NEW YORK – When Elad Strohmayer and Oren Ben-Yosef stand under a chuppah at Philadelphia’s city hall on Thursday, wearing matching suits, purple shirts and pink ties, they will be making history as the first gay diplomats to be wed by the mayor of a large U.S. city.
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Strohmayer, 33, who is from Bat Yam, is based in Philadelphia as Israel’s deputy consul general for the Mid-Atlantic region. Ben-Yosef, 42, who is from north Tel Aviv, is a tech executive who most recently worked for Microsoft, last year backpacked through Australia and New Zealand and in August moved to Philadelphia to be with Strohmayer.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will co-officiate alongside Rabbi Michael Beals, who leads Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. Strohmayer first met Beals at one of the rabbis’ roundtables periodically convened by the consulate.
He met his husband-to-be at last June’s Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, where Strohmayer had gone on vacation. They became engaged at a healthcare and media technologies conference held in Philadelphia in October. Mayor Nutter, who had met Strohmayer professionally, heard about it and offered to marry the couple.
Philly mayor to officiate
On Thursday the men will be married in front of 150 guests, including family and friends who have flown in from Israel.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Pennsylvania since May, though this will be the fourth such wedding over which Mayor Nutter has officiated, Strohmayer said.
It is “appropriate that our marriage takes place in the beautiful structure that houses the seat of government of the City of Brotherly Love, that has come to be a second home since my appointment to the Consulate” in 2012, Strohmayer said in a press announcement.
They would not be able to be married in Israel, where all weddings are conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate. But since the State of Israel recognizes marriages conducted legally outside of Israel, theirs will be officially accepted.
After a Conservative cantor chants the Hebrew welcome that opens a Jewish wedding, “Baruch Habah,” the mayor will make opening remarks, the rabbi will make his own and recite Kiddush. The couple will meet under a chuppah formed by Rabbi Beals’ tallit (prayer shawl).
Like any good diplomat, Strohmayer has made sure that wedding participants represent his professional relationships. The director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia will be among the chuppah pole holders. Others will be a local judge who is female, lesbian and Jewish; an attorney who is the former president of the Philadelphia Israel Chamber of Commerce; and a close friend.
On their wedding program the couple provides information about the history of same-sex marriage in Judaism and in Israel, writing: “While our marriage will be recognized by the State of Israel and we will enjoy spousal rights including from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we hope that in the near future same-sex marriage can be conducted in the State of Israel and we, along with other same-sex Israeli couples, will automatically receive full spousal rights.”
Asked how he responds to those who charge Israel with pinkwashing, or playing up its gay-friendly reputation in order to soften criticism of its treatment of Palestinians, Strohmayer pointed to their wedding program. “We don’t hide the fact that we cannot marry in Israel, and we don’t try.”
Speaking with Haaretz in the car just after he and Ben-Yosef finished meeting with their rabbi and were on their way to get the custom kippot, Strohmayer said, the wedding “shows the other side of Israel that people usually don’t know.
“We chose to give it visibility so people say that this is a face of Israel and [also] to acknowledge that we one day want to be able to do this in Israel. We want to set an example worldwide that same-sex marriage is legit and love is love is love. This is what we’re sharing today. It’s love.”
‘This is not pinkwashing’
Later, from a barbershop as he waited for Ben-Yosef to finish getting a haircut, Strohmayer said, being public about the fact that they are getting married “isn’t pinkwashing. It’s showing people my story and my family and my loved one.
“Countries around the world have many faces to show. We’re showing the complexities. There are still things to improve in Israel but I shouldn’t hide the good things.”
“He’s been very open and public about his gayness and really sees it as a point of pride that he represents Israel and is able to do that,” said Lisa Hostein, executive editor of Philadelphia’s Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Exponent. Hostein, who will be a guest at the wedding, told Haaretz that Strohmayer “is a very effective diplomat as well, a great spokesman for Israel. He’s just out there everywhere. Constantly speaking, always at events. He’s been a big community guy.”
Both grooms-to-be will wear navy blue suits. “Not tuxedos, we’re still Israelis,” said Strohmayer. They will each wear a light purple shirt and fuchsia tie — a bow tie for Strohmayer and a regular necktie for Ben-Yosef. They have had kippot custom-made for the wedding, with both their names, in Hebrew and in English, knitted in to a fuchsia background.
Each man will stamp on a drinking glass with his foot, in a wedding coda traditionally understood as introducing memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (because we Jews don’t like to celebrate joy without introducing at least an echo of collective pain). And, while the singing of “siman tov and mazel tov” [good signs and good luck] traditionally follows that moment, at secular Israeli weddings the couple often chooses a different song, Strohmayer said. They will play a different song (he shared the details with a reporter while swearing her to secrecy in order to surprise their guests at the wedding).
Following the ceremony and a small reception at City Hall for all of the guests, 50 of those closest to the newlyweds will join them at Zahav, an upscale modern Israeli restaurant in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia, whose menu is partially in Hebrew. Its drinks menu includes bourbon lemonana (lemon and mint) and Israeli wines, and its website plays music by Idan Raichel Project.
Being openly gay and married won’t pose professional problems for Strohmayer. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversees diplomats, recognizes same-sex spouses as spouses. It sent an openly gay diplomat to a post abroad in 1995, Strohmayer said.
His posting in Philadelphia ends next summer, when he and his husband will return to Tel Aviv — Philadelphia’s sister city, he notes — and start a family, Strohmayer said. “We intend to have kids and build a home and family in Israel.”
While Strohmayer seems well-suited to life as a diplomat, using even his wedding as a teachable moment about Israel, he also won a gold medal in sailing at the Gay Games in August, which were held in Cleveland, Ohio. They included a seven-athlete delegation from Israel during Operation Protective Edge.