Building Lives In Tiberias

Anali Kertesz had her bags packed and she was ready to catch a ride to Tel Aviv to start a new life. She was through with Tiberias. She couldn’t wait to put the stifling, nothing-doing place in the rearview mirror, a place where to be gay is to be in the closet, because one just isn’t gay in this conservative, mostly working-class city far from the heart of the country.

She lived with her parents in Shikun Dalet — “Doorway,” — the largest neighborhood in Tiberias. Sitting at the top of the bluff overlooking Lake Kinneret, the spectacular view belies the gritty reality of economic distress. For Anali, the “Doorway” was open and the only direction was out.

“What will it take to get you to stay?” Tali Basil asked her. Basil had been gathering a small group of gay women for the past year, talking to them periodically, trying to help them see a way to build their lives here in Tiberias. For Anali, this meeting was to be her last stop before leaving town.

“What will it take to get you to stay?”

“I need parties. There are no parties for gay people here!”

“You can arrange these parties yourself. We will help you,” this circle of friends told Anali. That moment changed her mind, and it changed her life. She moved out of her parents’ home and found an apartment with a friend, establishing the independent life in Tiberias that she didn’t believe was possible. Then, last December, Anali opened the doors for the first monthly LBGTQ social gathering ever publicly offered in Tiberias. In June, the group plans to create the first-ever Pride month celebration here.

“It is mind-blowing for this area. Theoretically, this should happen in a far more liberal area,” says Anat Sharvit, director of Partnership2Gether for Sovev Kinneret (and Karmiel-Misgav-Pittsburgh). “We went to the kibbutzim, to some meetings a short time ago, with young adult organizations of the Jordan Valley and they asked us, ‘How come there is an LGBTQ club in Tiberias? We want to have that here.’

“This is kind of a historical moment,” adds Sharvit.

Basil is the reason for this historical moment. Helping create a safe space for gay life to flourish in Tiberias is her personal project, but it’s also part of a broader project to empower the young adults of Tiberias. She is a madricha (teacher/guide) who directs the local chapter of Dror Yisrael, a post-Army volunteer experience, somewhat like Americorps, that brings young adult volunteers to help economically challenged neighborhoods like Shikun Dalet.

For eight years Basil has brought 20-somethings from all over Israel to live together in Tiberias, in apartments that are like mini-Kibbutzim. Eight to ten people live together, cook together, share their incomes and make their major decisions together. Every day they go out into the neighborhood to do a new kind of social work. They are bringing hope to many young adults by helping them see themselves as people who belong. They bring new life to Tiberias.

Tzvika Ben-Zion Mizrachi grew up in one of Tiberias’ toughest neighborhoods, Kiryat Moshe. As director of Totzeret Ha Aretz (“Made In Israel”) he guides an organization that creates ‘student communities’ in economically distressed neighborhoods. The group awards stipends that help the young people pay for college and pay rent, and in exchange, these young people do things like offer after-school care for young kids, or lead women’s empowerment discussion groups.

“Every place in the world, the young people are the people who take the place forward,” says Mizrachi.

It’s the statement of a true believer.

“Tiberias is not mitpa’te’ach (developed). It is stuck,” says Mizrachi. Asked if his activism is aimed at helping young people get unstuck, he avers, “I am helping myself get ‘unstuck’ because I am living in Tiberias, and because I want to raise my kids here and because my heart is here. I am helping myself and I really believe in the power of young people, and our ability to get them to stay.”

Dror Yisrael now has five apartments in Tiberias, and 50 volunteers, and they become more and more effective with each passing month. Tozeret Ha Aretz has a similar number of college students living in the urban core, helping residents get to know their neighbors and build connections.

Basil believes the problems in Shikun Dalet can be traced back to the history of Israel, to the policies that focused development in Israel in the 1950s and the 1960s in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to the exclusion of the regions in the north and south, known in Israel as ‘The Periphery.’

By increasing school engagement, Dror Yisrael hopes to help these families lift themselves out of poverty, Basil said. The Totzeret Ha Aretz afterschool program takes kids off the street and gives them a safe, fun space to do homework or to share fun activities.

One measure of the desperation and bare subsistence of many who live in inner-city Tiberias is the number of people who do not complete their compulsory Army service, or who skip it altogether. The government excuses them. Perhaps partly out of compassion, but also because of the difficulties they would bring with them into the service. And missing out on the Army, of course, sets these young people up for a life apart from the mainstream in Israel.

Thanks to support from the city, along with the Jewish Federations in Milwaukee and St. Paul these young adult groups are starting to have enough resources to really create momentum.

It was proposed that Tiberias create a “Young Adult Forum.” Mizrachi stepped up to facilitate monthly gatherings of the representatives of Totzeret Ha Aretz and Dror Yisrael. They were joined by Young Spirit Group, a young adult group also active in city politics, along with some modern Orthodox youth groups, and then some young adults who are not organized in groups at all, but who also want to have a say in what is happening: they have all joined forces in the Young Adult Forum.

“When we started meeting we realized we can think bigger,” Mizrachi said.

Through many different projects and day-to-day social work, the groups of the Tiberias Young Adult Forum are helping the youth of Tiberias think of their native city not just as a place to be from when they talk over beers in a Tel Aviv café.

Jonathan Eisenthal is the chairman of the Partnership2Gether committee of the St. Paul Federation.