Rabbis from the religious Zionist community have launched an initiative to marry gay men to lesbian women - with some surprising successes.

So far, 11 marriages have been performed. Haaretz conducted an email interview with one such couple, Etti and Roni (not their real names ).

Etti and Roni, both religious, were married five years ago. Though they were honest with each other about their sexual orientations from their first meeting, to the outside world, they portray themselves as a normal heterosexual couple. Today, they have two children, and are thrilled with the results.

"It's incredible," they wrote. "Six years ago, we didn't think we would ever be this happy. We thought everything was black, that we'd lost our chance of a normal life. But today, things are good for us. There are gaps, but that's true in every case. And we fill them with the great love we give to and receive from our children, and also enjoy the simple human love we give each other, such as any two people can give and receive."

All the matches were arranged by Rabbi Areleh Harel of the West Bank settlement of Shilo. He teaches at a yeshiva in Elon Moreh and has a name in religious circles as the go-to rabbi for homosexuals.

Harel said all his couples receive close support from a team of psychologists, marriage counselors and social workers. They also consult frequently with rabbis, including Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan Yaakov Ariel, and especially Rabbi Menachem Burstein, head of the Puah Institute, which specializes in halakhic solutions to fertility problems.

His 12th couple has just announced their engagement, Harel said, and he has a list of another 30 gays and 20 lesbians seeking matches. They don't deny their sexual identity, he stressed, but "they want to establish a home, whether for the sake of becoming parents or for the social recognition. A family isn't just sex and love. It's an instrumental partnership, though not just a technical one."

As a result, he and his colleagues have now decided to institutionalize the venture, including working with a well-known religious matchmaking organization.

Gay-lesbian marriages have long been practiced among the ultra-Orthodox, but the current initiative is different in that it stems not from an effort to sweep the issue under the carpet, but from a growing acknowledgment of homosexuality, prompted in part by four organizations for religious homosexuals: Havruta, Bat Kol, Hod and Kamocha.

Harel explained that while secular homosexuals see gay marriage as the solution, religious homosexuals are often unwilling to violate the halakhic prohibition on homosexual sex, and are thus seeking other solutions.

"Most of the couples agree not to have relationships with members of their own sex, but if there are 'lapses' once every few years, they don't see this as a betrayal," he said. "Generally, it's between them and their Creator."

He said each couple decides for itself how its marriage should work, and he is not involved in that decision. Rather, he deals mainly with halakhic issues like artificial insemination.

Roni, 35, owns a business; Etti, 30, is a paramedic. Roni tried conversion therapy to change his sexual orientation, with no success. He said he also had relationships with various other men, "until I decided this isn't for me; I want a family and children."

Etti said her family still doesn't know she's a lesbian. She had one "serious" lesbian relationship, but "realized it was more important to me to raise children and live in a normal family."

Both said that upholding the religious prohibition on homosexual sex was "very important" to them, as was their desire for "more or less normal parenthood," and both factors had influenced their decision.

Harel introduced them, and as the first of his gay-lesbian couples, they term themselves "guinea pigs." They are careful to keep up normal appearances before the children and the outside world, even sleeping in the same room, though they don't sleep together. Their children were born through artificial insemination.

"Most of the time, it's good for us together, like business partners. Of course we have quarrels and tensions, but who doesn't? ... Like good friends, we have a great deal of mutual respect and a great deal of platonic love."

It isn't like that for everyone, of course. Two of the couples Harel married are now in the process of divorce. And he said he is very worried about whether the children of these experimental marriages will end up suffering.

Nor does everyone approve. While Havruta has not officially taken a stand on these marriages, its spokesman, Daniel Yunes, said he personally opposes the idea.

"If you accept the definition of a family as partnership and trust and love ... then this doesn't provide an answer," he said, adding that his organization also believes being open about one's sexual identity ultimately leads to more happiness than living a lie.

But Roni and Etti feel they've benefited greatly, gaining "two wonderful children" and also "a good social life."

And what have they lost? "Nothing, because in any case we wouldn't have had spousal relationships, because it's [halakhically] forbidden. Yes, there are difficult moments of crisis. But they're nothing in comparison to the majority of the time, when it's good."