Yulia and Slav Pozniansky, an Israeli couple in their fifties, enjoy being grandparents to their oldest son’s three children. They crave the chance to be grandparents to the offspring of their younger son, Baruch, as well. But that is more difficult since Baruch is dead. The story does not end there. Technology—and a small Tel Aviv organization—hope to enable the Poznianskys to realize their dream.
A top student who loved gourmet cooking and was named outstanding soldier in his combat unit, Baruch died of cancer at 25. After he was diagnosed, he insisted on having his sperm frozen in case the treatment impaired his ability to father a child. On October 31, 2008—when his prognosis was grim—he signed a notarized document asking that his sperm be used to produce a child after his death, which came just a week later.
Baruch’s parents wasted little time in finding a single woman who wished to be inseminated with his sperm and become a mother to their future grandchild. “I already feel like she is part of our family,” says Yulia Pozniansky, 54, a tour guide who lives in Carmiel.
But the hospital where her son’s sperm is stored would not release it. According to guidelines set by Israel’s attorney general in 2003, no one but a man’s wife is entitled to claim his frozen sperm after death.
The case is now before a family court and marks the first time that a biological will like the one signed by Baruch Pozniansky is being put to the test anywhere in the world.
If the court sides with the Poznianskys, it will be a victory for the bereaved couple. But it will also be a triumph for New Family, the Tel Aviv-based organization that devised the biological will, matched the would-be mother with the Poznianskys and is representing the family in their case against the state.
In the 12 years since its founding, New Family (www.newfamily.org.il) has been the driving force behind a flurry of groundbreaking and sometimes controversial decisions in a dizzying array of family-related issues.
In a high-profile case in May 2010, the organization represented Jerusalemite Dan Goldberg, a homosexual father of twins born to a surrogate in India. Goldberg was stranded in India with the babies for over two months after a Jerusalem family court judge refused to authorize a paternity test, a standard procedure for parents undergoing surrogacy, that would have enabled him to bring the children back to Israel after their births.
Many of the cases won by New Family have expanded the definition of what constitutes a family in Israel—making its name, New Family, especially apt.
“We are leading a liberation movement,” says attorney Irit Rosenblum, the group’s founder and executive director.
Seated in her office, which is plastered with posters preaching “Marry Civil” and “Parenthood Is a Right,” the petite, elegantly dressed Rosenblum, with her mane of curly blond hair and red-framed glasses, proclaims that “Family is at the core, the heart, of human existence. We fight for the right of every individual to establish a family unit—whether through parenthood, couplehood or both.”
Family is not something she takes for granted. Her own German-born parents lost their entire families in the Holocaust by the time they were 10. “I understood from my parents’ experience that family is a person’s anchor; without one,” says Rosenblum, “a person has nothing to hang on to.”
While working at the women’s International Zionist Organization, where she served as legal adviser and head of the status of women department, she was exposed to “the legal and administrative problems of the family unit,” says Rosenblum. “In Israel, there is a formula of what a family is: a man and a woman who are Jewish and have married in an Orthodox-sanctioned ceremony. Those who do not meet these criteria are deprived of the recognition and services granted to couples.”
Rosenblum’s epiphany came at a religious court hearing, where she was trying to obtain a get (Jewish religious divorce) for a woman who had spent several months in a shelter after her husband had attempted to murder her. At one point, the court decided that the couple was not Jewish, and the Ministry of Interior subsequently ordered them both deported to their country of origin. “I realized that if the woman left Israel her husband would stalk her and kill her,” Rosenblum recalls. “Suddenly, just because she was not Jewish, no one seemed to care about her life or feel a need to grant her protection.”
Rosenblum persuaded the authorities not to deport the woman and fought for her to stay in the shelter. Convinced that this case was indicative of a deeper ill, Rosenblum left WIZO and, in December 1998, founded New Family to serve those who do not conform to the conventional definition of family in Israel. According to research she conducted along with other lawyers, 42 percent of Israelis—or 800,000 families—do not meet that definition, including single-parent households, foreign-worker families and gay, non-Jewish or mixed-religion couples.
