It is customary on kibbutzim and moshavim to hold a special ceremony once a year in honor of the Bikkurim - the first fruits of the season to be harvested and which were once offered to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. The word derives its origins from bechor, meaning the first-born.
The highlight of the ceremony is when families walk on to the stage carrying the babies who were born over the last year and who are being presented for the first time before the community as a whole. The audience oohs and aahs at the sight, and proud parents shoot pictures like professional paparazzi. Some crying, some sleeping, some alert and engaged, the children are introduced and given a blessing and the parents are given a token gift from the community.
On Shavuot, at one moshav in the center of the country, two of the 14 children brought on stage belonged to families that could be called "alternative." One, an adorable 11-month-old boy with dark hair who couldn't hold still throughout the ceremony, was the son of lesbian couple, and the other, a tightly bundled baby girl, was born mere weeks beforehand to a single mother.
These types of alternative families are becoming more and more common. There are, for example, roughly 13,000 never-married single mothers in Israel today, a rise of more than 55 percent since 2000. There has also been a rise in same-sex parents, foreign worker families, interfaith families and civil marriage families. Combine that with an 18% divorce rate and the 20% of heterosexual Jewish couples who marry outside of the Chief Rabbinate, the state's official mandate, and a large sector of the population falls into the "alternative" category.
For decades, families like these suffered from social stigmatization and a lack of civil rights. But due to precedent-setting court battles, things have come a long way. Although on some fronts, especially those pertaining to religious issues, they still face fierce challenges, alternative families have in many ways joined the mainstream.
ADVA AND Edit's apartment in North Tel Aviv resembles that of any couple with young children: finger paintings taped on the windows, toys in a pile in the corner and everything else well out of the reach of short arms and fingers. The picture appears entirely normal, right down to the weekly schedule posted on the whiteboard in the kitchen. "I don't think we see ourselves as something alternative, we think we're a completely normal family," says Adva, 36, the mother of twins.
Five years ago, Adva and her then-partner decided to have children. They went to a local sperm bank and the result was her two sons, Inbar and Rotem. Adva has since split up with the children's other mother and now lives with Edit, sharing custody of the boys with her ex. "Thinking about these kinds of things takes me way back. I'm talking about years ago when I first decided to come out of the closet and was worried about my family and stuff. It's been so long that by the time the kids came around, it was to a very open and welcoming place," says Adva. "I always knew I wanted children and I always knew I was a lesbian."
She and her partner began thinking about how to go about having kids after several years together. Their options were either to go to a sperm bank or to introduce a man into the relationship and the family. They went to a series of motherhood meetings at one of the local guidance centers where they received advice from psychologists, lawyers and social workers, and had a chance to meet women who had had children in similar circumstances.
The lesbian community here is very supportive of mothers and motherhood, from pre-insemination workshops to pregnancy preparation, from same-sex Lamaze classes to parenting support chat rooms. There is even a kindergarten in Tel Aviv run by a lesbian couple, where many lesbians send their children.
"We belong to the Tel Aviv bubble. There is a huge community of women, and I would say that the majority of us have children," says Adva. But the phenomenon isn't unique to Tel Aviv. "Like in the rest of the world, variance is concentrated in the big cities, where there is less of a chance to stand out and where people tend to be more open and better accept those who are different," says Edit.
Adva and Edit say neither they nor their boys have ever experienced antagonism because of their sexual orientation and the family's makeup and that their children are growing up viewing their family structure as natural and normal. "I'm sure questions will come up in the future, but it's the same as me asking my parents, 'Why don't we believe in God?' or a child asking his or her parent why they are fat or tall or speak with an accent," says Edit.
"We talk to them about it even today at some level... I tried to explain to them about the sperm bank, but in truth they don't understand and they really don't care. Rotem once told someone his mom went to the 'sperm park,'" recalls Adva.
