Single Orthodox women in Israel look towards motherhood

This article was first published on The Forward.

Yael Ukeles always wanted to be a mother. “Growing up, it was just something I thought about,” she said. “Kids were always important to me. But when I hit a certain age and still didn’t have a partner, I had to figure out a different way.”

Ukeles, an Orthodox
Jewish woman, lives in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. A few
years after moving to Tekoa from Jerusalem, Ukeles started doing research on in
vitro fertilization options in Israel. “I read about women who had done it
before, about rabbinical responses, and what my options were,” she said.

The National
Health Service in Israel provides three free rounds of in vitro fertilization for
women up to age 45, and Ukeles started thinking about the possibility of Jewish
donors. “But I was also kind of frustrated,” she recalled. “I was nervous about
doing this on my own, and didn’t really know that many people that were in the
same place as I was.” Even before Ukeles underwent the procedure, she also knew
that there was stigma surrounding her decision, especially among the members of
her insular Orthodox community.

It was during
her pregnancy with her son Amitai that Ukeles started thinking about other
women in her position. In 2011, Ukeles co-founded the group KayamaMoms with
Dina Pinner and Dvora Ross in order to better support other women like them –
that is, observant Jewish women who are single mothers by choice. Kayama is the
Hebrew word for existence, and the group was inspired by a famous passage in
Aramaic that translates to say, “We exist through our seed.”

Though KayamaMoms also hosts public awareness events and talks across the country, it is primarily a group for members and by members. The organization now has approximately 100 participants, and they stay connected even though many of the women live in Israel and the West Bank. The mothers communicate via a WhatsApp group and Facebook page, and plan monthly meetups where they picnic, hike, and hang out with each other and their children.

A lot of time is also spent discussing their faith, and how their religious communities have reacted to their decisions. Though it’s happening slowly, Ukeles thinks that some Orthodox communities in Israel are getting on board. Between 10 to 15 percent of the population in Israel identifies as Orthodox, and there has been a lot of rabbinic discussion about the halachic nature of in vitro fertilization. Generally, supportive rabbis reference a quote from the Book of Genesis, and say “And G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’”

In vitro
fertilization has long been used in Israel by single secular women, but the use
of it by single Orthodox women is still relatively new. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow,
one of KayamaMoms’s advisors and the head of a modern Orthodox yeshiva in
Petach Tikvah, has become one such advocate for these single mothers. He
advised Ukeles through this process as well, and believes that it’s a decision
that has become less stigmatized. “There are more of us now, and we’re becoming
more accepted,” said Ukeles. Though there is no data to support this theory,
Ukeles also believes the number of Orthodox single mothers by choice is on the
rise.

“I think it’s a
growing phenomenon in a certain niche of modern Orthodoxy,” said Yardena
Cope-Yossef, a halachic fertility counselor, lecturer in Talmudic and Jewish
law, and legislative advisor in the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Jewish law
department. “There’s nothing in Jewish law that expressly forbids in vitro
fertilization,” she said. “So people are slowly coming around to it, and
realizing that their issues with it primarily lie with their concerns about
traditional family structures.”

While this
acceptance might be taking place in certain communities or spaces, much of the
country still struggles with the idea of single orthodox mothers and in vitro
fertilization. In June of 2018, after a lawsuit, an ultra-Orthodox hospital in
Netanya was forced to allow in vitro fertilization for an unmarried woman.
However, this procedure was only allowed if a male partner was in attendance,
prohibiting the treatment for single women.  

With or without acceptance,
there are still more hurdles to overcome. As more women turn to sperm banks and
in vitro fertilization, the lack of regulations has become a concern for many
of the women in KayamaMoms and around Israel. “At the end of the day, people
are nervous about possible incest,” said Ukeles. The concern centers around the
possibility, however unlikely, that the sperm donor could help produce multiple
children that could eventually meet and form future unions without knowing they
were related.

The suggested solution is somewhat counter-intuitive. “Paradoxically, if a sperm donor’s identity is anonymous, it’s better halachicaly to get a non-Jewish donor,” said Cope-Yossef. “The Jewish identity goes through the mother anyways, and if a woman gets an anonymous Jewish donor, there could be issues with the history of that donor’s parentage, and more. It’s actually better for it to be non-Jewish and anonymous.” The Ministry of Health is currently working on a sperm bank law, and in proposed legislation there will be an anonymous and non-anonymous track for sperm donation for this very reason.

“There is no
where near enough data on these sperm banks, where they’re coming from, and how
it’s managed geographically,” adds Ukeles. “This is our next big struggle, which
is why it is so important to make these conversations less taboo in the Orthodox
community.”

On a Saturday night in March 2019, a few hours after Shabbat had ended, Yael Ukeles and her son Amitai sat on the couch poring over a Jewish prayer book. Amitai, 8, had recently learned the prayer “Anim Zemirot,” and was practicing it with his mother.

“This might be a prayer his friends are learning with their dads,” said Ukeles, after Amitai went to bed. “But in our house, he’s learned it from me. I think that’s pretty special.”

This article was republished courtesy of The Forward.


Day # 2, Part II : Acco

ACCO – It is quite unusual to see rabbis and imams hug as dear friends, but in the ancient city of Acco, the unlikely has become the ordinary.

Rabbi Yosef Yashar, the Chief Rabbi of Acco, and Imam Samir Assi, a retired Imam of the city's al-Jazzar Mosque, spent the afternoon telling us about their dear friendship and commitment to interfaith unity. When Assi walked in the door, Yashar rose from his chair to embrace and kiss the imam like a brother. “In Acco,” said Yashar, “we’re different from other places. We believe each person — no matter their lifestyle or religious background — has the right to live as she or he sees fit.”

Acco, a port city in northern Israel just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, is known for its gleaming white stone city walls and intricate mosaics. Though the physical beauty is noticeable, it’s the city’s tolerant population that makes it remarkable. “We hate only one thing in Acco,” said the rabbi. “Hatred. It sounds like a slogan, but we really mean it and live by it.”

Over the past 20 years, Yashar and Assi have formed a genuinely close relationship, which, they say, has bolstered the relationship between their respective faiths. They told stories of visiting each other’s houses of worship, speaking at religious schools, and attending holiday celebrations. For Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the rabbi has traditionally been the second speaker at the celebration in Assi’s al-Jazzar — the second largest mosque in Israel. In Acco, where one third of the population is Arab, peaceful coexistence is a necessity. “Before we have our religious identity,” said the imam, “we have our identity as human beings. That’s what we’re trying to show in Acco.”

In spite of its impressive religious leadership, the city still has its own tensions and difficulties. “We had problems 10 years ago where religious extremists tried to derail the relationship between Jews and Muslims, but we have worked hard to get through it together,” said Assi. Years later in 2014, Assi went to Jerusalem with an interfaith coalition after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood that left four dead. Upon returning to Acco, Assi found that vandals, apparently angry at his calls for tolerance, had thrown acid on his car. In 2016, Assi retired from his position at al-Jazzar, but his successor is much less committed to interfaith dialogues. “The new imam is no longer going to go to churches and synagogues to wish people happy holidays,” Assi said sadly.

But Assi and Yashar are undeterred. “Not everyone likes what we do, but we have to do it anyway,” said Assi. “It’s the only option.”

After the meeting concluded, we walked into Acco’s Old City to look at Assi’s mosque. The minaret glowed bright green, and children played football and danced on the street outside. It felt comfortable, even as the cold sea breeze swept over our sunburnt necks.

(Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard.)