Special Delivery: Bay Area surrogate carrying twins for two Israeli dads

For more than six months, Jenessa Schwartz has endured morning sickness, backaches and all the other “fringe benefits” of pregnancy.

Come spring, it will all be over.

By April, Schwartz is scheduled to deliver twins — a boy and a girl — at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center. Once the umbilical cords are cut, she will hand the children over to a gay couple living in Houston. They are the parents.

Schwartz, a Campbell resident and mother of two toddlers, is a surrogate, carrying the biological offspring of both fathers, Israeli natives Gil Shlamovitz and Tomer Mendelson. Each provided sperm for one of the babies, and an anonymous donor provided the eggs that were implanted in Schwartz’s womb. That makes the babies fraternal twins.

The unlikely coming together of two Jewish fathers and a Jewish surrogate mother has become a blessing to three extended families as well as to a professional team dedicated to helping couples become parents.

That team includes lawyers, the egg donor and donor agency, a surrogacy agency and case manager — and a rabbi. When it comes to surrogacy, apparently it takes a village.

“There aren’t many Jewish surrogates,” says Schwartz, 32, program director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. “I didn’t go in thinking I would work with a Jewish couple.”

For Shlamovitz, 40, and Mendelson, 43, who met in Tel Aviv in 2002 and married in Connecticut three years ago, the twins’ birth will fulfill a long-held desire to become parents. That Schwartz carried the babies makes it all the sweeter.

“We never dreamed to be with a Jewish surrogate with a connection to Israel,” says Shlamovitz. (Schwartz has family in Israel.) Adds Mendelson, “She’s the best thing that happened to us.”

That “best thing” has her hands full. In addition to her day job at the Jewish Community Center, Schwartz has two children, Ramona, 4, and Solomon, 2, and a husband, Michael. He is completely on board with his wife’s decision to become a surrogate, and so are the kids.

As proof, not long ago, Ramona created a sign that warns people not to hug Schwartz too tightly. It reads: “Don’t squeeze mommy right here because there are baby eggs in there.”

Tomer Mendelson (left) and Gil Shlamovitz at their wedding in 2011

The decision to offer up her womb to a needy couple started in a rather offhand manner.

“My husband and I were joking about it one night,” Schwartz recalls. “I had very easy pregnancies with my kids. We said, ‘This is what I do well.’ It stuck in my head.”

Eventually, she conferred with friends who had had children through surrogacy, and she chatted up a surrogate mother at a baby shower. “She remembered how close she was with the couple,” Schwartz says. “That relationship made me think about it even more.”

In January 2014, Schwartz took the next step, contacting the Center for Surrogate Parenting, a national agency with a Los Angeles office.

“I had to be tested for every STD [sexually transmitted disease] under the sun, and my husband also,” she says. “Both of us had to have psychological evaluations. I had to meet with a counselor a couple of times.”

After the screening process, Schwartz was accepted as a surrogate. Then the search for a match began.

“When I first interviewed Jenessa, I knew she would be a great surrogate mom,” says Carole Jackson, a CSP case manager and two-time surrogate. “When we have a Jewish couple, some prefer a Jewish surrogate mom. The stars aligned for us in this case with a beautiful match.”

On a blind date a dozen years ago, Shlamovitz and Mendelson met at an Aroma Espresso Bar, the popular Israeli coffeehouse chain. On a blistering summer day in Israel, both ordered their favorite drink: hot chocolate. “This is when we knew it was going to be a long love story,” recalls Shlamovitz.

He was finishing up studies at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. Mendelson was an actor and teacher at the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts in Ramat Gan, and also an accomplished chef. Mendelson gave up acting when the couple moved to the United States in 2003 so Shlamovitz could launch his medical practice, first in New York, then Los Angeles, Hartford, Conn., and finally Houston.

Jenessa and Michael Schwartz with their children Solomon and Ramona photo/joyce goldschmid

But parenthood was on their minds almost from the start.

“We began talking about babies within two years after we met,” Shlamovitz says, “but we wanted to save enough money. It’s very expensive.”

Though costs associated with the Shlamovitz-Mendelson twins were not divulged, CSP’s Jackson says the price tag for surrogacy often tops $100,000, including compensation for the surrogate mother that can go as high as $40,000. Surrogacy fees and reimbursements allow for lost wages, out-of-pocket expenses and, as it is legally termed, “pain and suffering.”

CSP recompenses its surrogates in installments throughout the pregnancy, including additional fees for each in vitro fertilization procedure or other invasive measures, such as amniocentesis or a delivery by C-section. There are also allowances for things that will help the surrogate mother while she is pregnant, such as child care and housekeeping.

The laws surrounding surrogacy vary from state to state, but according to Jackson, California law has streamlined the process as much as possible.

“In California you can have any combination of parent,” she says. “Single parents or gay couples using donor sperm or donor eggs get parental rights. Other states make it more complicated.”

Though many women in the United States and around the world enter into surrogacy primarily for monetary gain, Jackson says no woman she works with goes into it for the money. For surrogates such as Schwartz, surrogacy is a mitzvah, helping infertile couples, gay couples and single people have families.

Schwartz received her mitzvah ticket last May when Jackson told her about a gay couple searching for a surrogate, and that the men happened to be Israeli. Parenthood via surrogacy was their first  choice, though had they still been living in Israel they would have been out of luck; in Israel, gay couples are barred by law from pursuing surrogacy. Fortunately for them, they live in Houston. “Lots of Israelis do surrogacy abroad,” Shlamovitz notes.

Once the couple had selected CPS, Shlamovitz and Mendelson, too, underwent extensive pre-screening to make sure they were ready to be parents.

“Simultaneously, we did the same process with egg donation agencies,” Shlamovitz remembers. “They’re like dating websites. We ended up with a lovely egg donor, an American of Irish and Eastern European descent. She’s smart and lovely and healthy and she’s done it before.”

