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August 27, 2010

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 27, 2010 PAGE 17A By Aaron Passman Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIAFor many people, having a baby is a relatively straightfor- ward process. The child is conceived, the couple goes to the doctor and labor classes. they wait nine months for the newborn to arrive and then: "Mazel tov!" For an Israeli couple with Philadelphia ties, however, it was a bit more complicated. Hagai Maoz, 37, and Hagai Zvuluni. 33. have been to- gether for five years. Two years ago, the gay couple had a com- mitment ceremony in Israel and began thinking about By Sue Fishkoff SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) On a recent weekday, Rivka Bowlin led mincha, the after- noon prayer service, from her home in Louisville, Ky. Her fellow worshipers were in Atlanta, Detroit and Oak- land, Calif.. watching her on their computer screens, fol- lowing along with an online prayer book and keying in "Amen" after each blessing via a chat window. Bowlin was the day's prayer leader for PunkTorah, the brainchild of two young Jews in Atlanta who are trying to create a global Jewish com- munity in cyberspace. They held their first prayer service on June 30. Just because participants aon't meet face to face doesn't make that community any less real, said Patrick Aleph, the group's 27-year-old co-founder and executive director. "We are a community of real people who happen to meet online," he told JTA. More and more Iewish re- ligious life is moving online. Synagogues stream worship services over the Internet to reach homebound congre- gants, students away at college and distant relatives of the bar mitzvah boy. Rabbis write blogs, religious school teach- ers "tweet" by posting online messages of 140 characters or less, and youth groups share videos on Facebook. But these online ventures usually are tied to a brick-and- mortar synagogue, and are envisioned as a supplemental offering to the "real" congre- gational community. Almost none is created solely as online Jewish communities, which is what makes and OurJewishCommunity. org, based in Cincinnati, so unusual. "It's a taste of the future," said Rabbi Laura Baum, 30, spiritual leader of OurJewish- Critics might say online worship is too easy, that it doesn't require even the simple effort of getting dressed and walking to a designated building. But supporters of online Jewish communities say they demand interaction. At last year's Passover seder. Baum said. someone in Paris read a passage in the haggadah about matzah.while someone in New how to have children, or. more specifically, finding someone to have the children for them through an egg donor and a surrogate mother. On July 10. the twins a boy and girl named Evi- atar and Ofri--were born at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Maoz and Zvuluni came to the region not only because the twins' surrogate mother was from South Jersey, but because Zvuluni has family in the Philadelphia area. The men's process of grow- ing their family may have cul- minated in the Philadelphia region, but it touches on a number of thorny issues in York read the section about maror, the bitter herbs. For, the Yizkor memorial service during Yom Kippur, people sent in the names and photos of their departed loved ones, which she streamed online. "This is do-it-yourself Ju- daism," said Michael Sabani. PunkTorah's creative director and de facto spiritual leader. So far, several thousand people have gone to their site, according to the PunkTorah leaders, although considerably fewer take part in the online prayer services. The regulars hail from North America, Israel and Britain. "If you log onto our site or send us an e-mail, you're part of our community," Aleph said. On Aug. 17, Aleph and Sa- bani launched a fundraising appeal to build OneShul, an online synagogue, to extend the services they can offer. Their goal is to raise $5,000 in 60 days--much less than the usual synagogue capital campaign. "We're not interested in buying property or lining our pockets," Sabani said. "We want to build something for the least amount of money that will servethe most people most effectively." That was Congregation Beth Adam's goal in2008 when the independent, liberal synagogue in Cincinnati hired Baum, then 28 and freshly ordained by the Hebrew Uhion College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to create an online Jewish community thatwould reach Out to unaffiliated Jews nationwide. "They realized that in order for Judaism to survive, there needs to be a new model," Baum said. Beth Adam pays her sal- ary and Baum uses the syna- gogue's in-house liturgy, but the online community she leads has little overlap with the 300 -member congregation behind the venture. Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr, Beth Adam's senioerabbi. stream Friday night services live at 6 p.m. EST. interacting with participants via Twitter and Facebook. Barr does a weekly podcast on iTunes and Baum blogs regularly, and between the two of them. they offer the usual array of counseling and educational services one would expect from Jewish clergy, In the two years they've been the Jewish state, including a gay and lesbian's place in Israeli society and the mat- ter of conversion, since the twins' surrogate mother is not Jewish. "We probably could not have done any of this inIsrael," Maoz said. explaining that while there are a number of agencies for both in-vitro fer- tilization and surrogacy, "the problem is that gay couples are not allowed" to use those services "since the law in Israel only permits surrogacy for married straight Couples." Although surrogacy was legalized in Israel in 1996. the Jewish state is one of the few places where it is closely regu- online, tens of thousands of people from more than 150 countries have sought them out, they said. "I can be your rabbi even if you're not in Cincinnati," Baum said, noting that many Jews are online already and are used to making such connections. "We are your rabbis and this is your community," she said. These communities wouldn't exist if they didn't meet a growing need, said Shawn Landres, co-found- er and CEO of Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based incubator for sustainable Jewish innovation projects. One of the challenges for online Jewish worship, he said, is that certain prayers require a minyan, a quorum of 10. But in an age of webcams and the Internet telephone service Skype, Landres said, spatial relations become al- tered and who's to say what "together" means? Soon after his father's death three years ago, Landres added, he w~s participating in a meeting via Skype when the group paused for afternoon prayers. They invited him to say Kaddish, the traditional prayer for mourners. "I was in my living room, in my pajamas," Landres said. It turned out to be "an extraor- dinary experience," he said. "I felt that community and I felt that connection. Iwould never say that it wasn't real. I would never say that God did not hear that prayer. Maybe we have to look past our own definition of what's real." At PunkTorah, Aleph or Sabani lead services on Friday afternoons, but the Monday and Wednesday services are led by volunteers like Bowlin. Stefani Barner, who lives just outside Detroit, was one of eight people attending one of Bowlin's recent services online. As the mother of a 10-year-old boy who is waiting for a kidney transplant, Barner said, she welcomes the option of praying online. It allows her to pray when she can't get to the synagogue where she and herhusbandare members, she said, and it's become a caring community, as well. "This isn't instead of: it's in addition to." Barner said. "I'm a big believer in bricks and mortar, too. I see the need for OneShul for those who don't belong to a synagogue, but for us. it's a wonderful addition," latedat the national level and governed by a comprehensive law, according to Elly Teman, a postdoctoral candidate 'at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recently published "Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self.'" The native Israeli explained that the law is so restrictive because "the rabbinical con- cerns over surrogacy were very clear." including that the surrogate must be an unmar- ried woman of the same faith as the parents, unrelated to either parent, and that only heterosexual couples could hire surrogates. Thus, she said. many gay Israelisgoabroad,wherethere Ami-Bucks County Jewish are more candidates and it's Congregation in Newtown. less expensive. , 'No Grandchildren'? Not In their quest, Maoz and True Zvuluni turned to Elite IVF. AccordingtoTeman.assur- one of many American agen- cies specializing in the pro- cedure. Maoz said that the primary clients at such orga- nizations aren't necessarily gay couples, but heterosexuals having trouble conceiving. The two men first traveled to Mexico City to secure an egg donor, where such ser- vices are often cheaper. The sperm came from one of the men. but the couple did not want the biological father to be identified. The entire process, said Maoz, cost about $110,000, including $5,000 for the egg and about $30.000 paid to the surrogate. Because the surrogate mother was not Jewish, the twins went through a conver- sion in the mikvah at Shir It's a boy~and a girl for Maoz. rogacy has become increas- ingly popular among Israeli gay couples. "it's reshaped the whole idea of coming out." "It used to be that a young Jewish man came out and his mother would break down in tears and say, 'I'll never have grandchildren.' Now. a young gay man comes out, and his mother immediately starts saving to pay for surrogacy," she said. Despite all the steps they've taken and plan to take, how- ever, it's not clear whether the twins' conversion through a Reform congregation will be valid in the eyes of the Israeli religious establishment. Although individuals who undergo non-Orthodox con- versions outside of Israel are currently recognized as Jews, Hagai Zvuluni (1) and Hagai they encounter difficulties if and whenthey decide to get married. In addition, there is concern that a controversial bill currently on hold in the Knesset. which seeks to place authority for conversion~ in Israel entirely in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. could also ultimately affect non-Orthodox conversions abroad. Even if the bill passes. Maoz said that won't matter to him as a parent. The twins can choose "if they want to do an Orthodox conversion when they're grown up," he said. "It's not that important to us that they be recognized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. What is im- portant to us is our traditions and our knowledge that, in our point of view, they're Jewish." Aaron Passman is a staff writer for the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent from which this article is reprinted by permission. Ist Annual Kevin A. Przybyl Breathe Easy Foundation, Inc. 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