Two years ago, Lior Fradkin lost Nir, his spouse of 14 years. But while the battle against Nir’s leukemia proved devastating, nothing could have prepared Fradkin for the herculean task of being recognized as a widow by state authorities.
“Nir got sick at a time when we were on top the world in terms of our family,” Fradkin, 45, told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel. “We each held senior positions at our jobs, we traveled abroad often, had two children together, and we had just bought a new apartment. You could say we were living the Israeli dream.”
“One day, Nir began feeling unwell. At first, the doctor said it was the flu, but after 10 days with a high fever, we went to the emergency room. He was hospitalized as soon as the blood tests came back and put on chemotherapy that same day. I swore I would do anything to save him,” Fradkin said.
Fradkin set up something of a war room to manage Nir’s condition and ensure their children’s routine was affected as little as possible by the situation.
“I opened a WhatsApp group for friends and family and sent charts where everyone could chip in when it came to the tasks included in managing this type of situation, such as childcare, cooking, or being at the hospital. And really, everyone we know lent a hand,” he said.
Nir needed a bone marrow transplant but when a donor could not be found, Fradkin left no stone unturned to get him into an FDA-approved clinical trial in the United States, where adults received cord blood transplants.
“We packed up the kids and essentially moved into the University of Minnesota Medical Center for six months, where Nir underwent an agonizing transplant and brutal treatments,” Fradkin said.
“Six months later, Nir’s immune system began to reboot and we were released home. When we got back to Israel, his blood tests gave us a reason to be optimistic, and it looked like he was on his way to recovery. We celebrated with a family vacation in Switzerland,” he said.
A week before their son Adam was supposed to start first grade, Nir caught a cold that escalated into acute pneumonia within days. Nir’s lungs collapsed, and less than two weeks later he was dead.
Still reeling and with two small children to look after, Fradkin sought to exercise his rights as a widow vis-à-vis state authorities, but found that as Israel does not recognize same-sex marriages, securing those rights would not be simple.
Israel’s National Insurance Law allows for a host of provisions for widows and orphans in the form of survivors’ benefits — but the law does not apply to same-sex couples, and gay widows and widowers often find that in their hour of need, they must also make their way through a labyrinth of red tape.
‘There’s a lot of institutionalized homophobia’
“In an LGBT family, when one of the spouses dies the remaining spouse is often forced to deal with suspicion and mistrust by the authorities, which often doubt whether a family constellation even existed,” said Michal Eden, an attorney and leading activist for LGBT rights in Israel.
“I see widows who, instead of grieving, have to go to court to prove that they were part of a couple and get the rights they deserve. Even in financial bodies, I see a lot of institutionalized homophobia. They make it very difficult, asking questions like ‘How did you meet and under what circumstances?’ Heterosexuals are never asked these kinds of questions,” she said.
While Israel does not recognize same-sex marriages, recent years have seen the state come a long way in terms of affording LGBT widows their rights.
Fradkin and his partner were able to register for a status similar to that of a common-law marriage with the National Insurance Institute, as well as issue a “parenting decree” by which their children — 8-year-old Adam and 4-year-old Sofia, both born via a surrogate — were recognized as each other’s biological children by the courts, without having to go through an adoption process.
These two records proved vital when Fradkin pursued his financial rights as a widower.
‘Common-law status is the safest bet’
The first time state bodies had to grapple with the question of the legal status of LGBT widows was in the early 1990s.
In 1992, Adir Steiner sued the Israeli military for recognition as the widower of Col. Doron Meisel, his partner of eight years, who died of cancer that year while still in active service. In 1996, after a lengthy legal battle, the court issued an unprecedented ruling in Steiner’s favor, making him the first gay man to be recognized as an IDF widower.
Thirteen years later, in 2009, the National Insurance Institute recognized Ella Bar-Ilan as the widow of her partner of 22 years, Roberta.
The NII’s ruling was the first time an LGBT widow was afforded survivors’ benefits, and the precedent is still used by same-sex couples.
Bar-Ilan’s case was handled by attorney Irit Rosenblum, founder of the New Family organization, which, according to its website, advocates for equal family rights for all, “including the rights to marry, divorce, have children, register spouses and children, and conduct family life free of religious coercion regardless of religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or status.”
“Most people don’t feel the need to register [as couples] anywhere, and that’s a mistake. If there is no record, the couple are invisible,” Rosenblum told Zman Yisrael.
If there is no record, the couple are invisible
According to Eden, “the best way to protect the LGBT family in Israel today is to register for a common-law status with the NII once a family is established. That registration will serve the couple in all other governmental institutions if needed.”
Same-sex couples and others who cannot marry in Israel under Orthodox law can be issued a “domestic union” card through New Family. These are photo identification cards that entitle couples to legal status and rights equal to married couples on the basis of a legal affidavit that their holders are common-law spouses.
In 2014, this unique card, trademarked by New Family, was recognized by the court as a valid legal document attesting to one’s marital status.