With the puzzle pieces falling into place, Schwartz was ready to become, as she puts it, “a womb for hire.” She started giving herself hormone injections to increase fertility, and she launched a blog (wombforhire.wordpress.com) to keep friends and family posted about this new adventure.

Then it was time for Schwartz and the dads to get to know each other. That started last July with a “Meet the Parents, Meet the Surrogate” Shabbat dinner at the Schwartz home in Campbell.

Mendelson baked challah. The dads-to-be bore gifts for the Schwartz children. Dinner was “boisterous and fun, filled with chaos, singing and laughter,” Schwartz wrote on her blog. Mendelson said it reminded him of the Shabbat dinners of his childhood.

“It began to dawn on me that this was it,” Schwartz wrote. “This was the beginning of the creation of their family. And I felt enormously lucky to be there to witness it, to be a part of it.”

In early August, 28 donated eggs (oocytes is the technical term) were fertilized. Two were implanted in Schwartz’s womb, though odds of both making it to term barely topped 30 percent. She beat the odds. Ten days later Schwartz was officially pee-on-a-stick pregnant, and after a six-week ultrasound, she learned she was carrying twins.

The fathers are Jewish. The womb is Jewish. But the eggs come from a non-Jewish donor. So are the twins Jewish? That depends on whom you ask.

There was a time when surrogacy did not pass halachic muster. Writing from an Orthodox perspective in his book “Jewish Medical Ethics” in 1975, the former chief rabbi of England, the late Immanuel Jakobovits, concluded: “To use another person as an ‘incubator’ and then take from her the child she carried and delivered for a fee is a revolting degradation of maternity and an affront to human dignity.”

Other streams of Judaism generally endorse the practice. The noted Conservative Jewish ethicist, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, has concluded that early concerns regarding lineage and privacy have been resolved and that surrogacy is permitted, as is paying surrogates; not to do so would “unjustly prevent infertile couples from having the child they so desperately seek.”

A Reform movement responsa from 1982 approved of surrogacy, viewing the surrogate as a “medical aid to relieve the childlessness of the couple and to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation.”

But some concerns linger. Other responsa have viewed surrogacy as “baby selling.” Still others pondered the question, who is the real mother, the donor or the tummy mummy?

It’s still an open question whether the surrogate is the true mother. If so, a child born of a Jewish woman’s womb is Jewish, no matter the child’s DNA. But if ovum trumps womb, then the baby would not be considered halachically Jewish unless the egg donor was Jewish.

A survey of responsa conducted by Conservative Rabbi David Golinkin of Israel’s Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies shows that a majority of ethicists consider the surrogate the mother. As proof, one rabbi cited the talmudic phrase ubar yerekh imo: An embryo is part of the mother rather than an independent entity.

The debate is just background noise to Schwartz, for whom the commandment peru uveru — “be fruitful and multiply” — overrides all else. One Conservative rabbi she spoke with told her that “Judaism does not recognize the microbial.” “The egg doesn’t matter,” Schwartz says. “Whoever births the child is the mother, so to speak.”

Schwartz’s friend and colleague at the JCC, Rabbi Leslie Alexander, remembers pondering the subject with Schwartz months ago in Torah study.

“Overall, the question isn’t whether this is a permitted thing,” Alexander says. “There are many responsa about how making use of technologies — whether in vitro fertilization or surrogacy — is a positive thing. The questions are different, but the fact that this is seen as positive is a tribute to our tradition, that even traditional elements of Jewish life incorporate technology. We are not stagnant.”

Alexander does note that some commentators believe a child originating from a non-Jewish egg donor may have to undergo conversion.

But halachah means little to Shlamovitz and Mendelson, both of whom are proud non-religious Jews.

“We are secular,” Shlamovitz states. “We do have friends who are more religious, and when they heard we were thinking of the process they said we can convert the babies and that with a Jewish surrogate they would be born Jewish. We didn’t care if the surrogate would be Jewish or not.”

Mendelson adds, “We didn’t dream about having a Jewish surrogate because you can’t find them. [Finding Schwartz] was a big surprise.”

These days the two families stay in touch daily by text, phone and Skype to exchange progress reports. Unlike her first two pregnancies, Schwartz has had a rougher road this time. She attributes that to the hormone regimen and the fact that she’s carrying twins.

“There’s been a lot of morning sickness,” she says. “It’s lasted. But everything is going really well. We had the big anatomy scan at 20 weeks. Everything looks perfect.”

The official due date is April 22, but doctors do not want to wait longer than April 8 for delivery. Whenever the twins come into this world, Schwartz says she will have no problem saying goodbye to them.

“I went into this with eyes wide open,” she says. “These are not my children. I definitely feel a connection — I love feeling them move — but it’s more like they’re a niece and nephew. I want them to be healthy and strong. I feel love for them, but I don’t feel love the way I do for my own children. It will be more than OK to hand them over to their dads.”

The dads are planning to be there for the birth, then stay in the Bay Area for a week or two afterwards. Then it will be time to take their kids home to Houston.

Shlamovitz and Mendelson say the two families will stay in each other’s lives.

“We would like them to be part of the birth story of our children,” Shlamovitz says. “Jenessa will be the amazing woman who helped Daddy and Daddy bring them to the world.”

The beshert nature of this story has not escaped Alexander, who has stood by her friend every step of the way through the surrogacy.

“There are times in life,” the rabbi says, “where I think if God is ever involved in things, it’s here. Having all this fall into place is beautiful. It’s holy.”

on the cover

main photo/joyce goldschmid

Jenessa Schwartz and (inset) Schwartz with dads Tomer Mendelson and Gil Shlamovitz at anatomy scan.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.