Contenders in Israel's first transgender pageant have been polishing their moves this week ahead of Friday's competition.

The 12 finalists are aiming to become Israel's first "Miss Trans Israel." They have spent long hours this week practicing their routines, strutting in stiletto heels and modeling evening gowns and swim wear.

The competition is more than a show of beauty and pride.

It also is a display of coexistence and tolerance, bringing together contestants from Israel's Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. The contestants describe themselves as a family of sorts, saying they find strength in one another.

"I'm happy that the competition is bringing together all of the ethnic groups, and together they are a model of coexistence," said Israela Stephanie Lev, the pageant's organizer. "I hope this model can be an example for our society, for the Middle East and the world."

Judges said they are looking for the contestant that best embodies "the transgender look." Top prize is a $15,000 voucher for a renowned plastic surgeon in Thailand. The winner will represent Israel at the Miss Trans Star International pageant to be held in Spain in August.

The pageant will be held at HaBima, Israel's national theater, in Tel Aviv on Friday.

Israel is generally tolerant of gays, and Tel Aviv has emerged as one of the world's most gay-friendly travel destinations. The Israeli city stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the Middle East, where gays are persecuted or even killed in some places.

Gay and transgender soldiers openly serve in Israel's military, and in 1998, a transgender singer, Dana International, won the popular Eurovision song contest.

But homosexuality is often shunned in religiously observant Jewish and Muslim communities. Last year, an extremist ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed a teenage girl to death at a Jerusalem Pride parade.

AP photographer Oded Balilty has joined contestants at rehearsal this week, and here are a series of his photos.

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