It’s a spring-like Friday morning in mid-February at the Landver Café in Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir park, and young couples in trendy sneakers are ordering up cappuccinos, reading the papers, fiddling around on iPads and rearranging the outdoor chairs so as to catch the sun rays of the day. Almost everyone here is simultaneously rocking a stroller, or two, or bouncing a baby, or two, on their laps. And almost every grown-up here is a man.
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As Tel Aviv winds down from the work week and heads into Shabbat, this relaxed, baby- friendly gay scene is the new normal, and a clear indication of the baby boom taking place within the gay male community in Israel over the past few years.
Long considered a gay party mecca, open-minded and permissive Tel Aviv still takes pride in the steamy saunas, all-night clubs and hot single men on the prowl that have given the city its famed status as a top gay tourist destination. But the city is also growing up. These days, the local gay scene is as likely to include parents’ support groups and school plays as foam parties and dark back rooms with handsome strangers.
A sure sign of the times was the main poster for the most recent Tel Aviv Pride parade, one of the city’s largest annual events, which featured, as the symbols of the festivities, two real-life gay fathers and their children.
Some say we are all betraying our queer radical roots or trying to ‘fit in’ with the mainstream,” says Ron Poole Dayan, a gay father of three who is married to a Canadian. “But I say, no. Many of us share the values of the larger community here. And in Israel, family is everything."
Implicit in the very Hebrew word mishpacha, or family, Dayan points out, is children. “In the English language, you can be a childless couple and be called a family – but not here,” he says. “And there is more: In Israel, one is not even enough. It’s practically considered a failure,” he only half jokes. “Every Israeli gay couple I know wants at least two kids."
This past weekend, at the roomy, four-story gay center in Gan Meir, adjacent to the Landver Café, some 150 members of the community keen to start families, to add on to their existing ones or to learn about the possibilities gathered for Israel's first three-day conference on surrogacy.
The conference, organized jointly by Dayan’s New York based support organization “Men Having Babies,” and the local Gan Meir gay center, included an expo by representatives of the different surrogacy agencies, discussion groups with medical professionals and psychologists, presentations by financial planners and lawyers -- and a Kabbalat Shabbat, a welcoming of the Sabbath ceremony, for fathers, children and other family members to join in on together.
"When these conferences take place in New York or LA, about the same numbers of people show up,” says Yuval Egertt, another father of three, the head of the gay center and a co-host of the event. “Think about it – New York City has about 8 million inhabitants, and in Tel Aviv we have 250,000. That gives you a sense of how much enthusiasm and support there is for the gay community to start families."
But alongside all the celebrations of robust alternative family lives, there was also one unusual panel here, tacked onto the schedule at the request of participants, that highlighted a problem specific to Israel, and reminded conference goers that still, not everyone in the country is joining in on their celebration. This panel dealt with the question of how gay fathers who have had a child with the help of a surrogate can get their children officially accepted and registered by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as Jews – a very complicated, if almost impossible, task.
In Israel, where there is no separation between religion and state, the Orthodox conversion law maintains that a child born to a non-Jewish surrogate mother – as most of the North American surrogates, and certainly all those in India and elsewhere in Asia would be – needs to be converted to be considered Jewish. This is the case even if the sperm donor is Jewish, and even if both the sperm and egg donor are both Jews. The law pertains to all couples in Israel – heterosexual and homosexual – wishing to register their children born with the help of non-Jewish surrogates.
But while such a conversion would be little more than a formality when it comes to the babies of Jewish heterosexual couples, there is a problem when it comes to the gay community. The conversion board, which, according to halakha, or Jewish law, does not accept homosexual couples, cannot and will not convert babies whom they know will be brought up in a gay household.
There is the option for gay couples to get their babies converted through the Reform or Conservative movements, streams of Judaism more open to the gay community and flexible when it comes to embracing them into the religion. The problem with this however, which was admitted even by the Reform and Conservative rabbis themselves on the panel, is that the Rabbinate does not recognize the conversions of these other streams. This means, in practice, that many gay parents are back at square one, with their children unrecognized by the Rabbinate as Jews.
These children will not count as members of an Orthodox minyan, for example, and might have trouble getting into an Orthodox religious school. When these children grow up and want to get married in an Orthodox service in Israel, they will not be able to do so. Nor will they easily be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, to name just a few complications.
Rabbi Shmuel Slotzky, an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem who joined the panel and quickly became the focus of its attention, politely upheld the Orthodox position. The main practical advice Slotzky seemed to have on offer – until a different halakhic response to the modern-day questions of gay families are, perhaps, formulated in the future – was for gay fathers to consider, well, fibbing.
“The plight of these couples does touch my heart, and we want to find a way to help – but there are laws we cannot change,” said Slotzky plainly. He suggested co-parenting arrangements, instead of surrogacy, whereby gay fathers team up with a Jewish woman to create a “fictive family,” for the purpose of having their children recognized as Jews. “How they live behind closed doors is then not something the Rabbinate is going to look into too deeply,” Slotzky said. There was also some suggestion, from the various members of the panel, that if a gay man approached the rabbinical establishment as a single parent, instead of someone who is part of a gay couple, he might have a less complicated time with the issue of conversion.
But for a community long out of the closet, lying is not the way they want to go. And as such, a vast majority of men in the community admit they end up not having their kids converted at all, leaving them registered as Israelis with “no religion."
“Most of us simply don’t care,” says Ronan Kaplan, a gay father, whose twin daughters were born with the help of a surrogate in India. “In our family we light Shabbat candles with the girls and sing Shabbat songs every Friday. And most of my friends with sons make sure they are circumcised. But to make up stories in order to get this official stamp of approval? No. I am Jewish. I am a homosexual, with a partner. And I am a father. You don’t want to accept me? Fine. But that is who I am."
Still, there are also those for whom getting that Orthodox rabbinical approval remains, for one reason or another, important.
One of the half-dozen men wearing a kippa in the audience stood up to talk about how he and his partner brought home healthy twins, a boy and a girl born with the help of a US-based surrogate, four months ago. Their excitement and happiness with newfound parenthood has been somewhat marred, he admitted, by the reaction of his parents – Orthodox Jews.
“Since the birth of the children, my parents have not spoken to us,” he said simply. “They cannot accept the fact that their grandchildren are not Jewish. If it were up to me, I would not go begging at the Rabbinate, because I know they don’t accept and respect my family. But, I do want my children to be able to go to synagogue with my father.”
The man, who asked not to be identified, said his partner is willing to lie to the Rabbinate and give separate addresses, pretending each one is the single father of one child, but he himself refuses. “Finding some shortcut around the system is a classic Israeli plan which I don’t want to be part of,” he says, “but I don’t know what to do.
“Isn’t it pathetic how badly we want to be accepted into a club that does not want us?” he asks, as many of those around him nod.
Another one of the panelists, Chana Friedman, who has a doctorate in Talmud and is a leading member of Yachad, a unique Orthodox community in Tel Aviv welcoming of alternative lifestyles, did not have any halakhic answer to help this particular audience member or the others. But she did express a deep understanding of their plight and a certain amount of hope for change in the future."
"I don't think it's pathetic at all,” she responded. “Your desire to be accepted by your parents' community, the one you yourself grew up in, shows that identity goes with us for longer than we think. As much as one might say, ‘we have slammed the door on our Orthodox community,’ it is not an easy thing to do.” And then she added: “But do not walk away. Let's continue this dialogue, as some of these doors will eventually open."