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Israeli Gay Couple's Twin Delight

August 19, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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It's a boy -- and a girl -- for Hagai Zvuluni (left) and Hagai Maoz.
For many people, having a baby is a relatively straightforward process. The child is conceived, the couple goes to the doctor and labor classes, they wait nine months for the newborn to arrive and then: "Mazel tov!"

For an Israeli couple with local ties, however, it was a bit more complicated.

Hagai Maoz, 37, and Hagai Zvuluni, 33, have been together for five years. Two years ago, the gay couple had a commitment ceremony in Israel and began thinking about how to have children, or, more specifically, finding someone to have the children for them through an egg donor and a surrogate mother.

On July 10, the twins -- a boy and girl named Eviatar and Ofri -- were born at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Maoz and Zvuluni came to the region not only because the twins' surrogate mother was from South Jersey, but because Zvuluni has family in the Philadelphia area.

The men's process of growing their family may have culminated in the Philadelphia region, but it touches on a number of thorny issues in the Jewish state, including a gay and lesbian's place in Israeli society and the matter of conversion, since the twins' surrogate mother is not Jewish.

"We probably could not have done any of this in Israel," Maoz said, explaining that while there are a number of agencies for both in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy, "the problem is that gay couples are not allowed" to use those services "since the law in Israel only permits surrogacy for married straight couples."

Although surrogacy was legalized in Israel in 1996, the Jewish state is one of the few places where it is closely regulated at the national level and governed by a comprehensive law, according to Elly Teman, a postdoctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recently published Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self.

The native Israeli explained that the law is so restrictive because "the rabbinical concerns over surrogacy were very clear," including that the surrogate must be an unmarried woman of the same faith as the parents, unrelated to either parent, and that only heterosexual couples could hire surrogates.

Thus, she said, many gay Israelis go abroad, where there are more candidates and it's less expensive.

In their quest, Maoz and Zvuluni turned to Elite IVF, one of many American agencies specializing in the procedure. Maoz said that the primary clients at such organizations aren't necessarily gay couples, but heterosexuals having trouble conceiving.

The two men first traveled to Mexico City to secure an egg donor, where such services are often cheaper. The sperm came from one of the men, but the couple did not want the biological father to be identified.

The entire process, said Maoz, cost about $110,000, including $5,000 for the egg and about $30,000 paid to the surrogate.

Because the surrogate mother was not Jewish, the twins went through a conversion in the mikvah at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown.

'No Grandchildren'? Not True

According to Teman, as surrogacy has become increasingly popular among Israeli gay couples, "it's reshaped the whole idea of coming out."

"It used to be that a young Jewish man came out and his mother would break down in tears and say, 'I'll never have grandchildren.' Now, a young gay man comes out, and his mother immediately starts saving to pay for surrogacy," she said.

Despite all the steps they've taken and plan to take, however, it's not clear whether the twins' conversion through a Reform congregation will be valid in the eyes of the Israeli religious establishment.

Although individuals who undergo non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel are currently recognized as Jews, they encounter difficulties if and when they decide to get married. In addition, there is concern that a controversial bill currently on hold in the Knesset, which seeks to place authority for conversions in Israel entirely in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, could also ultimately affect non-Orthodox conversions abroad.

Even if the bill passes, Maoz said that won't matter to him as a parent.

The twins can choose "if they want to do an Orthodox conversion when they're grown up," he said. "It's not that important to us that they be recognized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. What is important to us is our traditions and our knowledge that, in our point of view, they're Jewish."

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