Earlier this month, 13-year-old Tom Sosnik, wearing a tallit and holding a kiddush cup, marked a transition into manhood with a special ceremony at his Jewish day school. He wasn’t celebrating receiving a first prayer book or a first Bible, or graduating from one grade to another. He wasn’t really observing his bar mitzvah, either. In what was a decidedly nontraditional event, the short-haired teenager was publicly marking his gender transition from girl to boy.
Sosnik’s Jewish ritualized coming out as transgender in front of classmates, teachers and family at the Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, California, is believed to be the first time that a Jewish day school has sanctioned and performed such a ceremony. It hasn’t gone without notice.
“It’s been really more of a big deal than I thought it would be,” Sosnik told The Times of Israel by phone during a break between classes.
“I didn’t expect so much attention,” he said about the coverage his ceremony has received in both the Jewish and mainstream media since it took place on March 13 in the Tehiyah beit midrash (chapel).
While several Jewish day schools in the United States have taken steps to accommodate transgender students, such as creating gender-neutral bathroom facilities, none have matched Tehiyah’s inclusivity.
“We’ve noticed more gender-expansive students in our school, and in Jewish and independent schools in general,” said Tehiyah interim head of school Elise Prowse.
In response, the school’s community embarked this year upon a process of learning more about gender diversity through a partnership with Gender Spectrum, a local organization that provides education, training and support to help create a gender-sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens.
Gender Spectrum educators led workshops for the school’s faculty, parents and students prior to Sosnik’s ceremony, and is expected to continue to support the school’s inclusiveness efforts going forward.
“Tehiyah is dedicated to being an inclusive community where all students feel supported and valued. We celebrate the diversity of our students and families, and we are committed to honoring our students during their time at Tehiyah and beyond. The Jewish values that guide us can be interpreted in many ways, but undeniably they give us strength as individuals and a community of learners,” Prowse wrote in a letter to the school’s community announcing the Gender Spectrum workshops.
‘After reading Leelah’s suicide letter, I came to really appreciate the support I have in my family and my community that she never got. Thank you all for making me feel safe enough to openly be myself’
“This opportunity will provide the context and guidance needed as we accompany a transgender student who will be openly transitioning this year from the physically assigned gender at birth to the gender that is personally identified with on a deep level internally,” Prowse wrote about Sosnik without identifying him.
In a speech Sosnik made at the beginning of the March 13 ceremony, he said that he was moved to come out as transgender after the December 2014 suicide of 17-year-old transgender Ohio girl named Leelah Alcorn, who left a note saying she felt she had no other choice but to kill herself after her conservative Christian family forced her to undergo conversion therapy and refused to accept her as the person she believed she was meant to be.
“After reading Leelah’s suicide letter, I came to really appreciate the support I have in my family and my community that she never got. Thank you all for making me feel safe enough to openly be myself,” Sosnik said.
Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, the school’s rabbi and director of Jewish studies, took into consideration the high rate of suicide and suicide attempts among transgender individuals (one study put it as high as 41 percent) when deciding to work with Sosnik and his parents on crafting the content of the ceremony.
“I take what is said in the Talmud, that when one saves a single soul it as if one saves the whole world, very seriously,” the rabbi said.
“Tom came to us last year in seventh grade after really suffering in sixth grade in his school in Fresno. I could see that as a girl, Tom was very unhappy. He confided in me that he was not happy with his body. I could see what he was feeling was real, genuine and painful,” she said.
Sosnik’s mother, Esti, confirmed that Tom, who was then known as Mia, was viciously bullied at his school in Fresno, in California’s agricultural heartland, and that that was the reason that the family moved to the more liberal San Francisco Bay Area.
‘Tom is a perfect name, as it means completion… Tom’s transition signified the completion of his time being a girl, and also his finally feeling a sense of being complete as he moves forward as the gender he feels he really is’
Esti said she and her husband, Udi — both immigrated to the US from Israel decades ago — recognized early on that Tom, the youngest of their four children, didn’t identify with the gender he had been assigned at birth.
“I didn’t know that Mia would be transgender, but in any case our approach has always been to let our kids be who they want to be. We are very open people. We never judge,” she said.
For her, the hardest part about her child’s transitioning from female to male was that she will no longer be able to call him Mia, a name that held great meaning for her.
“I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to have another child, so ever since she was born, I’ve always thought of her as mine,” she said. (Mia means “mine” in Italian.)
Tom chose his new name together with his parents, and Gabai suggested they add the name Chai (life in Hebrew) as a second name.
“Tom is a perfect name, as it means completion,” explained the rabbi. “Tom’s transition signified the completion of his time being a girl, and also his finally feeling a sense of being complete as he moves forward as the gender he feels he really is.”
According to Esti Sosnik, the 40-minute ceremony, which was created by Gabai and included various blessings and readings from traditional Jewish sources about change and new beginnings, had the feel of a bar mitzvah crossed with a baby naming.
When asked whether she had any concerns about her child transitioning at such a young age, the mother said she had no doubt about Tom’s gender identity.
“I have no worry about his making this decision at 13. I am so happy for him to live the right gender for him. The other option would be so much worse,” she said.
‘Making schools safe for transgender kids is a new frontier and I am thrilled (and not surprised) that again we are leading change’
Tom, who is currently taking hormone blockers, has some more growing to do physically before facing any decisions about whether or not to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
“He’s just started his journey. Those decisions will come later,” his mother said.
While acknowledging the societal risk Tehiyah’s leadership took in performing Sosnik’s transition ceremony, Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network commended the school for being “a safe, warm, accepting place that accepts children for who they are.”
“Jewish community day schools have been on the front line of acceptance of gay and lesbian teachers, administrators, families and kids for more than 20 years. Making schools safe for transgender kids is a new frontier and I am thrilled (and not surprised) that again we are leading change,” he said.
At the end of the ceremony, all of Sosnik’s eighth grade classmates spontaneously ran up to hug him and pull him into a joyous circle dance.
“I was emotional, but I was kind of surprised by how emotional everyone else got. I really didn’t see that coming,” he said.