A new father stands up to his waist in water and accepts his tiny, naked, newborn daughter from his husband, who crouches on the tiled floor just outside the mikveh. A beit din, or Jewish court, of three rabbis, plus some new friends of the couple, fills the resounding space with song, inviting the Divine presence from all directions as father cradles daughter in the crook of his arm, the two of them moving as one.
The father glides toward the deeper waters, bringing the baby slowly into the pool. She releases totally into his arm, eyes closed, relaxing into the water warm as the womb. Gently, with great love, he blows toward her face and releases her under the water for the slightest breath of a moment, catching her up and bringing her back to the surface, as calm as she’d entered.
Her father held her and then the waters held her and then he held her again, cradled the whole time by the One. They sway together in the mikveh, a tiny new being and one she trusts even though they met just last week.
This moment of deepest faith in the water, a moment of transformation that brought this new human being to the Jewish people, happened because of a tangle of international legislation surrounding surrogacy for same-sex couples. Eligibility for domestic surrogacy in Israel is limited to opposite-sex married couples who fulfill a set of strict criteria. In previous years, same-sex Israeli couples went to India to find surrogates to birth the children they sought, but in late 2012, India outlawed surrogacy for same-sex couples.
In the meantime, the Twin Cities — and Congregation Beth Jacob, where I am a rabbi — has become a hub for gay Israeli couples seeking to bring children into the world. Drawn by a local assisted reproduction agency that is known as one of the best in the nation, and by Minnesota’s liberal surrogacy laws, they stay for weeks at a time, until the paperwork is in order to bring home their daughters and sons.
The much wanted children arrive through the efforts of women who give their eggs and offer their wombs and their milk, the skills of a medical community that helps bring these babies into being and cares for them when they are born, and the work of agencies and individuals that connect the pieces, make the matches, allow all these human beings to find one another. The Israeli men — so far we haven’t had any Israeli lesbians — arrive expecting to navigate the challenges of surrogacy and adoption on their own, in a foreign language, far from home and family. And then they find something totally surprising.
Our Jewish community has welcomed these couples with open arms. The men and their children have become a part of the Beth Jacob story, even if they are here for only a few weeks before returning to Israel. Men who come to find their children and make their families also find their way back to the tradition they didn’t think would accept them for who they are. We welcome their children to the covenant with the circumcision ceremony and the ritual bath, and with baby namings on the Sabbath, on the bimah. The community surrounds them with joyful simcha dancing and passes the babies arm to loving arm, lifting and holding and carrying the spirits of the new fathers at the same time.
A generation of young Israelis has gone to India for spiritual inspiration and release after serving in the army. And another generation has gone there to find its children. Today, where the Minnesota River meets the mighty Mississippi, we are witnessing the confluence of these journeys, spiritual and physical merging in one of life’s most powerful transitions: the journey to parenthood. At a circumcision ceremony this past spring for twins, a new father addressed his husband, thanking him and all those who had held them, for the courage and the challenge of bringing their children into the world. Our journey as a family is just beginning, he said, in a room full of tears and hopes and the presence of the Divine.
The spiritual journey belongs not just to these precious new families — it is ours, as well. Witnesses in our tradition are never impartial; they are fully implicated in what we see. Our community in Minnesota is not the unmoving ground for sacred encounter; we, too, are transformed. As we open our clinics, our synagogues and our homes, we also break open our hearts. These new guests at our tables, our simchas , sitting in our rows in synagogue, invite us to see our community through the eyes of men finding a home so far from where they expected it, in a tradition they come from but didn’t know could truly hold them. We suddenly see the sacred space we are weaving by seeing in each other the image of the Divine.
Emma Kippley-Ogman is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Jacob, in Mendota Heights, Minn.