Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The trials and treasures of Tel Aviv's gay-by boom
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."