A married mother of three who lives in the Shoham suburb halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Rosenblum began New Family as a one-woman operation. Today, the organization’s seven-person staff and 30 volunteer lawyers provide legal aid to some 17,000 people a year.
One of them is Ella Bar-Ilan, a 64-year-old simultaneous translator from Ramat Aviv. She contacted New Family in the wake of the death of her common-law partner, Roberta Slotnick. In Israel, common-law wives (who have been with their partner for at least seven years) are entitled to a widow’s allowance as well as remuneration for the burial cost of their partner. But when Bar-Ilan applied to the National Insurance Institute for benefits, she was refused on the grounds that her spouse was not a man. A few days after a New Family lawyer contacted the NII, it reversed its stand—enabling Bar-Ilan and all lesbians in common-law marriages to enjoy widow benefits.
“The money was not significant for me, but the principle was,” says Bar-Ilan. “Roberta and I had been together for 22 years—we were a couple in every sense. Why shouldn’t that be acknowledged by the state?”
New Family—which is financed by donations from individuals and organizations including the New Israel Fund, National Council of Jewish Women, government ministries and foreign foundations—also publishes pamphlets on family rights, lobbies members of Knesset to improve family laws and provides support that goes beyond legal aid. Rosenblum, for instance, guides gay men through the entire process of conceiving a child through surrogacy abroad; she has also dabbled in unconventional matchmaking, as she did with the Poznianskys, helping bereaved parents find a single woman who wishes to be inseminated with the sperm of their deceased son.
However, she sees her mission in broader terms. “Our agenda is in the realm of ideas,” says Rosenblum, whose speech is studded with quotes from Kierkegaard, Descartes and Aristotle. “Our goal is to allow every person to have the freedom to choose his or her family without the intervention of the state.”
Israel has particular challenges in family matters because of the lack of separation between religion and state. There is no civil marriage, and hundreds of thousands of people are denied the right to marry because they are not regarded as halakhically Jewish by the rabbinate.
But Rosenblum believes an organization like hers is needed everywhere. “The entire world is undergoing a dramatic change in the form of the family unit,” she explains. “Most of the world is busy with gay rights, but the issue is much broader than that. Nowadays, you have surrogate mothers, sperm donors, adoptive mothers, biological fathers, egg donors and posthumous parenthood. Our strategy is to force the social, legal and parliamentary systems to deal with the issues that arise from the dynamic nature of family.”
To date, New Family has had a number of victories: It won state-funded paternity leave for fathers of surrogate babies born abroad; the right of gay parents to adopt each other’s children; parity for gay partners in inheritance matters; the right of all women —not just married ones—to undergo state-subsidized in vitro fertilization treatments; overturned a state regulation restricting the age that Israelis can apply to adopt children abroad; opened new avenues for non-Jewish, mixed-religion and same-sex couples to be officially recognized as couples; and has helped pave the path to posthumous parenthood.
Its international Common Law Marriage Identification notarized ID card can be used by couples to obtain government benefits—such as mortgages and medical insurance—or to prove their status. (When Bar-Ilan’s partner lost consciousness, she was authorized to grant permission for surgery on the basis of the New Family-issued ID card identifying her as the patient’s common-law partner.) The organization has issued some 9,000 such cards since they became available in December 2007.
Another New Family innovation, the biological will, is unique worldwide. The document is signed by a man and certified by two witnesses, and it states what he would like done with his sperm in the event of death. A man may have left frozen sperm samples; or he could request that the semen be taken from him shortly after death—a procedure made possible by biotechnology.
Rosenblum believes that in Israel in particular such a document is critical because Israeli men face a real danger of being injured or losing their lives during military service. She lobbied unsuccessfully for the Israel Defense Forces to establish a sperm bank to ensure that soldiers who are injured or killed have the option of fatherhood. The IDF objected to the initiative, arguing that it would hurt soldiers’ morale.
When Roni Magen Diskin’s husband, Dror, got an emergency call-up during the Second Lebanon War, she was afraid not only of losing her companion but of missing out on the opportunity to have a child of his. An Internet search led her to New Family’s biological will and within a couple of days, Dror had signed one. “We both saw it as a kind of insurance policy in the worst-case scenario,” says Magen Diskin, 30, who has since given birth to two children after Dror returned safely from Lebanon.
