TWIN JOY FOR SIN­GLE GAY RABBI

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - SARAH EB­NER

RABBI JOEL Al­ter is a happy man — a new fa­ther to two girls, twins born on 7th Fe­bru­ary. But while he is de­lighted with his new daugh­ters, Ayelet Ori and An­nael Dora, he is also scared. Of the fu­ture, and of be­ing a sin­gle fa­ther for the first time, aged 49.

“I feel com­pletely pet­ri­fied, fi­nan­cially, emo­tion­ally, phys­i­cally, morally,” he says. “I know that I will man­age it, I just don’t quite see how yet.”

It’s not that this Con­ser­va­tive rabbi, who is di­rec­tor of ad­mis­sions for the rab­bini­cal and can­to­rial schools at the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary (JTS) in New York, did not want to be a fa­ther. In fact, he al­ways as­sumed it would just hap­pen.

“Grow­ing up, I had a crys­tal­clear tem­plate of what my life would be like,” he says. “I’d grow up in a Jewish world, marry, es­tab­lish a Jewish home and have chil­dren. The role mod­els I had, across the fam­ily and com­mu­nity were so com­pelling.”

How­ever, life does not al­ways go the way you imag­ine it and, as Al­ter grew up, he grad­u­ally re­alised that he was gay. It was not, ini­tially at least, a wel­come re­al­i­sa­tion.

“My first inkling was in my teens,” he says, “but I had no role mod­els for that. It was a dead let­ter to me with no re­al­ity to it.” He tried to ig­nore it — but in the end, that was im­pos­si­ble.

Now his life has taken him back to his long-term de­sire to have chil­dren. He has spent the past few months clear­ing out space in his small one-bed­room Man­hat­tan apart­ment and, speak­ing just weeks be­fore the twins were born, ad­mit­ted. “I haven’t quite fig­ured what’s go­ing to hap­pen yet.”

He grew up in Min­nesota and Philadel­phia and stud­ied at Columbia Univer­sity in New York, where he tried to have girl­friends, and says he was “con­fused.” At that time, how­ever, the con­fu­sion man­i­fested it­self in the ques­tion of just why he found it so hard to form a re­la­tion­ship with a woman.

The tim­ing, of course, was also scary. Some­times we for­get how the late ’80s (he was at Columbia from 1985 to 1989) was also a time of AIDS. “I thought — how do I get off the track I’m on,” he says. “My home life was tra­di­tional, syn­a­gogue, Shab­bat din­ners, ser­vices ev­ery Satur­day.”

It took un­til the early 1990s be­fore Al­ter fi­nally ac­cepted he was gay. How­ever, this per­sonal ac­cep­tance came at a bad time pro­fes­sion­ally. It was 1991 and he had just signed up to be a rab­bini­cal stu­dent at JTS. How­ever, at that time, if you were out, you could not be or­dained at the Sem­i­nary.

“I was out of the closet, while in the closet at JTS,” he says, rue­fully. To add to the com­pli­ca­tions, the in­sti­tu­tion was in the throes of a long dis­cus­sion about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and whether it should be ha­lachi­cally al­lowed in the move­ment.

“Train­ing to be a rabbi was great. Train­ing as a gay rab­bini­cal stu­dent was aw­ful,” he says. “And one of the chal­lenges was that I could never speak in my own voice. I thought I didn’t have a fu­ture — I was train­ing to be a rabbi some­where where they didn’t want gay rab­bis.”

It took many years be­fore that changed (it was not un­til 2006 that openly gay and les­bian rab­bis and can­tors were al­lowed to be or­dained) but he says that com­ing out — af­ter he be­came a rabbi — was not an is­sue.

“I had a very mov­ing con­ver­sa­tion with the rabbi who or­dained me,” he says, al­though he adds: “he and I both agree that if I had come out dur­ing my stu­dent years, I would not have been or­dained.”

Even af­ter he came out, how­ever, it took many years be­fore Al­ter be­gan to look into be­com­ing a fa­ther.

