Deferring the dream: Rodef Sholom lesbian couple in danger of being torn apart

The Hebrew words, frosted in blue atop the three-tiered wedding cake, translated as “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Melanie Nathan and Dorit Israel believe those frosted words — made famous by the late Zionist Theodor Herzl — hold promise for their marriage and family.

The lesbian couple wed July 27 at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael in front of 150 relatives and friends. They were the first same-sex couple to marry inside the synagogue.

While the state of California recognizes their union, the federal government does not. The discrepancy means the couple and their two children may be forced to separate when Israel’s visa expires in January.

Israel is Israeli. Nathan is a South African-born U.S. citizen. Their newlywed joy is tempered by the uncertainty that lies ahead for the binational couple.

“If Dorit and I had federal rights, we would not have any of these [immigration] problems,” Nathan said.

Their immigration woes result from the federal government’s definition of marriage — between one woman and one man. Lesbian and gay U.S. citizens receive no recognition from the U.S. government of their foreign same-sex partners.

There are an estimated 36,000 binational same-sex couples in the United States today, according to a 2005 study by the UCLA School of Law. Nearly one-third of those couples live in California.

Israel and Nathan met online in 2001. They fell in love once they met in person, after Israel had moved to the United States to attend college.

Israel had planned to study business at the University of Texas, but instead moved to California in 2002. She secured an R1 religious-worker visa, which has allowed her to teach Sunday school at Rodef Sholom, a job that inspired her to scrap business and instead pursue a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University.

She recently graduated and plans to begin a master’s program at SFSU in the fall. But her R1 visa expires in January, and with a regular student visa, she wouldn’t be allowed to work (not an option for her, she says).

The only way to renew the R1 visa is to leave the country for a year — another option she is not considering.

Federal immigration policies, however, ignore the ties that bind her and Nathan together.

Israel nursed Nathan through a bout with breast cancer. Nathan provided emotional support to Israel after Israel gave birth to their daughter, Refael, who is a U.S. citizen. After the birth, the couple learned that Israel’s mother had died six hours earlier.

As registered domestic partners, both are listed as parents on the now 3-year-old Refael’s birth certificate. Nathan and Israel also care for Hannah, 11, Nathan’s daughter from a previous partnership. Hannah and Refael are sisters in every sense, they say.

But none of this gives Nathan any leverage to petition for her partner’s residency. She said her family’s options are fraught with hardship.

Though the Jewish state is one of 16 nations whose immigration policy recognizes same-sex partnerships, the pair cannot move there because Nathan shares custody of Hannah with her ex-girlfriend, and so must stay in the Bay Area.

Israel could return to her native country and take Refael with her, but “it would be a tragedy if [Hannah and Refael] were separated,” Nathan said. Nor can she stomach the thought of returning to Israel without her daughter.

“Our children have to have their parents together, and for that, we have to be granted the same rights, equal rights, as straight couples,” Israel said. “I don’t care if it’s called a civil union or if it’s called marriage, as long as we get rights.”

The newlyweds are working with an immigration lawyer, Kip Steinberg, also a member of Rodef Sholom.

Processing a green card application frequently takes up to a year or more. Israel expects to hear about her application in March, though that’s two months after her visa expires. As a backup, she has petitioned to extend her visa through April.

The women are trying to live a normal life while they wait, which includes attending services at Rodef Sholom and observing Shabbat with their daughters in their Woodacre home.

Like any other Jewish couple wanting to proclaim their commitment, they were married under a chuppah. They signed a state marriage license and a ketubah. They stomped on two glasses to remind each other that even in times of great joy, there is sorrow in the world.

And they continue to hope that if they will it, it is no dream.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.