When Rabbi Gail Diamond and her partner made aliyah in 2001, they were making a choice to stay together. Though the two were married in a synagogue in East Falmouth, Mass. in 1996, the same-sex union wasn’t legal in the state until 2004.
Even after it became legal, the marriage would not have allowed Diamond’s partner, who was born in the Caribbean, to stay in the U.S. permanently. By that point, the couple had been living in Israel for three years already.
As it turned out, “Our worst-case scenario was a bright future in another country,” says Diamond, 50, the associate director of the Conservative Yeshiva at the United Synagogue in Jerusalem. She’s lived with her partner in Tzur Hadassah, in the Judean Hills, for 11 years now; the couple has two young children who are “entirely Israeli.”
Diamond will speak at congregations in San Francisco, the East Bay and South Bay Saturday, Jan. 28 through Feb. 4 on behalf of the United Synagogue. She’ll address a number of topics both personal and political: her experiences moving to and living in Israel as a feminist and a lesbian; the importance of American LGBT Jews maintaining connections with Israel; and the state of “women’s voices” in Israel and the tension over women’s rights between some in the ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of Israeli society. One of the talks is titled “Adventures of a lesbian-feminist-rabbi-mom in the Judean Hills.”
Though same-sex marriage ceremonies can’t be performed legally in Israel, those performed outside the country are recognized, and same-sex partners enjoy rights that are nearly identical to those in “traditional” marriages, she says. Most important for Diamond’s family, a person can petition for his or her immigrant partner to receive permanent resident status — much the way couples in different-sex marriages can obtain green cards in the U.S.
Israel’s nationalized health care provided fertility treatments for the couple, and they benefited from a 2005 decision by the Supreme Court allowing same-sex parents to apply to adopt their partner’s children.
“There is a longstanding tradition of rights and privileges here, even in terms of recognizing common-law marriages,” says Diamond, who was born in Cambridge, Mass. and grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “On top of that there is, for the most part, a very live-and-let-live attitude.” On the other hand, she notes that Israelis are “very private about sexuality and relationships” compared with Americans.
On her blog — a project Diamond undertook in 2009, after two LGBT teens were gunned down at a gay youth club in Tel Aviv — the rabbi shares her musings on life in a culture where being gay is seemingly acceptable at an institutional level but often largely undiscussed.
As “suburban moms” who have chosen to live in a diverse area on the Green Line — they have Russian neighbors, are just a mile from a West Bank Arab village, and the closest place to receive medical care is an ultra-Orthodox settlement — Dia-mond and her partner don’t feel terribly visible.
“You hear a lot of, ‘That’s your business, we would never discuss that’ — which, of course, has a front and a back to it. It’s a very complex, very weird place sometimes.”
As for progress on LGBT rights in the U.S., Diamond laments that it’s been slow going. “I remember when we left, thinking, ‘OK, in 10 years it’ll be different here,’ and now it’s been 11,” she says. While the Obama administration has made some strides, she notes, she and her partner would face the same situation today as they did in 2001. “So now I’m thinking, OK, maybe by the time my kids are in the army!” (Her daughter is 8 and her son is 5.)
The glacial rate of improvement in marriage and gender equality is one reason Diamond relishes opportunities to network with LGBT communities in the U.S. Also, amid building tensions around women’s rights in Israel — including a recent incident in which ultra-Orthodox men harassed an 8-year-old girl on her way to school over her “immodest” clothing — Diamond feels it’s necessary to remind American Jews that being in touch with what’s going on in Israel is vitally important.
“When it comes to opening up the dialogue and bringing in different voices, especially when you get into gender issues and egalitarianism, I really believe that North American Jews make a big difference in Israel,” says Diamond. “It makes a huge difference just to be connected.”
Rabbi’s speaking schedule
Rabbi Gail Diamond will speak at the following locations. For more information, please visit the congregations’ websites.
• Saturday, Jan. 28, Congregation Kol Emeth, Palo Alto, 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
• Sunday, Jan. 29, Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, 10 a.m.
• Sunday, Jan. 29, Congregation Beth David, Saratoga, 7 p.m.
• Monday, Jan. 30, Congregation Beth Jacob, Redwood City, 10:30 a.m.
• Monday, Jan. 30, Congregation Sinai, San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
• Tuesday, Jan. 31, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Foster City, 7 p.m.
• Wednesday, Feb. 1, A Wider Bridge, San Francisco (private home), 7 p.m.
• Thursday, Feb. 2, Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco, 7 a.m.
• Thursday, Feb. 2, Temple Beth Abraham, Oakland, 7 p.m.
• Saturday, Feb. 4, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.