This morning, it all came together when we met with Shani Cabra Gerbak, the volunteer director of Makom B’Emek (Home in the Valley), which promotes LGBTQ awareness. And, the icing on the cake, Shani was the very first Israeli Young Emissary who served in the WWWN community in 1999. For Shani, her work with Home in the Valley is a natural outgrowth of the the skills she developed during her shlichut - her emissary year.
”My shlichut made me understand all the abilities I have,“ Shani explained. “It made me believe in myself.”
This feeling of empowerment was so strong that even though Afula was not a “gay-friendly” city, she returned home after her shlichut with a strong desire to give back to her community, particularly because she was so grateful for the opportunities she gained from her year of service. She learned the value of giving someone the space to grow. And she learned that if she wanted to see change, she needed to take the responsibility herself to make it happen. Thus, she returned to Afula determined to make the community a more welcoming, inclusive one.
“A lot of young people like me leave Afula because they are not comfortable expressing their sexuality”, she explained. “They go to larger cities, live Tel Aviv, where there is a bigger community. But we need to empower this area, and promote gender equality here.”
Today, Shani lives in Afula with her partner, their daughter and a child on the way. Through her work at Makom B’Emek, Shani and the other volunteer leaders have begun to make important changes to the fabric of Afula society, one step at a time. Their goal is three-fold. They hope to create a framework of resources for LGBTQ people and their families who live in Afula as well as to educate and increase awareness of LGBTQ issues within the entire community. Plus, Makom B’Emek also aims to reach out to gay people who have left Afula in search of a more welcoming environment and encourage them to return and raise their families here.
To accomplish these goals, the group reaches out to local authorities in different sectors to train them to be more inclusive. That’s where her shlichut connections come into play. Since many of the former SNEC Israeli emissaries are from this region, and have returned to work and live in Afula, her emissary network has become a gift. Daniel Benn, for example, an emissary in Hartford in 2001, now runs the local community center network and with Shani’s urging, has now included a budget line to add a part-time position to connect with LGBTQ youth. Shani has also connected with Ravid Pitaro, an emissary in 2004, who is now a doctor with a LGBTQ-friendly practice. Another former emissary, Emily Attias, who directs the WIZO Community Center, is in touch with Shani about teen programming.
Shani’s work resonates within the FJP community. In the fall, Makom B’Emek participated in our Afula Giving Circle kickoff, an evening when we brought together community-members in our offices to interact in person and via Skype with volunteers and professionals from the agencies we support in the Afula-Gilboa region. Shani joined us by Skype to explain the mission and work of her organization, and when the evening was over, participating donors allocated $2500 of donated funds to the group. Shani is using the money from the Afula Giving Circle to collaborate with area agencies to be more "gay-friendly.” Makom B’Emek Is encouraging local Afula organizations in such varied fields as arts, education and social welfare to apply for small grants to create activiites that will make Afula a more welcoming place for the LGBTQ population.
“When you promote inclusiveness within the LGBTQ community, you promote inclusiveness for everyone.”
Clearly, this is a beautiful vision for a better tomorrow, and it’s happening here on the ground in Afula by people who have developed the courage and power to lead. It’s a testament to not only Shani, but the entire emissary program, which continues to create Individuals who are making a difference - especially right here in Afula.