Jerusalem -- Six years ago, Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi from the West Bank, devised a plan to help an Orthodox Jewish gay man fulfill his dream of becoming a husband and father while keeping him in good standing with Jewish law and his community of believers. The solution: marry him to a lesbian.
Through a friend, Harel found an Orthodox lesbian who also wanted a traditional family. Within a year, the couple married. They now have two children. No one suspects they are gay. Since that first arrangement, Harel has matched 13 gay-lesbian couples. (See why gay marriage still isn't marriage for the religious.)
Until this spring, only a handful of people knew of his matchmaking project. Then Harel mentioned it during a panel discussion in Jerusalem on gay rights. A local reporter wrote about it, and the news went viral.
Many gay leaders criticized the marriages, calling them deceitful and repressive. But several prominent rabbis supported Harel, calling his work a mitzvah, or good deed. As the news spread, Harel's phone began ringing. Orthodox gay men were calling to ask: Could this be right for me?
Harel, 37, says the number of gay people seeking these matches sparked his decision to take his project to the next level — the Internet. By September, he plans to unveil an online matchmaking service for Orthodox gay people. "This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within the halacha [Jewish law]," Harel says. "This may not be a perfect solution, but it's kind of a solution." (See pictures of same-sex couples getting married in New York.)
The matchmaking project comes at a time when Orthodox gay and lesbian groups are pressuring rabbis for acceptance. Prior to 2007, there were no Orthodox gay organizations in Israel. Now there are five, including one based in Jerusalem. In many ways, Israel is ground zero for gay rights for Orthodox Jewish people. Advocates say that if rabbis in the Holy Land become more accepting of gay people, that tolerance will reverberate outward into Orthodox communities throughout the world, which often take their cues from Israel.
The online matchmaking service will be fully operational by the end of the year, Harel says. He's in the process of training five matchmakers, all of whom are heterosexual. Harel will stay on as a consultant but will limit his involvement to spend more time with his wife and four children. Harel is working with a closeted gay man who uses the pseudonym Amit and runs an Orthodox-gay organization called Kamoha, which is Hebrew for "Like us." Their plan is to set up the online service through Kamoha's website. Subscribers would pay a fee of about $42 and fill out a survey explaining what they want in a mate. A matchmaker would then arrange meetings between potential couples. If a match is made, the bride and groom would each pay 1,500 shekels ($430). Harel and Amit plan to call the service Ánu, Hebrew for "We."
Amit, who is 28, has no interest in marrying a lesbian. He says that after years of therapy, he has come to realize he is "100% gay." But he says he knows other gay men who are "less gay" and enjoy sex with a woman. "We're not pushing this on people," says Amit. "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."
See a timeline of the fight for gay rights around the world.
But other religious gays say it's an unhealthy way to live. "I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it's about caring, loving and sharing," says Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man who lives in Jerusalem and is the spokesman for an Orthodox-gay organization called Havruta. "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."
The condemnation of homosexuality in Orthodox communities in Israel has historically been so strong that many gay Orthodox Jews have felt they had two choices: remain in the closet or stop being religious. That mind-set has changed in recent years as leaders of Jewish Queer Youth, an "Ortho-gay" organization based in Manhattan, began connecting with burgeoning gay-rights groups in Israel, offering support and advice. ("Is Israel Using Gay Rights to Excuse Its Policy on Palestinians?")
Orthodox rabbis continue to point to Leviticus 18: 22 as proof that God does not accept homosexuality. The verse reads, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination." Harel concurs, saying, "You can't change the laws of the Torah. This is what God wants. If God wanted gay people to live together, he would come down and tell us."
In May, as part of a fellowship sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, this reporter found herself sitting in a car on a lonely road at 2 a.m. with Harel, waiting to meet one of the gay men he had matched with a lesbian. Harel received a text message. The man was ready. Harel pulled the car up to a man standing with his thumb out, as if he were hitchhiking. The man climbed inside and said he wanted to go by the name "Josh."
Josh, 30, was a rugged man with close-cropped hair. He wore a crocheted yarmulke — the kind Orthodox Zionists wear. We drove to a desolate park. Josh was hesitant at first, but once he started to talk, he opened up about what he called his lifelong struggle with homosexuality. He said he spent most of his 20s trying to force himself to be straight, but it didn't work. He'd have girlfriends as a front, while engaging in trysts with men. "I had a crisis with God," Josh said. "I felt like God screwed me." Josh desperately wanted to have a family and "feel like a normal man." Through an Internet chat group for gay men, he heard about Harel. (Watch TIME's video of gay couples getting married in the Heartland.)
In 2008, Harel introduced Josh to an Orthodox lesbian. Six months later, they married. They now have an 11-month-old son. Josh admits to cheating three times, most recently in February with a former gay lover who is married to a straight woman. "I haven't told my wife, but I think she knows. She can see it in my face when I come home," Josh said. "But she gives me space. I really love her because she understands me."
Harel says he raises the question of infidelity when he's making a match and tells couples they should be clear on what they want. "If he will go with another man, it's his business. If she wants to go with another woman, that's her business. It's up to each couple," Harel says. "I don't accept it from the point of view of the Jewish law. But it's not my business."