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 and other fertility treatment 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 free in vitro fertilization for women up to age 45 for two children, and Ukeles started thinking about the possibility of sperm 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 before 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. They are also a support network and resource for women like them considering fertility treatments. The mothers communicate via a Whatsapp group and Facebook page, and plan monthly meet ups 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 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 spoke at KayamaMoms’s first event alongside Rabbi Benny Lau and a fertility doctor. “There are more of us now, and we’re becoming more accepted,” said Ukeles. She never personally faced resistance to her decision, and 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. “Their concern is that single orthodox women are going to choose not to get married and create families on their own. Every woman I’ve known wanted to - and continues to want to - get married,” said Ukeles.
Rabbi Menachem Burstein is one of those people concerned about family structures. The head of the Puah Institute, an organization that gives fertility advice to Orthodox couples, Burstein, at a 2009 conference organized in opposition to Cherlow’s support for IVF for single women, said, “All the efforts we are making for treatments and insemination are aimed at starting a family, and here the framework of the family is damaged.”
But according to Ukeles, these attitudes are slowly changing, and a different concern plagues the community; as more women turn to sperm banks and in vitro fertilization, the lack of regulations has also become a concern for orthodox communities and many of the women in KayamaMoms.
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 – this was to make sure he claimed fatherhood, and to prevent future progeny from accidentally entering into a relationship with paternal relatives.
“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 halachically 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 of 2019, a few hours after Shabbat had ended, Yael Ukeles and her son Amitai sat on the couch pouring 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.”
Leah Feiger is a religion, gender, and culture writer living in New York City. She is currently an intern at The Forward, and was previously a freelance writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Fodor’s, and Culture Trip, among others. Follow her on Twitter @leahfeiger.