Still, despite legal precedent and the provisions put in place by major state bodies, widowed LGBT Israelis have to struggle to receive their rights under the law.
Nitzan and Meital Itamari-Kruani were together for eight years. They made sure to obtain a domestic union card, had a big wedding, and had started fertility treatments to become mothers when disaster struck: Meital was killed in a car accident just outside the kibbutz where the two lived.
I was required to prove that we were a couple, every step of the way
The process to be recognized as a widow proved “exhausting and required I prove that we were, indeed, a couple, every step of the way,” Nitzan told Zman Yisrael.
“I had to hire a lawyer to get this recognition, because this process isn’t automatic, even though we registered with the National Insurance Institute. I received a one-time payment of survivors’ benefits and a professional training stipend because I have no [university] degree and no profession. Now I’m fighting with private insurance and with her workplace because they don’t acknowledge I was her spouse,” she said.
“The Interior Ministry does not recognize us as spouses either,” Nitzan continued. “Meital was listed as single, as am I, and because Meital didn’t leave a will, I had to fight to get an inheritance order — something that would have happened automatically had I been married to a man.”
Private insurance companies lagging behind the times
The lack of registration of same-sex couples as married constitutes an additional problem, which arises when an LGBT spouse seeks to claim their deceased partner’s life insurance.
Article 912 of Israel’s Income Tax Ordinance exempts life insurance payouts for married couples, but it does not recognize common-law spouses — straight or gay.
“The Israel Tax Authority, which follows Interior Ministry records, doesn’t apply the tax exemption automatically and demands that the surviving spouse provide proof of domestic partnership. This is yet another redundant procedure that would not exist if Israel recognized same-sex marriages,” Rosenblum said.
The only way for LGBT couples to register as married with the Interior Ministry is to marry in a country that recognizes same-sex marriages.
For Gil Yehoshua, 38, of Jerusalem, this spared the bureaucratic process after he lost his partner, Michael, two years ago, and was left to raise their four children — two sets of twins, two of whom suffer from cerebral palsy — on his own.
“We got married when we lived in Paris in a simple ceremony at city hall, just around the time when France recognized same-sex marriages,” Yehoshua told Zman Yisrael. “When Michael died of lymphoma, after 10 years together, our children were two-and-a-half years old. The fact that we were married helped me a lot.”
The two had fathered children through two parallel surrogacy processes in Nepal.
“There was a sweeping recommendation to maximize chances so as not to waste time, so we had two surrogates. But as fate would have it, both surrogates conceived twins and the births were six weeks apart. We decided to raise them as quadruplets.”
“When we came back to Israel, we made sure to get a parenting decree [which grants parental status under Israeli law] and the National Insurance Institute recognized the children as quadruplets and us as a multi-child family,” he said, referring to tax and social security benefits allotted to families with four or more children.
According to Yehoshua, coming to grips with the new reality was very hard, and one of the things that got him through it was the fact that friends moved into their home, with their own children, to help him cope.
“Today, handling all four of them — feeding, bathing, and bedtime — is something I’m used to. It’s no longer a challenge, and my family helps. The big challenge is to support them. I’m a fashion and jewelry designer, and I lecture about my life story, but that’s not always enough,” he said.
The fact that the state recognized his widower status spared Yehosuha bureaucratic hassle and wars he could not afford, and the survivors’ benefits his family receives helped him cope with the complex financial situation.
New social status
Omra Levi Hazan, 36, lost her spouse, Yael, five weeks after giving birth to their daughter, Nuri. The two also shared a son, Maayan, who was three when Yael died. But while his adoption process was completed, the adoption papers for their baby girl, though signed, had yet to be filed with the court.
“I was in a state of shock. I had just given birth and I really couldn’t handle anything,” Omra said. “Attorney Michal Eden offered to help but the fact that Yael was not automatically registered as the baby’s parent, as would be the case for a straight couple, meant that I had to prove that Nuri was orphaned, just like Maayan, so that both children would be eligible for survivors’ benefits.”
It took almost a year for the process to be completed, and the courts questioned Omra, and asked her to supply numerous documents and forms of evidence.
“It was a very difficult process,” she said. “If Yael were a man and we were married, then the children would immediately be considered orphans. And beyond the financial implications, this was also an emotional process for me.”
The struggle for recognition by the state aside, LGBT widows also have to adjust to their new social status.
Levi Hazan believes that LGBT widowhood, with its set of unique elements, is a phenomenon that has yet to garner sufficient recognition by the state or by society.
I’m not listed as a widow anywhere. My ID still says I’m single
“I’m not listed as a widow anywhere. My ID still says I’m single. Widowhood is somewhat ignored within the LGBT community as well — there are no support groups or any other type of recognition for this state,” she said.
Fradkin noted that “it’s hard for me to introduce myself as a widower. Usually, when I say that my spouse passed away, I can see by people’s expressions that they’re trying to figure out if it’s the same as when a straight person loses a wife or husband. That always surprises me, because it seems pretty clear to me that it’s exactly the same.”
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.