Donor dads and other tales

When four gay men founded San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav about 27 years ago, they never envisioned it would have enough children to support a school.

But today, there are some 140 children in the synagogue, the majority of them with parents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Two of those children who grew up attending Sha’ar Zahav spoke at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center Sunday, Nov. 14, in a small discussion with mostly other LGBT parents.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel spiritual leader of Sha’ar Zahav, moderated the discussion, along with the synagogue’s educational director Sue Bodjak. Both Angel and Bodjak are lesbian moms who are raising children with their partners. Angel has a 2-year-old daughter and Bodjak has two toddler sons.

Angel called herself the “ima on the bimah,” using the Hebrew word for “mother.”

She put the discussion in a Jewish context by explaining that the synagogue was often the one place where kids could be with others with LGBT parents.

Annie Downs, 18, spoke first. A first-year student at U.C. Berkeley, Downs was 6 when her mother and father divorced because her mother was coming out.

Her father has since remarried, and she said she feels very lucky in that her parents remain good friends.

Downs explained that while she has had to deal with telling people her mother is a lesbian, she has different issues from kids who are raised by partners of the same sex. She remains close with her father. Nevertheless, she said, “I’m comfortable with my mom. It’s not strange to me, but I don’t always feel it’s my responsibility to come out about it. At times, it’s necessary, but I don’t introduce myself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Annie and my mom is a lesbian.'”

Downs also said that when talking about her mother, she doesn’t necessarily bring that up because “there’s a lot more about her than her sexual preference.”

Downs said she knows she is fortunate to have been raised here in the Bay Area, where her friends know better than to use expressions like “that’s so gay” around her.

When asked about whether she ever heard that expression, she said that she had, but “to me, being gay isn’t an insult, it’s a fact.”

Downs further said that growing up in the liberal Bay Area had more influence on her political views than did her family situation.

“I’m glad that this is where I grew up because I never have felt uncomfortable about who my family is here,” she said.

Tsipora Prochovnick, the 14-year-old daughter of two lesbians, lives in San Francisco. She said that she never had a choice about staying closeted about her two moms because they have always been so active in her school. “I couldn’t have hidden it at my school even if I wanted to,” she said.

Prochovnick has known from a very young age about her sperm donor, a family friend whom she occasionally visits.

What bothers her are people who expect her to be immediately forthcoming.

“Then they seem all surprised that you didn’t tell them right away,” she said. “You’d never say ‘I’m so-and-so and my parents are straight.'”

Both Downs and Prochovnick scoffed at the notion that the sexual orientation of their parents could influence their own.

Angel spoke about how she accompanies students from Sha’ar Zahav every year to Washington, D.C., to take part in a seminar through the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

While there, the students study a number of political issues, and then learn how to lobby their representatives.

In one year that Downs participated, she said LGBT issues were left off the agenda. But through a hastily organized panel, the teens from Sha’ar Zahav shared their experiences with their peers in a panel that Downs described as “very emotional.”

“People can be so liberal in other ways, but totally misinformed about LGBT issues,” she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."