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The National Insurance Institute authorized Israel's first-ever "maternity" leave for a male couple on Thursday. Yonatan Gher, director of Jerusalem's nonprofit Open House Pride and Tolerance organization, has received institute approval of a 64-day leave from work on the occasion of the birth of his biological son, born of a surrogate mother in India. His partner of seven years commenced formal adoption procedures, so that the child will be formally recognized as his as well.

Despite confirmation of the leave, Gher has not received an answer to his request for reimbursement of NIS 10,000 in hospitalization costs (Gher and his partner also stayed in the hospital prior to the delivery) from the NII.

The process began two years ago, when the couple realized formal adoption by a single man or two gay men was not an option here. They did not want to agree to joint parenthood with an Israeli woman, because they said it would expose the child to a situation similar to divorce.

They opted instead for IVF treatment through a Mumbai clinic, and chose the donor of the egg and a surrogate mother. They returned to Israel with their son in November 2008, and Gher took leave. Earlier this month he requested that his leave be acknowledged by the NII, and says he was "surprised" to have received a positive reply within a few weeks, without needing to take any additional action or submit an appeal.

Gher sees the decision as a significant achievement.

"What we have here is the establishment taking responsibility for a process that had been forced upon us," he explained. "We have no legal possibility of having a child with a surrogate mother in Israel. Because it won't allow that, the state is obliged to share with us the costs of the alternative, by the very fact of recognizing the maternity leave."

The overall cost of the IVF procedure, including all expenses, is estimated by Gher to be over NIS 130,000.

Meanwhile, his partner's request for a leave is presently being debated at a labor court.

New Family organization lawyer Irit Rosenblum, who represents the couple, praised the NII decision. "This is an important milestone on the way to equity for the rights of the same-sex family in Israel. Up to now, the approach of the institute was detrimental to the rights and welfare of children in such families," she said.

"The purpose of maternity benefits is to allow a devoted parent to answer the most important basic needs of an infant during the first months of its life," Rosenblum added. "The needs of a male and female parents are identical in this situation, and the time has come for the legislator and the authorities to face reality and prevent gender discrimination in basic family rights."

Tel Aviv's District Labor Court is presently debating a precedent-setting lawsuit by two men seeking leave following the birth of their daughter from a surrogate mother in the United States.