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Amid Nepal's rubble, a glimpse of Israeli gays' quest for family life

When the massive earthquake struck, an Israeli father of a 9-day-old girl born to a surrogate mother in Nepal, thought: ‘Is this the end of our dream?’

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    Alon and Amir Michaeli Molian with their newborn daughter Maya after bringing her back from Nepal after experiencing the countries earthquake, in Ramat Gan, Israel, May 20, 2015. The partners were in Nepal during the recent earthquake because they had just been present at the surrogate birth of their daughter, Maya, and were preparing to bring her back to Israel.
    Joshua Mitnick
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The family had reached what was supposed to be the joyous end of a long, challenging path.

After months of fertility treatments with surrogate mothers in three different South Asian countries, Alon and Amir Michaeli Molian had finally brought their newborn daughter Maya back from a Kathmandu hospital to a hotel to be with their 2-year-old daughter, Shira.

That’s when the nightmare started: A 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook their ground-floor cottage violently, cracking the walls and making it nearly impossible for the Israeli fathers or their friend to reach the crib to protect the 9-day old infant.

“I thought the cottage was going to fall on us. We saw death for a minute and half,” says Amir this week, as he burps the infant curled blissfully on his shoulder in their apartment in a Tel Aviv suburb. “We went so far to create a family, I thought, ‘Is this the end of our dream?’ ”

Two days after the Apr. 25 earthquake, Maya became one of about two dozen surrogate-born babies airlifted to Israel. The emergency airlift from Nepal spotlighted what had been a quiet trend growing in the Israeli gay community over the last six years: a baby boomlet among couples choosing surrogate pregnancies abroad.

“This is a real revolution,” says Alon, owner of an ad agency. “You can be gay and still have a family, and still have your love, and kids.”

The surge in surrogacy and the push among gay couples to have families reflect the strides made by Israel in embracing lesbians and gays in recent decades, despite enduring legal discrimination as well.

Appeal for tourism

Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and business capital, has been at the forefront of this shift in social attitudes. A “pride” community center is located at the heart of the city, and Tel Aviv sponsors an annual Pride Week replete with rainbow flags along boulevards and a parade attended by tens of thousands.

Israel’s court system and government have adopted increasingly liberal approaches toward the gay community. Though same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel because of the Orthodox Jewish monopoly over the ceremony, authorities do recognize and register gay marriages performed abroad.

The military – to which most Israelis are drafted after high school – does not frown on openly gay soldiers as had been the case in the US; gay partners are eligible to collect social security and military benefits on behalf of a partner.

In recent years, Tel Aviv has promoted gay life in the city and the annual parade to draw tourists, and has become known as one of the world's most gay-friendly cities. The Israeli government has also promoted liberal attitudes toward the community as a way to appeal to Western sentiments, a campaign that pro-Palestinian activists deride as “pinkwashing” its military control over the West Bank and siege of Gaza.

For gays, no surrogacy in Israel

But legal discrimination still persists: Although Israel is one of the few countries in the world in which surrogate pregnancies are legal, gay male couples are not eligible to contract with a surrogate mother. However, legal and government authorities came up with an ad-hoc procedure that allows couples to naturalize surrogate babies born abroad. 

Surrogacy abroad “began as ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ ” policy in an Interior Ministry controlled by an ultra-religious party, says Gil Ovadia Leibovitch, a lawyer who gives legal assistance to gay fathers after going through the same process himself.  But “Israel is very tolerant of this.”

With the cost of surrogate pregnancies in the US running to $150,000, couples and entrepreneurs looked to surrogates in Asia as an alternative that could cut costs by one half to two thirds.

Tammuz, an agency that helps Israelis find surrogate mothers abroad, estimates that 400 such babies have been born. Nepal is currently the least expensive destination after India and Thailand put up legal barriers to the process.

More than a decade ago, few gay couples in Israel could imagine starting families. “We didn’t see anyone doing it in our social milieu. A gay, two-dad family didn’t exist,” says Nitzan Perry, whose five-year-old daughter was born to a surrogate mother in India.

Having children is a top priority

Mr. Perry, a hotelier, recalls that his mother’s first reaction upon learning of his sexual orientation was to lament her dashed expectations for grandchildren. But he and his husband were determined to have a family life. 

“The trend of gays having babies, and being creative in ways of having those babies, is very local in Israel. In our culture, the Jewish culture, the Israeli culture, we give a lot of significance to child-bearing,” he said. “This is one of the top priorities of things that people should do with their lives.”

The fathers say that once home in Israel, for the most part they’ve been embraced by friends and families. A Facebook group entitled “Avot Gayim” – or “proud fathers” – has 827 members. The Tel Aviv Pride community center offers story-telling groups for kids and social-worker-led support groups for prospective parents and new fathers. Tel Aviv kindergartens and parents are generally open to the families.

“There’s a validation that you are ‘Okay’ if you can bear a child. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career,” says Alon. “That’s when my parents really came out of the closet” about his sexual orientation.

Still, amid the social acceptance there are negativities. For one, the children are not legally recognized as Jewish because most are not from Jewish egg donors or surrogate mothers. Then there's residual intolerance toward same-sex families in less liberal areas of the country, and accusations by some feminists that surrogacy by women in poor countries for affluent parents is exploitative. 

'We are a new model'

While Amir, a pastry chef, and Alon can each say they have fathered one of their girls, they note that the surrogacy has bound the family in a new way: Maya and their older daughter, Shira, are half-sisters because have the same biological mother. “They connect us together,” says Alon.

Putting his newborn daughter down in the crib, Amir says the silver lining to their quake nightmare is the widespread attention – and new-found acceptance – given to gay fathers by Israel’s media.

“The strongest image that lingers is to see a group of men protecting their children like lions, making sure they are the most secure in the world, amid all that hell, and to bring them to here without a scratch,” agrees Alon.

“Parenting is about intent. Not gender. We are a new model.”

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