“For a long time, I was on a loop,” he ex­plains. “I wanted to have a kid, but with a part­ner. And I didn’t have the money.”

He thought about the next step for many years, but be­gan ex­plor­ing adop­tion in 2013. Three prospec­tive adop­tions fell through at dif­fer­ent stages of the process, but each made him cer­tain he had made the right choice.

“It clar­i­fied my think­ing that this was some­thing I had to do. All my friends had chil­dren. I was teach­ing in schools and I wanted to be a fa­ther.”

As time went on, how­ever, Al­ter be­gan to lose faith that he would ever have his own child. Then a friend men­tioned sur­ro­gacy.

“What I had to do was men­tally make the move from adop­tion to sur­ro­gacy, he says, ex­plain­ing that “eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions” came into play. “There was an ob­vi­ous great moral value of adopt­ing a child with­out a home.”

He also had to “come to terms that if I was go­ing to go the sur­ro­gacy route, I was go­ing to have to ask for help from friends and fam­ily, to pay the sur­ro­gate’s costs.” The fee be­gan at $38,000.

Brit­tany, the sur­ro­gate mother, be­came preg­nant pretty much straight away, but had a mis­car­riage. How­ever, at the end of June last year, she found out she was preg­nant again, this time with twin girls.

So, how did Al­ter re­act? “I com­pletely freaked out of course,” he says, adding quickly. “But it’s very won­der­ful. I thought my child would be an only child and now I have a great sense that we will be a fam­ily, not just one and one.”

His mother and sib­lings, he says, are “ex­cited and scared,” as is he. And his friends have been ex­tremely sup­port­ive. A crowd fund­ing cam­paign has raised $36,000 so far, even though he says “it took a lot for me to feel com­fort­able with it.”

How­ever, he adds that, al­though

I haven’t quite what’s go­ing to hap­pen yet’

I freaked out when I heard it would be twins

the com­mu­nity has been so sup­port­ive; it has been hard liv­ing in a world set up for straight cou­ples

“Both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally, I have or­gan­ised my life around the straight ‘fam­ily with kids’ world,” he says. “As a teacher and as a shul-goer, that’s my world and I don’t be­grudge that at all. But there have been times where I have looked around and thought: what have I got out of this? The Jewish com­mu­nity is a hard place to be when you’re sin­gle and don’t have kids.”

Al­ter is cur­rently liv­ing with his brother and sis­ter-in-law in Brook- lyn and has 12 weeks paid time off (a mix­ture of pa­ter­nity leave and ac­crued hol­i­day) — dur­ing which he will de­cide on the next steps, be­gin­ning with child­care.

His im­me­di­ate fo­cus right now is on his daugh­ters, who will be con­verted in in­fancy. He is plan­ning a spe­cial com­mu­nal cer­e­mony next month.

“They will be Jewish girls,” he says. “And I will bring them to a mikveh.”

He knows that some may worry about the girls not hav­ing a mother, but says: “I am not anx­ious about say­ing — ‘this too is a fam­ily. This too works.’ It’s not half a fam­ily.”

“Be­ing Mom and Dad both will be hugely chal­leng­ing in all sorts of ways, but it’ll also be my

— and their — nor­mal,” he adds. “I’ll lean on fe­male friends and male friends and my commu- nity, and I’ll learn how to nav­i­gate rais­ing chil­dren, daugh­ters, with­out their hav­ing a mother.”

In the mean­time, he’s just en­joy­ing the mo­ment.

“It’s in­cred­i­bly sweet to embrace th­ese lit­tle ba­bies, my ba­bies,” he says. “I’ve wanted this for so long and here I am, say­ing the words ‘my daugh­ters’ in con­ver­sa­tion as if it’s the most nat­u­ral thing in the world.”

And, as his new life be­gins, he adds that he would still “very much like to meet some­one”. Al­though he’s not hold­ing his breath: “I am quite scep­ti­cal that I will have time to brush my own teeth,” he ad­mits, with a laugh.

A fa­ther at last: Joel Al­ter with Ayelet and An­nael.

Ready for sleep­less nights

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