Top court in Israel rules ex-Berkeley lesbians are moms

Four-year-old Matan Berner-Kadish became the first Israeli to legally have two mothers this week.

Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Interior Ministry to register Nicole Berner-Kadish as the adoptive mother of Matan.

His biological mother, Ruti Berner-Kadish, who was artificially inseminated in 1996, has been Nicole’s partner since 1994.

The court’s decision came on the former Bay Area lesbian couple’s sixth wedding anniversary.

“It’s a great present,” said Nicole, 35, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where she resides with Ruti, 36, and Matan as well as her biological son, Naveh, 1-1/2.

“Matan is the first child in Israel with two moms legally,” said Nicole, who works as a high-tech attorney in an Israeli law firm.

They wanted Matan “to realize both of us are his mothers through what he sees in the home and also through what is reflected by law,” she added.

“There were day-to-day rights and responsibilities — like enrolling him in school and signing legal documents — that parents have, which I didn’t have until Monday.”

Nicole moved to Oakland as a child and attended Temple Sinai with her family. Active within the Jewish community, she was a camper, counselor-in-training, dance teacher and eventually, dance director at Camp Swig in Saratoga.

As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, she was a member of Berkeley Hillel. She then moved to Israel.

Ruti moved from Israel to Berkeley to attend college in 1989, following her release from the Israeli Army. In 1990, Ruti went home to Israel and met Nicole for the first time.

In the summer of 1992, Nicole moved back to Berkeley to attend Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley. Meanwhile, Ruti had enrolled in a Ph.D. program at U.C. Berkeley.

The couple said they were married in 1994 by Rabbi Rona Shapiro, who was then the Berkeley Hillel director and rabbi.

Although California doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, Nicole and Ruti maintain they are in fact married, and Shapiro agrees.

“A wedding has nothing to do with state. It has to do with sanctifying a relationship in the eyes of friends, family and God,” said Shapiro by telephone from New York, where she is the new director of education and outreach for Ma’yan, the Jewish women’s project of the Jewish Community Center.

“Some things in the language of the ceremony were changed, but the overall structure kept with a traditional Jewish wedding. There were rings, the signing of the ketubah, the seven blessings, the breaking of the glass — the same things you would find in a wedding between a man and a woman.”

At the time, the Bulletin refused to print the couple’s wedding announcement but offered to run the notice as a commitment ceremony.

The couple declined. “We didn’t have a commitment ceremony,” said Nicole. “We had a wedding. It just sort of shocked me at the time that we had pushed against the boundaries of what was acceptable to our newspaper.”

Ruti gave birth to Matan, conceived via artificial insemination, in January 1996 at Summit Hospital in Oakland.

“We wanted to have children together,” said Nicole. “We planned this together, we conceived together [with the help of a sperm donor], we were pregnant together. Which one of us would be pregnant was based on who could take the time off of school and work.”

Nicole’s status as Matan’s adoptive mother was registered by California state officials. Right after the adoption, the Berner-Kadishes, considering a move back to Israel, went to the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco to ask for adoptive recognition in Israel. Israeli officials refused.

“The people at the consulate were really nice and felt horrible [about] the answer…that Israel won’t recognize an adoption by a woman when the child already had a mother,” said Nicole.

Nicole then contacted the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and informed them of the decision.

The family moved back to Israel in the summer of 1998, when Ruti was accepted into a fellowship program.

In February 1999, the Berner-Kadishes petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, via the Association for Civil Rights, to have Nicole’s parenthood registered.

In Monday’s decision, Justice Dalia Dorner and Justice Dorit Beinisch backed the Berner-Kadishes, while Justice Abel Rahman Baker Zu’bi opposed them.

“Our panel had two women and a man,” said Nicole. “I don’t know if it was just a bizarre coincidence, but of the three-judge panel, the women voted in our favor and the man didn’t.

“Our case was incredibly strong,” she added. “Your marital status goes with you wherever you are in the world. You can’t be the parent of a child in one country and…no longer a parent in another.”

The ruling was censured by Orthodox legislators, who called the decision a degradation of Jewish family.

It was reported in the Jerusalem Post that Knesset member Zevulun Orlev, head of the Knesset Education Committee , said he was shocked by a court decision that tears apart the Jewish family.

He said the recognition of two women as the mothers of the same child is reminiscent of Sodom.

National Religious Party legislator Zevulun Orlev said he would move to pass legislation defining the “Jewish family.”

But Nicole said she felt it was inappropriate to turn this into an issue of sexual preference.

“This is not a lesbian-gay issue — it’s an international law issue,” she said.

She said those turning this into a gay-lesbian issue were “motivated by homophobia.”

Other favorable rulings on alternative relationships have lately been at the forefront of the Supreme Court.

The court previously ordered El Al Airlines to provide the same benefits to the gay partner of one of its employees that it would provide to the spouse of one of its married employees.

Another court ruling ordered the Israeli Defense Force to grant bereavement benefits to the gay partner of a deceased officer.

A lesbian couple is currently appealing to the Tel Aviv District Court against a Ramat Gan Family Court decision that rejected their request to allow each woman to adopt the other’s biological children.

While Monday’s decision has great symbolic meaning for gay and lesbian couples in Israel, Nicole said it has no technical impact.

“Because Naveh is in Israel right now, we can’t do a second parent adoption on him,” said Nicole. “We can’t start the process until we are in [a state] where second-parent adoption is allowed — or if Israel changes its laws and allows it.”

Naveh was born to Nicole in November 1998.

The family plans to return to the United States this year so Ruti can pursue her post doctorate studies at the University of Maryland. After that, they are unsure whether they will settle in the Bay Area or Israel.

“We love both places,” said Nicole. “We feel at home in both places. And we have community in both places.”

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.