Editors note: While the subjects of this article are well-known in their community in Santa Cruz and beyond, given the situation for LGBT people in Akiva’s country of origin, we are referring to him only by his chosen Hebrew name, to protect his family in Africa.
When Eli Cohen signed up on JewishFriendFinder.com almost nine years ago, he hoped he would find a Jewish partner. The end result is that he did, though his partner looks nothing like Cohen would have guessed.
Cohen, 53, is the rabbi of Chadeish Yameinu, the Jewish Renewal community in Santa Cruz. A former public defender who grew up in a Conservative home in New York, he was ordained by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 2005, and has been living in Santa Cruz since 1989.
Akiva, 51, was born in Europe and mostly raised there, though his family is from West Africa. He grew up in a non-practicing Baptist home. He has worked in human resources and management, and is a consultant. When he came to the U.S., he got married and had a son and divorced. At the time he he did not know he was gay.
Cohen came out at 20, and became active in the gay rights movement. Akiva only realized his attraction to men at 37, and says it took him a while to get used to the idea.
Since he was raised in Europe, Akiva learned quite a bit about the Holocaust, which led to an interest in Israel. “About the time of [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination, I got really interested, President Clinton’s eulogy really moved me. I started following Israeli politics,” Akiva said. The next logical conclusion, he felt, was to meet a Jewish man.
On their first date, they knew within 15 minutes that there was a connection, and that they wanted to spend more time together.
The first year, the two remained more friends than a couple. Cohen was still healing from the end of a relationship, and wanted to remain open to the possibility of meeting someone Jewish. “We didn’t want to rush or be non-conscious about it,” he said.
But as they became a couple, it became clear to Akiva that he wanted to convert to Judaism.
“It was really important that he didn’t convert for me,” said Cohen. “I wanted to be really clear about that.”
In accordance with the tradition of turning away a potential convert three times, Cohen had three serious conversations with Akiva in which he tried to discourage him. Other rabbis also asked Akiva whether he was sure he wanted to convert.
Akiva said there was a grander reason for his conversion, beyond the fact that it was important to Cohen. On their first trip to Israel, Akiva began to feel that for him, being Jewish “is not necessarily being a part of the perfect tribe, but being part of a tribe that is looking for ways to heal the world. I felt that I was joining because the tribe is on a journey to heal the world.”
The conversion, which took place in 2007, was Conservative and Renewal.
On a trip to Israel in 2008, Cohen proposed to Akiva in Jerusalem under a full moon, though they decided to keep it quiet for awhile.
Later, when Proposition 8 passed banning gay marriage in California, Cohen spoke at a rally in front of hundreds of people at a church. A friend suggested he end his speech by publicly proposing to Akiva, which he did, even though they were already secretly engaged.
In 2009, they began to seriously plan for a wedding, but then Akiva’s mother died. The following year, Cohen’s mother died. Shortly after that, Akiva’s father died. They finally settled on Oct. 13 of last year, so Cohen’s father could be present.
They wed at a park in Aptos, with 15 rabbis taking part in the ceremony, including Cohen. While Cohen told each rabbi which part they would lead, he didn’t give them any more instruction than that. “I just let them do their thing,” he said.
The couple began with an African custom involving the family’s elders, with “adopted” elders sitting in for Akiva’s family.
Because they were two men with far different backgrounds, they changed some of the traditional language. For instance, when exchanging rings, instead of saying in Hebrew: “Behold you are made sacred to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel,” they said, “By these rings, we are made sacred to each other, in the evolving traditions of our peoples, and in the eyes of all who behold us.”
Everyone dressed in white and gold, and the reception was vegan. Among the guests were Akiva’s son, his ex-wife, Cohen’s ex-partner, and his high school and college girlfriends.
Akiva expressed sadness over the fact that while they had such support from their community and friends in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, he could not share this happiness with friends and family in his homeland because it could put them in danger.
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