The lack of a father is apparently not an issue. "It's not like there once was a father and now he's not in the picture. They simply know that other kids have a father and they don't. And so far they've never asked about it," says Adva.
"We heard that the most serious issues arise at adolescence, but we figure that at that age teenagers hate their parents no matter what. At least we know what to prepare for," says Edit.
FOR SIVAN, introducing a man into her life was never an option. For her the sperm bank was the best option, guaranteeing that no one would make claims on her daughters. Sivan, 38, had two daughters (now eight and three) with her former partner, but has since split up with her and is raising the girls alone.
According to Sivan, if she were to have her children today, she would probably attempt to get the sperm from outside the country. "We are a small country and there aren't many donors. In recent years the number has dropped even further. It worries me that my children will grow up and get married and find out that their partner was born from the same donor. The chances of that happening here are far greater than if the donation comes from abroad."
It was important to Sivan that both her daughters be from the same donor, so they would have a tight biological bond, but she is concerned by the small gene pool. "There is no government supervision of the field. Each sperm bank is autonomous and each bank manager makes his or her own policies. There is no way to know how many donations a single man makes and how many children across the country are half brothers and sisters."
Improvement in male fertility medicine has changed the nature of sperm banks. If once the majority of the clients were heterosexual partners with male sterility problems, today 80% of recipients are single women. In recent years, stricter screening tests and - possibly - decreased motivation to donate have caused the number of donors to dwindle to several dozen, while demand has increased drastically. The growth rate of single-parent families over the last few years is twice that of the general total. According to a report published by the National Council for the Child, the number of children growing up in single-parent families has risen by more than 50% since 2000. It's estimated that more than 1,000 children are born each year from sperm bank donations.
Both Sivan and Shelly, a single mother of two, confirm what Adva and Edit say about acceptance in Israeli society. "I encountered one case of a homophobic father who told his son not to play with my son, but after a phone call to set him straight, things went fine and his son has even slept over at our place," says Shelly, 40. "Overall, we have witnessed real openness."
Shelly says that the kindergarten teachers at her child's school go out of their way to accommodate their different family and that their situation is completely in the open. "Sometimes, instead of playing mother and father, the kids play mother and mother."
Both mothers say that they made a special effort to make sure the children feel at ease with the situation. "Whenever the girls started a new school or program, I'd go with them in the first day to try and take the sting out. I'd explain the situation to the adult in charge and make sure everything went smoothly," says Shelly.
Sivan says she often brings in a book by Yehuda Atlas called Everyone and Their Own Family, which describes different types of families. "I find that the personal touch goes a long way toward dispersing toxicities that are in place because of prejudice," she says.
Sivan says that instead of focusing on what families like hers lack, it is important to note the many positive facets of what they have. "Every child that is born into this type of a family is a child that was really, really wanted and was made with great effort. If I compare it to the general population, then we don't have any 'mistakes.' There's no such thing as unplanned or unwanted children."
Shelley says that ever since she had children, she has been more active in presenting herself and her choices to the public. "I feel that it's important to help pave my children's way in the world, to help present different family choices as valid and legitimate so that they aren't judged critically because of closed-mindedness."
The two women agree that compared to some other countries, Israel is relatively liberal and accepting. "If civil marriage were allowed in Israel, I'm convinced we could marry, too," says Shelley.
BUT ISRAEL does not allow civil marriages, even for heterosexual couples. The most recent attempt to pass a law that would grant equal rights to couples who are ineligible to marry under the Orthodox rabbinate, proposed by Israel Beiteinu as part of its election promises, was shot down by the coalition's Orthodox parties. There has, however, been substantial progress in recognizing common-law partnerships, which means that foreign workers, non-Jewish immigrants and homosexuals can now enjoy similar rights to those enjoyed by officially married couples.
Further steps toward allowing new families to form are being made at the Center for Alternative Parenting. Founded 16 years ago by social workers Racheli Bar-Or and Gidi Shavit, the center is based on the premise that being a parent is an inalienable human right regardless of a person's ability or desire to be married, and that the fulfillment of that right can be made possible in an alternative family setting. The center helps people who want to have children partner up with other like-minded people of the opposite sex for the sole purpose of producing a child.
