By Steven Philp
To their neighbors they look like every other Orthodox Jewish couple, a man and woman married for five years with two children in tow. Even the fact that their marriage is a product of convenience rather than love is not unusual, yet the particular reason for their union is unique: the man is gay, and the woman is lesbian. Their marriage owes its genesis to Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living on the West Bank; over the past six years, he has paired thirteen Orthodox gay and lesbian couples. For Harel it is a simple solution to a more complex problem: these are men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex, yet desire to remain in good standing with their communities by acquiring the familiar roles of Orthodox adulthood—a traditional family of one man and one woman. Are the members of these couples simply “beards,” a slang term that usually describes a woman who marries or dates a gay man to “prove” his heterosexuality?
According to Time, Harel has been quietly pairing gay and lesbian couples for years. It was not until this past spring, when he mentioned his service at a Jerusalem-based panel on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights that other communities became aware of these couples. Not surprisingly, he has met criticism from both fronts. LGBT organizations cite his pairings as disingenuous, leading to loveless—perhaps unfaithful—marriages. On the other hand, several of his peers believe that Harel should do more to discourage their attraction to people of the same sex. They look to the controversial practice of “reparative” therapy, which claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through counseling and aversion treatments. However, prominent health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have questioned the efficacy of “reparative” therapy, citing evidence that its methods can cause lasting negative psychological effects. Although Harel believes that many men and woman can change their sexual attraction, he concedes that some individuals cannot—hence the necessity of pairing the men and women who continue to desire a traditional Orthodox marriage despite their homosexuality. “This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within halakhah,” Harel explained to Time. “This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s kind of a solution.”
After his project went public, Harel found an increased demand for his services. He revealed plans to launch an online matchmaking service—Anachnu, Hebrew for “We” —for Orthodox gay and lesbian individuals who desire similar pairings. At the moment there will be five matchmakers on staff, all heterosexual. Harel will oversee operations as a consultant. Membership for the site will be $42, although if successful pairing is made both the bride and groom will pay $430 each.
When Harel began pairing gay and lesbian couples in 2005 there were no LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel. Currently there are five, including one that is working closely with Harel to promote his matchmaking service. Kamoha—Hebrew for “Like You” —announced its intent to host a link to Anachnu. The founder of Kamoha, a closeted Orthodox man who has adopted the pseudonym Amit, explained the reasoning behind their decision to support Harel. Although many gay and lesbian individuals want total acceptance within the Orthodox community, there are some whose desire for a quiet, normative lifestyle outweighs their sexual attraction. “We’re not pushing this on people,” explained Amit to Time. “This is for people who want this because Jewish law says this is the normal way and because it’s the easiest way to have children.” As for himself, Amit explained that he has not desire to utilize Anachnu; after many years of therapy, he came to the conclusion that he is “100% gay.”
However, not all LGBT Orthodox groups are comfortable with the implicit support that Kamoha has lended Harel. Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man living in Jerusalem and spokesperson for the pro-LGBT organization Havruta, explained that the matchmaking service will lead to unhealthy relationships. “I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it’s about caring, loving, and sharing,” Jonas told Time. “This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don’t love each other, the kids will feel it. It’s not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this.” Concerns have been raised about the fidelity of these marriages, a problem that Harel acknowledges and addresses with the potential gay and lesbian couples. In an interview with the Associated Press, Harel pointed to his belief that having children will provide a substantial foundation for the pairing to build a genuine relationship. “Their love is based on parenthood,” Harel said. “Parenthood is the glue and it’s strong.”
Still the efficacy of these relationships is called in to question. In an interview with one of the men paired by Harel—who chose the pseudonym Josh—Time revealed that even the presence of children is not a foolproof safeguard against infidelity. Josh, a 30-year-old Orthodox gay man, admitted to cheating on his wife at least three times over the three years of their marriage—most recently in February of this year. They have an 11-month-old son. “I haven’t told my wife, but I think she knows,” Josh said. “She can see it in my face when I come home.” Yet he explains that their mutual struggle with same sex attraction has provided space for an intimate, if unorthodox, partnership. “But she give me space,” Josh concluded. “I really love her because she understands me.”