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West Hartford native works to advance LGBTQ rights in Israel…while building equality for Israel in North America.

By Stacey Dresner

West Hartford native Ethan Felson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional in the Jewish community. After working as assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and director of its Jewish Community Relations Council, he moved on to national leadership roles with the Jewish Federations of North America, directing its Israel Action Network, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. 

Now, Felson is executive director of A Wider Bridge (AWB), a North American LGBTQ non-profit organization whose mission is “working through education, advocacy, relationship-building and grant-making to create equality in Israel by expanding LGBTQ inclusion in Israel, and equality for Israel by cultivating constructive engagement with Israel.”

Felson’s LGBTQ activism began when he was in college as the co-founder of the Lesbian and Gay Student Union at Lehigh University. He was co-chair of the Northeast Lesbian and Gay Student Union in the 1980s and helped to pass hate crime and civil rights legislation in Connecticut as a leader with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project. He served as vice chair of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and on the national board of the ACLU. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Over the years, Felson has led numerous missions to Israel, including one in 2019 with LGBTQ Christian clergy co-sponsored with A Wider Bridge and serves on UJAPride with the UJA/Federation of New York. 

Felson recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about the work of A Wider Bridge, LGBTQ rights in Israel, and Pride Month.

JEWISHLEDGER: What is A Wider Bridge doing for Pride Month in 2021?

ETHAN FELSON: For all of Pride Month we’re very excited about our “Proud&” campaign. We’re asking people to come to our virtual rallies and tell us what’s on your sign? And people are selecting a word for their sign, they’re “Proud and progressive,” “Proud and Jewish” “Proud and ally” “Proud and trans” “Proud and Zionist” “Proud and Christian.” So we show the multiple commitments of people who are in our network during Pride Month. We also say we refuse to choose. We can be many different things. You can be Jewish and queer and pro-Israel, all at the same time. We get to decide. 

We had a wonderful panel on June 17 with Ben Freeman and Eve Barlow [both Zionist social media activists] called “Queer Compass: Navigating Jewish, Israel and LGBTQ Pride” talking about some of the issues of how we demonstrate our pride in our diversity and multiple commitments, and where we choose to take our stands. 

And then at the end of the month, we will have a virtual walking tour of Tel Aviv with a young man named who has done many virtual walking tours with our missions and who will be going around with us on Pride Day in Tel Aviv, live, showing us what’s going on. We’ll meet with some leaders of the LGBTQ community and see the activities that are shaping them, just as Shabbat is rolling in. We’re very excited about that program as well.

We hear so much about how Israel is such an accepting place for the LGBTQ community. Is that how you would describe it?

Israel remains at the cutting edge in terms of LGBTQ rights, but it exists both in a complicated neighborhood and – as we know from four elections in two years – in a complicated society. There is not a unanimous position in favor of LGBTQ rights. There were candidates who ran on very homophobic platforms and won a few seats in the Knesset. There is conversion therapy that happens in Israel and, as with anywhere there is, transphobia, broadly LGBTQ-phobia, anti-gay violence, issues in terms of HIV AIDS… all the things that we experience anywhere and everywhere.

But in Israel we also are very proud of the more than a dozen organizations that are community centers and trans rights organizations and groups that work in the religious community, with women’s community, with schools that are doing some groundbreaking work that we hope everybody will learn about.

How is A Wider Bridge involved with these groups and programs?

A Wider Bridge stands for equality in Israel, equality for Israel and justice for everyone. Equality in Israel refers to our connection with these groups; we make grants to those groups; we showcase them wherever we can so that people are aware of them and can support them, because they really are our family and they are doing heroic work.

In terms of the second leg of our motto – “Equality for Israel” – we seek fair conversation about Israel and the LGBTQ community and beyond. So we are working with LGBTQ communal leaders, organizational leaders, elected officials and their staffs, helping to educate in a fair, balanced way about the LGBTQ community.

In the U.S. Pride Month coincides with the Stonewall Uprising that occurred in June 1969. Was there an event in Israel that compelled the gay community to stand up and demand their rights? 

There was the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki several years ago, an ally who was at a pride parade. And it was a wake-up call for many that our rights and our safety cannot be taken for granted. Shira was fatally was stabbed by a man who went on a stabbing rampage at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade in July 2015. 

Clearly, the modern movement doesn’t start with that. But there’s a wonderful book by Lee Walzer – we had him speak in Hartford many years ago – From Sodom to Eden talking about the emergence of the LGBTQ rights movement in Israel. And Aguda – the central LGBTQ organization is more than 40 years old. So it’s been a tireless struggle for decades in Israel.

On a personal level, what does Pride Month signify for you as a Jewish gay man?

It’s about identity and self-actualization and change. Pride is a year-round experience, but it has particular meaning and significance when we come together and we say, “We are who we are, and we will not allow others to define us. We define ourselves and chart our destiny.” And that is amazing.

We recognize that we live in a world with significant LGBTQ phobia. And we’ve been subjected to enough discrimination and violence and loathing, that we take it upon ourselves to change the conditions in our community and our world. 

Pride is about much more than parades and floats and rainbow flags. It is about that, but it is about very much more.

What are your thoughts on those in the LGBTQ community who ostracise members who are professed Zionists?

The LGBTQ community is like the rest of America, supportive and proud of Israel – but with some who feel otherwise. A small segment of them, of course, feel strongly, which is their right – but occasionally they try to make LGBTQ spaces uncomfortable for us. Recently someone tweeted to us “No Zionists at Pride.” They want us to choose between our Jewish, Zionist, and LGBTQ identities. We won’t be silenced and we won’t be bullied. We refuse to choose. We are proud of all our identities.

To participate in the virtual tour of Tel Aviv on the city’s Pride Day, Friday, June 25, register at http://awiderbridge.org/tlvpride/

Main Photo: Ethan Felson

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