% of its funding from foundations and individuals in the United States, and 10% through local giving.
The center, whose full name is Jerusalem Open House: A Lesbigay Community Center, Advancing the Cause of Social Tolerance, was founded just over two years ago. It came together the way most other centers do: GLBT groups who were spread across the city decided to join forces to establish a permanent home.
After a lengthy debate over the best location—with some wanting a place in the center of town and others preferring somewhere tucked away—supporters decided on the Pedestrian Mall, likely the most visible place in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Open House ( JOH ) rents space on the third-floor of a four-story apartment building. Today, a sizable rainbow flag hangs from its window, signalling both JOH's presence and the city's growing tolerance, El-Ad said.
The center has become known as a place that brings the city's many factions together.
"In the States you celebrate diversity, in Jerusalem you celebrate segregation," El-Ad said. "We provide ( people ) with a very unified place in Jerusalem where all communities are safe to come together. That doesn't happen very often in Jerusalem at all."
He explained that the city is split into three main sections—of Palestinians, religious Jews and secular Jews—and JOH tries to appeal to all of them. English, Hebrew and Arabic are each represented in the Center's signs and programs, a decision that has caused some ripples. The JOH recently signed on to a newspaper ad calling for peace that was organized by a coalition of groups. El-Ad said it was likely the first time the words gay and lesbian had ever appeared in Arabic in a mainstream publication.
The most recent violence has made partnerships with the Palestinian community more difficult, and El-Ad said, "it's often not easy to bring everyone to the table."
Efforts have also been made to maintain gender balance, and the JOH board is half male and half female.
"Jerusalem is difficult enough without all the infighting, so we'd better stick together," he said.
The Open House is "everything you'd expect from a gay community center," with office space for the city's many GLBT organizations and a full monthly calendar of activities. El-Ad estimates that the JOH serves from 500 to 1,000 people a month through its support groups, counseling, youth drop-ins, library, gift shop, lectures and movies.
JOH has 250 paying members, and a campaign is currently underway to increase local funding.
El-Ad said it is ironic that Americans make such negative assumptions about Jerusalem's climate for gays considering Israel's laws are relatively more gay-tolerant than America's.
Israel abolished its sodomy law in 1988 and there are non-discrimination protections for gays in employment and in military service. Gay and lesbian couples also have a limited set of rights in areas such as domestic partnerships.
He emphasized that the JOH is not only serving natives of Jerusalem but also American tourists to the city.
"Many gay Jews in the United States feel separated from Israel and their community," he said. "Talking about the gay-friendly aspects of Israel makes them feel closer to home."
JOH is in the process of building a partnership with the Birthright Program, a project that furnishes free trips to Israel to Jewish college students. JOH held a reception for the 10,000 U.S. college students in town on a recent trip, and the goal is to eventually have a GLBT group within Birthright.
El-Ad, 31, is familiar both with the States and with what Americans perceive of his homeland. He was born in Haifi, Israel, and lived in Chicago as a toddler while his mother worked on her master's degree from the University of Chicago. He returned to the States for school, spending three years at Harvard University as a Predoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
About seven months ago he made the "extreme" decision to leave astrophysics, the States and his boyfriend to take over the reins at the Open House. It is a decision he said he does not regret.
"I'm very proud, I must say," he said. "There's a lot of freedom and responsibility in being the first ( executive director ) ."
He and three others make up the JOH's full-time staff, and dozens of volunteers help run its programs. An info card made up by the teen program sums up how they and others think of the JOH.
"There's only one place in Jerusalem where you feel at home."
For more information on the JOH, visit www.gay.org .il/joh.