Some 500 israelis have signed biological wills through New Family. The authority of the document is being tested for the first time in the family court that is considering the Poznianskys’ case.
Last summer, the Poznianskys won a significant interim victory when the court authorized their agreement with the would-be mother, expressing support for the basic idea. However, the court made final approval contingent on the report of a state-appointed social worker who is in the process of interviewing the young woman.
New Family has already fought—and won—two cases on behalf of bereaved parents who, like the Poznianskys, wanted their son’s frozen sperm to be used to inseminate a woman he never knew.
A family court ruling in January 2007, in favor of the parents of slain soldier Keivan Cohen, is believed to be the first time a court anywhere in the world ordered the sperm of a deceased man to be given to someone other than his wife or partner. In December 2009, another family court issued a similar judgment when it sided with Adi and Ronit Snir, parents of the late Idan, who died of cancer at 22. In both cases, the parents of the deceased had to struggle to prove that their sons, who were single when they died, would indeed have opted for posthumous parenthood.
“The existence of a biological will removes all doubt about the intentions of the deceased,” notes Rosenblum, and she is optimistic that the court will ultimately allow the Poznianskys to obtain Baruch’s sperm.
Rosenblum has won a slew of international awards for her work, the most recent being the National Council of Jewish Women’s Jewel Bellush Israeli Feminist Award in 2010 for her “unique contribution to women’s equality”; and the 2009 InnovAction Award from the Colorado-based College of Law Practice Management, which noted that Rosenblum “broke fresh ground defending a universal right to family as intrinsic to the practice of law.”
Not surprisingly, the organization’s liberal stances have prompted disdain and even outrage from many in the Orthodox religious establishment. New Family poses a direct challenge to the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce. The organization also undermines halakhic positions on homosexuality by sanctioning and facilitating gay marriage and parenthood. A landmark court decision in February 2008 allowing same-sex couples to serve as adoptive parents was termed “nauseating,” “unnerving” and “a sin against the children up for adoption” by various members of Knesset from ultra-Orthodox parties.
More moderate religious figures have also taken issue with New Family’s raison d’être; one leading authority on Jewish ethics described it as an attempt “to undermine the traditional institution of the family”—a charge Rosenblum does not dispute.
In response to the decision to allow the parents of another deceased man access to his sperm to inseminate a single woman, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of Yeshivat Hesder of Petah Tikva, a leading expert on Jewish law and ethics and considered a moderate by many, wrote that “the creation of a new model of the family in which the grandparents are so key strengthens the deep deterioration of the family in Israel.”
Joseph Schenker of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also lambasted that decision, arguing that the child would become “the dead son in the eyes of the parents” and that “this should never be done.” Schenker chairs the ethics committee for the Society of Assisted Reproductive Technology.
Rosenblum refutes these charges, noting that it is not the grandparents, but the child’s mother who has full legal rights and responsibility for him or her. She not only explains this to the parents of the deceased (the future grandparents) but also insists that they sign a contract to that effect.
“The mother can leave the country with the child and the grandparents have no legal right to object even if they never get to see the child again,” she notes. “Anyone who says that the grandchild will be a substitute for the deceased son has no experience with such situations. The child is not a replacement but provides some solace for grandparents who want life to continue.”
Israel Prize-winning philosopher Asa Kasher, one of the country’s leading experts on ethics, supports such initiatives. “I don’t think the parents of the deceased son have to justify their decision at all,” says the Tel-Aviv University professor. “In a democracy, the burden of proof should be on those who want to limit freedom—they have to prove that someone will be hurt by this act. And who will be hurt? It is hypocrisy to claim the unborn baby will suffer. After all, would he be better off not being born at all?”
Kasher maintains that a restrictive approach would result in “a dictatorship based on the likes and dislikes of an individual or a body.”
As for Rosenblum, she welcomes the criticism her organization has sparked. “Our main influence is on the public debate,” she explains. “Once these issues were not even discussed or written about. Now we have put them on the agenda—in government committees, in courtrooms and in people’s living rooms.”