The center's clientele, predominantly heterosexual women in their late 30s and homosexual men 30-50, meet and - if they decide to go ahead - negotiate custody agreements. "We don't believe in straight 50-50 divisions. We believe in negotiation and dialogue, every pairing and its own nuance and details," says Bar-Or.
So far, the center has helped facilitate the birth of 150 children and, so far, none of the families has had reason to go to court. The contracts they sign are detailed and thorough enough to answer nearly any contingency.
The families that result from the contracts are widely varied, but the center requires a single mother and a single father for each child. "The clients are free to have any relationship they want, but we insist that only two people sign the contract and are responsible for maintaining it."
Bar-Or claims that an arrangement like the one they offer can only exist in a country like Israel, where the pressure to have children is so great. It's this pressure, she says, that turns an approach that at first appeared radical into something almost commonplace. "The country is very encouraging of population growth by any means," says Bar-Or.
SEVERAL WEEKS ago, on the same day as Tel Aviv held its annual gay pride parade, a public "wedding" was held on the beach for five homosexual couples. Two male and three female couples participated in a ceremony conducted by journalist and filmmaker Gal Ochovski. The marriage certificates were provided by New Family, a nonprofit organization that works to advance the legal rights of all forms of "alternative" and "nontraditional" families, and included legal obligations and internationally-recognized partnership certificates.
Homosexual men are perhaps the sector of the population that has the toughest time forming a family. Whereas women have the relatively easy option of going to the sperm bank, for men the situation is far more demanding.
Daniel is 33 and lives in Tel Aviv. He came out of the closet at a fairly young age and is currently in a long-lasting, serious relationship with another man. They desire children and are examining their options. "The ultimate aspiration is for us to have two children, one by me and one by my partner, so they'll be siblings. And that the children will be ours and live with us full-time," says Daniel.
Since it is illegal for a homosexual couple to adopt a child, their best option is surrogacy. "The problem with surrogacy is that at minimum, if you do it in India, the price is around $40,000, and if the whole process is done in the United States, we're looking at $100,000," says Daniel.
The two are also concerned about descriptions they've heard about India and its "surrogacy plants."
"It's not something that we'd enjoy being part of, but we might not have a choice," he says.
Their other option is to use the services of the Center for Alternative Parenting or a similar organization and enter into a contract for joint custody with a woman. Daniel's problem with that is that he'd have to give up his dream of raising an independent family.
"In this type of situation, at best you're looking at a 50-50 split. I've also heard of cases where it's much less than 50 percent," he says. "While there may be benefits in terms of time and financial allocation, I don't want a family if it means that I only get to see my kids every other weekend and maybe once or twice during the week."
LOOKING TO the future, Daniel says that he's only slightly worried about his children being teased and picked on at school. He believes that if children grow up in a loving environment with warmth, security and openness, if it is explained to them from an early age where they come from and why they may be looked upon as different, they'll develop the confidence necessary to cope.
"I'm not the first or the last gay person to bring a child into the world. People do it all the time," says Daniel. "I believe that if a child grows up being loved, he won't be screwed up just because he or she lives in an alternative family. There are so many dysfunctional families with straight parents. At least with gay couples you know that they really want the child, there are no accidents."
Daniel says that overall, the state has a good track record in dealing with gay issues, but that what really pains him is the association with religious bodies and regulations. "The religious authorities don't recognize homosexuality at all. In bringing a child from India, the whole process of conversion and circumcision and adoption is what I'm most worried about - making sure that my child is a first-class citizen in the state."
For that reason, he could never see himself leaving the Tel Aviv area. While willing to consider moving to Ramat Gan or Herzliya, he says he'd never move to Jerusalem. "I wouldn't do that to my kids," he says.