Rabbi Joel Alter is a happy man — a new father to two girls, twins born on 7th February. But while he is delighted with his new daughters, Ayelet Ori and Annael Dora, he is also scared. Of the future, and of being a single father for the first time, aged 49.
“I feel completely petrified, financially, emotionally, physically, morally,” he says. “I know that I will manage it, I just don’t quite see how yet.”
It’s not that this Conservative rabbi, who is director of admissions for the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, did not want to be a father. In fact, he always assumed it would just happen.
“Growing up, I had a crystal-clear template of what my life would be like,” he says. “I’d grow up in a Jewish world, marry, establish a Jewish home and have children. The role models I had, across the family and community were so compelling.”
However, life does not always go the way you imagine it and, as Alter grew up, he gradually realised that he was gay. It was not, initially at least, a welcome realisation.
“My first inkling was in my teens,” he says, “but I had no role models for that. It was a dead letter to me with no reality to it.” He tried to ignore it — but in the end, that was impossible.
Now his life has taken him back to his long-term desire to have children. He has spent the past few months clearing out space in his small one-bedroom Manhattan apartment and, speaking just weeks before the twins were born, admitted. “I haven’t quite figured what’s going to happen yet.”
He grew up in Minnesota and Philadelphia and studied at Columbia University in New York, where he tried to have girlfriends, and says he was “confused.” At that time, however, the confusion manifested itself in the question of just why he found it so hard to form a relationship with a woman.
The timing, of course, was also scary. Sometimes we forget how the late ’80s (he was at Columbia from 1985 to 1989) was also a time of AIDS. “I thought — how do I get off the track I’m on,” he says. “My home life was traditional, synagogue, Shabbat dinners, services every Saturday.”
It took until the early 1990s before Alter finally accepted he was gay. However, this personal acceptance came at a bad time professionally. It was 1991 and he had just signed up to be a rabbinical student at JTS. However, at that time, if you were out, you could not be ordained at the Seminary.
“I was out of the closet, while in the closet at JTS,” he says, ruefully. To add to the complications, the institution was in the throes of a long discussion about homosexuality and whether it should be halachically allowed in the movement.
“Training to be a rabbi was great. Training as a gay rabbinical student was awful,” he says. “And one of the challenges was that I could never speak in my own voice. I thought I didn’t have a future — I was training to be a rabbi somewhere where they didn’t want gay rabbis.”
It took many years before that changed (it was not until 2006 that openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors were allowed to be ordained) but he says that coming out — after he became a rabbi — was not an issue.
“I had a very moving conversation with the rabbi who ordained me,” he says, although he adds: “he and I both agree that if I had come out during my student years, I would not have been ordained.”
Even after he came out, however, it took many years before Alter began to look into becoming a father.
“For a long time, I was on a loop,” he explains. “I wanted to have a kid, but with a partner. And I didn’t have the money.”
He thought about the next step for many years, but began exploring adoption in 2013. Three prospective adoptions fell through at different stages of the process, but each made him certain he had made the right choice.
“It clarified my thinking that this was something I had to do. All my friends had children. I was teaching in schools and I wanted to be a father.”
As time went on, however, Alter began to lose faith that he would ever have his own child. Then a friend mentioned surrogacy.
“What I had to do was mentally make the move from adoption to surrogacy, he says, explaining that “ethical considerations” came into play. “There was an obvious great moral value of adopting a child without a home.”
He also had to “come to terms that if I was going to go the surrogacy route, I was going to have to ask for help from friends and family, to pay the surrogate’s costs.” The fee began at $38,000.
Brittany, the surrogate mother, became pregnant pretty much straight away, but had a miscarriage. However, at the end of June last year, she found out she was pregnant again, this time with twin girls.
So, how did Alter react?
“I completely freaked out of course,” he says, adding quickly. “But it’s very wonderful. I thought my child would be an only child and now I have a great sense that we will be a family, not just one and one.”
His mother and siblings, he says, are “excited and scared,” as is he. And his friends have been extremely supportive. A crowd funding campaign has raised $36,000 so far, even though he says “it took a lot for me to feel comfortable with it.”
However, he adds that, although the community has been so supportive; it has been hard living in a world set up for straight couples
“Both professionally and personally, I have organised my life around the straight ‘family with kids’ world,” he says. “As a teacher and as a shul-goer, that’s my world and I don’t begrudge that at all. But there have been times where I have looked around and thought: what have I got out of this? The Jewish community is a hard place to be when you’re single and don’t have kids.”
Alter is currently living with his brother and sister-in-law in Brooklyn and has 12 weeks paid time off (a mixture of paternity leave and accrued holiday) — during which he will decide on the next steps, beginning with childcare.
His immediate focus right now is on his daughters, who will be converted in infancy. He is planning a special communal ceremony next month.
“They will be Jewish girls,” he says. “And I will bring them to a mikveh.”
He knows that some may worry about the girls not having a mother, but says: “I am not anxious about saying — ‘this too is a family. This too works.’ It’s not half a family.”
“Being Mom and Dad both will be hugely challenging in all sorts of ways, but it’ll also be my — and their — normal,” he adds. “I’ll lean on female friends and male friends and my community, and I’ll learn how to navigate raising children, daughters, without their having a mother.”
In the meantime, he’s just enjoying the moment.
“It’s incredibly sweet to embrace these little babies, my babies,” he says. “I’ve wanted this for so long and here I am, saying the words ‘my daughters’ in conversation as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.”
And, as his new life begins, he adds that he would still “very much like to meet someone”. Although he’s not holding his breath: “I am quite sceptical that I will have time to brush my own teeth,” he admits, with a laugh.