Nir Keren couldn’t fall asleep. He had just learned that gay Israeli couples could come to Canada to find surrogate mothers.
Surrogacy is legal in Israel, but not accessible for homosexual couples or single males. As a result, many gay couples would travel to developing countries to find surrogates.
But here was a developed country where surrogacy was safer and also more affordable. In Canada, there are laws banning payment for surrogacy beyond recouping costs, meaning the surrogate mothers would have to be willing to carry the baby for altruistic reasons. And, of course, their health-care costs would be covered.
Keren, who moved to Canada 13 years ago, learned that his country is a viable surrogacy destination for Israeli couples when he and his husband Bob Longworth started looking into having a child. Some of his Israeli friends living in Toronto recommended a local clinic called Create Fertility Centre. So Keren and his husband met with Dr. Cliff Librach, who runs the clinic.
“He asked me if I was born in Israel and he said, ‘There’s a lot of Israelis who should thank me,’ ” recalled Keren. “I asked why. He said, ‘Because I created them.’ ”
At first, Keren wasn’t sure what Librach meant. Was he talking about the children of Israelis who had moved to Toronto, like Keren and his friends? As it turned out, the fertility centre had aided a number of Israeli couples who live in Israel. Keren was stunned, which led to his sleepless night. The next day, he returned to Librach with a message.
“I decided that I am leaving my job and I am going to spend the next year in Israel promoting and explaining to people that surrogacy is possible in Canada,” Keren said. “I’m doing it. I’m just doing it. I’m not asking for employment, I’m not asking for anything, I’m just telling you that I’m going to do it, and it’s voluntary.”
Librach appreciated Keren’s dedication, but wanted to create a more formal partnership. So today, Keren runs Babies Come True, the Create Fertility Centre’s concierge service for Israeli couples who want to come to Canada to find a surrogate.
At the time, many Israelis were travelling to developing countries such as Mexico and Nepal, or to the United States. But in the last few years, many developing countries have banned or limited surrogacy services, and the United States is much more expensive than Canada because paying for surrogacy there is legal and the surrogates don’t have socialized medicine.
As part of Babies Come True, Keren spends a lot of time in Israel advertising Canada as an option for Israelis. But that’s just one part of his job. If a couple does choose to come to Canada, he’ll be by their side every step of the way, from helping them find egg donor and surrogate agencies, to helping them navigate the unfamiliar Canadian culture.
“I went to conferences in Israel.… I started going through all the Facebook groups in Israel and really talking to people and explaining and sharing about Canada and teaching people about Canada and I basically became the Canadian expert,” Keren said.
One potential roadblock that Keren has to navigate is the perception that it’s too difficult to find a surrogate mother in Canada, because paying for one is illegal.
“They don’t understand that Canadians are different. Israelis cannot understand why somebody would do something without getting paid. It blows their mind. Israelis just don’t get it,” he said. “In kindergarten, they actually taught us (to say), ‘What’s in it for me?’ So they don’t understand that there are these amazing women that are actually willing to do this, take the risk for them, so they can have a family. They just don’t get it.”
Keren has only been working with Create Fertility Centre for around three years, so he doesn’t know exactly how many Israelis have found surrogates in Canada. But he does know that at the moment, there are 81 open cases, and he estimates that around 200 have gone through the process over the last five years.
“But I can tell you that since I started, it really became much bigger. Like, booming,” he said.
Librach and his team put lots of effort into accommodating Israeli couples. According to Keren, the fertility centre employees will often work evenings and weekends to accommodate prospective Israeli parents, who they often connect with over Skype. All the extra work is worth it for Librach.
“I am so proud to have helped so many couples in Israel to have children. It gives me so much joy and satisfaction every time I get a letter or they send a picture to thank me for helping them create their miracle family,” he said.
“I always say that I’m increasing the population of Israel. I actually train a lot of Israeli fellows here to be fertility specialists. So I feel like I’m increasing the population of Israel in two ways. One is helping these couples have children, and training all the fertility doctors to go back and help other people.”
Even though Keren has dedicated himself to helping other couples navigate the surrogacy process, he and his husband have not yet had a baby of their own. Keren likens it to the old expression, “The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” But he’s been a part of many successful surrogacy journeys and said that they always fill him with joy.
Raz and Idan Eizenberg are an Israeli couple who decided to try surrogacy around four years ago. At first, they wanted to adopt, but the rules of the Israeli system are so stacked against gay couples that they effectively prevent them from adopting.
The Eizenbergs originally applied for a surrogacy in Nepal, because it was the cheapest option they were aware of. But they never felt fully comfortable with the program, and then it was banned. Forced to reassess their choices, they realized Canada was a legitimate option.
“We learned that in Canada, surrogacy is altruistic and based on a personal relationship built between the intended parents and a surrogate. We really related to that concept and immediately decided to go this way,” Raz Eizenberg wrote in an email to The CJN. “We traveled to Canada several times during these years and spent a month-and-a-half after the birth there. Loved every minute of it, even though it was mid-winter. Canadians are such wonderful people and everybody treated us so nice.”
The Eizenbergs didn’t have a straightforward surrogacy journey. Their first surrogate, whom Raz Eizenberg described as “an amazing lady with an amazing family,” was unable to get pregnant, so they had to restart the process after two years. Eventually, they found another surrogate, who gave birth to their daughter, Alma. They remain friends with both surrogates.
Oren Cohen and Steve Berson are another couple who still remains close with their surrogate. They split their time between Israel, where Cohen’s from, and Belgium, where Berson’s family lives. Two months after the delivery of their child, they still speak with their surrogate and her family over Facebook. Cohen credits Nir Keren as the reason why he ultimately chose Canada.
“I got to know Create, Nir and his company, Babies Come True. The fact that an Israeli guy was working with a Canadian clinic made me feel comfortable and at ease right away, especially after hearing all the explanations from Nir in my native language,” Cohen wrote in an email. “We couldn’t be happier with choosing Canada as the place we would like to bring our baby into the world, as Canada is more about the bonding and close relationship, compared to other countries where surrogacy is all about the money.”
Keren loves the fact that he is able to help bring joy to so many families. It feels like a mission to him, not just a job.
“Before this, I was working in a pretty high position, making a lot of money and helping people get rich. Now I’m actually doing something that is very meaningful: I’m helping people create family,” he said. “Being a part of this cycle is the best thing in the world. I can’t even describe it. To suddenly get a picture of a baby of somebody that I helped … it’s amazing to see this sudden happiness and the joy of people.”