Substitute homeland

When Daniel and Ian Chesir-Teran – a gay married couple that adopted three black children – came to Israel last year as part of Ian’s rabbinic training, they were certain they could never make a life in the Holy Land.

“We fully intended to stay just for one year,” Daniel Chesir-Teran, 40, told Anglo File this week. “We said there’s no chance that we’re going to live in Israel, because Israeli society is so polarized – religious versus secular – so how could a mixed-race, gay, religious, Masorti and egalitarian family like ours find a place, a niche, a community? Where we would be able to send our kids to school, feel comfortable?”

But the Chesir-Terans’ fears did not materialize – quite the opposite, indeed – and so the couple decided to move here for good. The five family members – all of whom observe Shabbat, keep kosher and wear skullcaps, including the 4-year-old Tamar – last Thursday arrived at their new home in Hanaton, a kibbutz northwest of Nazareth in the Lower Galilee, affiliated with the Masorti movement.

“We were very pleasantly surprised that we were able to become part of a community of committed egalitarian and pluralistic Jews, both in Jerusalem and now at Hanaton,” Ian Chesir-Teran, 39, told Anglo File, adding that the family lived in the capital’s Baka-Talpiot area and belonged to the Masorati-egalitarian Mayanot congregation. “At the end of the year, we prepared to go back to America, which helped us realize that we really didn’t want to,” his husband explains. “So we just went over the summer to pack up things and came back.”

The Chesir-Terans, who lived in South Orange, New Jersey, were already a known quantity before they decided to settle here. In 2008, they heard that Channel 2’s popular “Ima Machlifa” (Substitute Mother ), a reality show in which two Israeli families from different social milieus temporarily switch mothers, was looking for a gay couple. They applied, were accepted and flew over to participate in the show, speaking mostly English. However, the broadcast did not run until a few weeks after they came last year. “It was a wonderful coincidence it aired right after we arrived,” says Daniel. “Despite the fact that almost everybody who owns a TV knew who we were and realized we were a gay family, we were fully accepted and welcomed and almost celebrated wherever we went,” he adds. “It made us feel very good and very much at home.

The reality show was hardly their sole experience with media attention. Ian came into the spotlight for being one of the first two openly gay men admitted to the rabbinic program at Jewish Theological Seminary, America’s flagship Conservative institution. This May, he made headlines again when he opted out of Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute before concluding his year of study there. He felt the institution was not “sufficiently egalitarian to meet our needs,” he told Anglo File.

“They discriminate against openly lesbian and gay Israeli rabbinic candidates by not admitting them to their program,” says Ian, who is continuing his studies at the Jerusalem branch of Hebrew Union College, besides working part time as a lawyer. “I said to myself: How can I possible continue to study at Schechter by mere virtue of being a foreign exchange student from America, when my openly lesbian and gay brother and sister from Israel are not allowed to enroll?”

The Schechter Institute, which is affiliated to the Masorti movement, declined to comment for this article. But this unpleasant episode was an exception to the rule, the family maintains. “Most of our experiences were completely positive, surprisingly so,” noted Daniel, a psychologist and former college professor of family and child studies who currently enjoys his role as stay-at-home parent. In the weeks following the airing of “Ima Machlifa,” pedestrians would recognize and approach them several times a day, the Chesir-Terans recalls. Among the people who approached the two were also Orthodox Israelis – including women who covered their hair and their husbands with black hats, Daniel adds.

“People would come over to us and say ‘Kol Hakavod!’ or just say you enabled us to have a discussion we never would have had before. Not once during the entire time we lived in Jerusalem were we ever stopped by anyone who had something negative to say about us as a family, other than Ian should help more with the kids,” Daniel says with a smile.

In some Jerusalem neighborhoods the Chesir-Terans do get stares “by some people who are not sure what kind of family we are,” Daniel notes. “But despite its reputation, my impression of Jerusalem is that people are warm and loving – the same is true for Tel Aviv or the Galilee: wherever we go, people are nice.” The Chesir-Terans say they also make sure not to be provocative, adds Ian, who expects to be ordained a Conservative rabbi in two years. “If we go to Mea Shearim, for example, it’s not as if Daniel and I are holding hands or kissing one another or being overtly physically affectionate in ways that we might be if we were walking in our own neighborhood.”

The couple feels their presence in Israel can help make this country a more tolerant and open-minded place. “We recognize that there’s work for us to do here, and that there’s room for us to do tikkun olam, and I also believe that we’re uniquely positioned to bring visibility for non-Orthodox religious people, because we are very religious, but really not Orthodox,” says Daniel. “There’s an opportunity for us to do some good in the world around us.”

In terms of advocacy for the rights of same-sex couples, Israel is in some respect even ahead of America, says Ian, referring to the civil marriage license they received in Connecticut a few weeks ago. “Our federal government in America would not recognize it, even though it was issued by one of the 50 states. And here we are coming to Israel, where we expect the national government is going to recognize us as a married couple.”

Daniel’s immigrant certificate (teudat oleh) lists him as married and a parent of their children, but Ian fell victim to what he jokingly calls the “discriminatory software” at the Absorption Ministry. While Ian is temporarily unable to sign up for a health care provider because of an invalid teudat oleh, the couple was told it would be registered at the Interior Ministry as married, and be able to receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

“This is just not something we can take for granted from the American federal government, where we’re still discriminated against when it comes to social security benefits and filing taxes and so on,” Ian remarks. “As a whole, the gay and lesbian infrastructure in Israel is wonderful and very developed.”

Meanwhile, the Chesir-Teran children – Eliezer 9, Yona 6, and Tamar, 4 – are enjoying their new lives in Israel, according to their parents. “The kids are really flourishing here,” says Daniel, adding that they quickly learned Hebrew, made friends and love being in the flora and fauna that exists in picturesque Hanaton. Moving to Israel was “primarily a selfish decision, [as] it’s the best thing for us as a family,” Daniel says. “When dealing with some of the bureaucracy here in Israel, that may be where we start wondering: Oh no, what were we thinking. But when we look at the kids, really the doubts go away.”

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