Ex-East Bay lesbian moms face Israel court challenge

The Berner-Kadishes' attorney must respond to the petition before the court will decide how, or if, it will proceed.

While hopeful that the court will deny the petition, Nicole, 35, and Israeli-born Ruti, 36, are frustrated by the prospect of a rehearing.

"We've been fighting this for four years," said Nicole in a telephone interview from her Jerusalem home. "If this is granted, we kind of go back to square one."

In addition to the frustration, the petition has put Matan's adoption at a standstill, said Nicole. She tried to register with the Interior Ministry two weeks ago but said she was unable to complete the process.

"Matan wasn't even in their files," she said. "A manager…photocopied my information and said she would call us. Needless to say, no one called."

The Supreme Court had ordered the Interior Ministry to register Nicole as the adoptive mother of 4-year-old Matan on May 29.

She was already registered as his adoptive mother in California. However, upon the family's relocation to Israel in 1998, the country's Interior Ministry refused to grant her the same legal status. The couple contacted a civil rights organization and petitioned the court to have Nicole's parenthood registered.

"Our case was incredibly strong," said Nicole in an earlier interview. "You can't be the parent of a child in one country and…no longer a parent in another."

The favorable ruling, which came on the couple's sixth anniversary, has been widely censured by Orthodox legislators, who call it a degradation of Jewish family.

This didn't surprise Nicole, an attorney, who said she's been out of the closet for 20 years and lives an ordinary family life with Ruti, Matan and her own biological son, 16-month-old Naveh.

"What really matters is that our kids are brilliant, wonderful and totally loved," said Nicole.

"We made a choice to be open and public about who we are," she added. "We felt it was important not to be embarrassed. We knew we would be putting ourselves out there."

The outpour of publicity over the Supreme Court's decision has been overwhelming for the Berner-Kadish family, garnering both support and harassment.

On Shavuot, for instance, Nicole said the family was berated by a group of roughly 15 boys from their neighborhood in a nearby park. She said they sprayed them with water guns and made degrading remarks like, "Which one of you is the dad?" and "Aren't you embarrassed that you've brought children into the world?"

Nicole and Ruti, concerned for their children, hurried away from the confrontation. However, Nicole said, the harassment had a traumatic effect on Matan.

"The next day we saw a kid unaffiliated with the other group, walking with a small water gun," said Nicole. "Matan hid behind me and said, 'Keep him away from me!'"

Nicole grew up in Oakland and was active within the Jewish community as a camper, counselor-in-training, dance teacher and eventually, dance director at the Reform movement's Camp Swig in Saratoga. While an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, she was a member of Berkeley Hillel.

Following graduation, Nicole moved to Israel.

Ruti, also a U.C. Berkeley student, moved to California following her discharge from the Israeli army. In 1990, on her return home to Israel, she met Nicole for the first time.

In the summer of 1992, Nicole moved back to Berkeley to attend Boalt Hall School of Law and Ruti enrolled in U.C. Berkeley's Ph.D. program.

In 1994, the couple held a ceremony that they and Rabbi Rona Shapiro, then Berkeley Hillel director, view as a wedding. Although marriage between same-sex couples is not legal in California or in other U.S. states, rabbinic leaders of the Reform movement have increasingly chosen to acknowledge the committed unions of lesbians and gay men. Shapiro is Conservative.

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

In 1998, Ruti was accepted into a fellowship program in Israel. The couple moved there that summer and Nicole gave birth to Naveh in November.

"We wanted to have children together," Nicole had said at the time of the court decision. "We planned this together, we conceived together [with the help of a sperm donor] and we were pregnant together."

The Berner-Kadishes petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, via the Association for Civil Rights, to have Nicole's parenthood of Matan registered in February of 1999.

When the court's decision was rendered in May, the family thought the ordeal was finally over. Now, Nicole said, it's back in the hands of the court.

"Essentially we can't do anything," said Nicole. "We've been put in a situation where we can't do anything."

"It's been really difficult for our family and our lives."