When Sefi and Tali Rachlin-Paz's son Yotam started going to kindergarten, near their home in South Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood, both his parents came to talk with the teacher. "We told the usual story we tell to people we've just met, especially in the education system," explained Shefi Paz, a book designer. "We tell them Yotam was raised in a family with two mothers and he calls us Imma and Mama. It's our way of putting the cards on the table and coordinating expectations."
But the conversation took an unexpected turn. "The teacher stared at us and said, 'Both parents are at home and functioning? No one in prison? Do you take drugs? What do you want from me?'"
That was a surprise. "Shapira isn't an easy neighborhood. We knew it wouldn't be the most comfortable place for us to live," Paz says, with some understatement. But the residents do not match the stereotype. Each time she walks past the local kiosk, she relates, the cashier, an old woman of Bukharan origin, nods hello and asks: "How's your son, how's your wife?"
Yotam's teachers, Paz says, "have always accepted us with no problems. We've never asked for special attention, only that space be given for his different experience."
In contrast to Paz's low expectations, in general Israel's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is demanding more formal consideration from the educational system for the community and its children. A conference in Tel Aviv this week will call for the education system to adapt to the new reality in which the family paradigm does not always mean one mother, one father and children.
"We don't want to be dependent on a teacher's goodwill," explains conference co-organizer Yair Keidar, who has a 6-year-old son.
Nearly every parent in an alternative family, whether a gay man, a lesbian woman or a straight woman sharing parenthood with a gay couple, can relate stories about bringing up the issue of their sexuality or family at their child's school. The annual Family Day holiday is considered the biggest landmine for alternative families.
Yuval Egertt, director of Tel Aviv's LGBT Center, in Gan Meir (Meir Park), for example, says that when his daughter Yaheli, now 10, was in kindergarten the teacher gave each child a large sheet of cardboard with a schematic image of a home to which he or she was instructed to affix photographs of their parents, including a wedding photo.
"We had to alert the teacher to the fact that there are parents who aren't married," Egertt says. "Out of 12 students at least four were from alternative families, but the teacher hadn't paid attention."
Most of those interviewed for this article agreed that no ill will was involved in the teachers' behavior, but say that staff members are confused or embarrassed and sometimes insensitive. Most of all, they complain that the burden of explanation and the demand for representation nearly always falls to the parents.
The Keshet (Rainbow) Families Foundation Conference was organized by Keshet Families, a nonprofit association that includes single-parent families by choice as well as gay and lesbian families. The conference, the first of its kind in Israel, reflects and expresses an increasing trend in Israel's LGBT community toward having children. According to estimates by the New Family organization, about 18,000 children and parents, including adopted children and children born using surrogate birth mothers, are part of this community of alternative families.
"For a gay parent one of the greatest fears is that your child will be rejected because of the parent's sexual preference," says Yossi Berg, a conference co-organizer who has a 10-year-old daughter. "It seems to me that the system waits for an incident to occur, for a child to stand in the middle of class during the break and explain his home situation to his classmates," Berg said.
Yotam Paz-Rachlin, who is now 11, says that after revealing to his first-grade classmates that he had two mothers, "a weight was lifted from my heart." He says that he often told his teachers himself. "There are teachers who are a little curious," Yotam relates. "They ask a lot of questions but I'm happy about the interest because the teachers demonstrate sensitivity and can offer help."
According to Berg, however, "there is no attention to needs, no spending, no development of guidelines and tools for staff, or curricula." Most LGBT parents, he says, report that they cannot speak to teachers openly, and some report confrontations.
Coming out to every new teacher
"You must remember," he says, "that a child from a 'rainbow family' comes out of the closet every time there's a new teacher. Divorced parents have brochures from the Psychological Service. We want one too," Berg says.
Officials from the Education Ministry's Psychological-Counseling Services have accepted the organizers' invitation to speak at the conference. According to Tali Treger, who heads the agency's Shefi sexuality, relationships and family life unit, "This boom is new. Most of these children aren't in school yet, most of them are in preschool." Treger said a new preschool curriculum is being created in cooperation with Hoshen, the informational and educational center of the GLBT community, that will probably be introduced next year.
When asked what will happen in the schools, Treger gives a problematic reply: "The problem is that there are lots of populations that want special attention. Divorced parents, adopted children, immigrant children and children of single-sex families now constitute, after all, only a small percentage of the population."
Nevertheless, she admits there is a need to train educators. Many of them, she says, have difficulty dealing with issues of sexuality and sexual identity in general. "We are holding courses for teachers on the whole subject of sexual identity and types of families."
For now, every family deals with the system its own way. For Paz, it is important to clarify things with Yotam's homeroom teacher: "It's important for me to know in advance her outlook and how she intends to behave. I make it clear that we prefer not to make too much of a fuss, to accept our family as a fact and to relate to it only when necessary. If you talk about families, show there is a variety and not just the Mommy-Daddy family. Don't hold activities that are for fathers only. Show sensitivity."
Sensitivity has indeed been shown, Paz says. In first grade, when all the children made cards "To Mommy and Daddy," Yotam was taught to write "To Ima and Mama." And when the children were given questionnaires about their parents, including how they met and where they married, Yotam was given a questionnaire using "she" and "her" throughout. "These are small details, but it shows the teacher put her mind to it," says Paz.
And she admits: "I feel there is a bit of a political desire to show we are perfect families. We have a desire to succeed. You have to remember that we are the first generation of families living in openly single-sex couples. There's always a thing with pioneers, a desire to prove to ourselves and to society that this is great. This is problematic because some of us, too, have children with attention deficit problems and so on, of course."
Zahara Ron, the mother of Keidar's son, believes responsibility lies first of all with the parents, to raise a psychologically strong, self-confident child. She tells of an elegant solution by her son's kindergarten teacher on Family Day last year. The children were given cardboard and old magazines and asked to make a collage of their dream family: a family with a dog or a brother, or perhaps other parents. Ron and Keidar's son produced a standard family, with a mother, a father and a dog.
Maybe he got the message and depicted the traditional model, Ron muses. However, she says, "He did draw himself holding both parents' hands, and that's what's important - that we've succeeded in giving him a stable framework."