New York yeshiva asks transgender teacher to leave amid uproar over her identity

Instructor agrees to resign after community controversy, widespread harassment; school says parting was in an ‘amicable and professional manner’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Talia Avrahami, a transgender woman who left her position at a Brooklyn yeshiva, after a controversy over her identity. (Courtesy)
Talia Avrahami, a transgender woman who left her position at a Brooklyn yeshiva, after a controversy over her identity. (Courtesy)

BROOKLYN, New York — A transgender woman left her teaching position at an Orthodox Jewish New York City day school this week, after an uproar over her identity.

The teacher, Talia Avrahami, has faced widespread harassment in the past week over the issue and agreed on Friday to leave her position at the Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn.

“It’s sad to see that some people want to derail our lives,” Avrahami told The Times of Israel. “We’re questioning whether or not our entire lives are ruined or not. It’s tough.”

The school told her she was not a good fit for the social studies class.

The religious Jewish day school, or yeshiva, sent an email to parents over the weekend, saying, “Please be advised that beginning Monday, September 19th, your child will have a replacement teacher for Social Studies.”

“We respect this former instructor and after mutual agreement have parted ways in an amicable and professional manner,” the school told The Times of Israel. Avrahami said she could not discuss details of her resignation.

The incident has been widely discussed in online public forums in the religious New York Jewish community.

Avrahami was asked to leave days after the school’s “parents night,” when the students’ parents visit the school to meet with teachers.

One of the parents apparently filmed Avrahami introducing herself and the video spread quickly online and in group chats, stoking controversy, as some accused her of being a man masquerading as a woman.

Avrahami has since been targeted online and in person. She was attacked on social media, community sites ran stories with accusatory headlines, and she started receiving harassing messages from strangers, as her phone number and social media accounts circulated.

“They’re posting pictures of our family, they’re posting where we live, we’re getting death threats. They’ve somehow taken videos outside our home,” she said.

Someone filmed her leaving her apartment building with her husband and infant daughter on Friday, then posted the clip online.

Some of the news stories portrayed Avrahami as a man disguised as a woman, not as a transgender person, and have since been taken down.

Illustrative: The 10th annual Trans Day of Action in New York, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

“Agitators” dug up pictures of Avrahami from when she still presented as male, she said, and posted those photos alongside current pictures of her with her husband and child.

She said the harassment campaign was somewhat separate from the situation at the school. Until the last few days, she had had no major incidents related to her identity at work.

A couple of weeks into the school year, one of her students went to the board during a lesson and erased the “s” where she had written “Mrs. Avrahami,” making the sign read “Mr. Avrahami.” It wasn’t clear if the student was targeting her for being transgender, or joking with a friend, and Magen David quickly condemned the incident and told students it was unacceptable, she said.

Before the recent controversy, “everything was fine, and now everything’s not,” she said.

Avrahami and her husband were not raised Orthodox, and have devoted years to education and the community. A family friend who has helped her cope with the controversy described Avrahami as “hardcore Haredi,” or ultra-Orthodox, and said she strictly adheres to the community’s traditions when it comes to clothing and other customs.

The friend said being transgender in the religious community can actually be gender-affirming because some conventions are clearly defined.

“There are so many specific ways of dress and behaviors of frum woman that can be a positive experience,” the friend said, using a Yiddish word to indicate religiosity. “She checked off all the boxes — skirts, covering hair. She went above and beyond to go through the transition process.”

Talia Avrahami with her husband and daughter. (Courtesy)

The couple are members of the Washington Heights Jewish community in Manhattan, which has been overwhelmingly supportive, Avrahami said. She and her husband regularly attend synagogue and host Shabbat dinners.

She also said younger members of the Orthodox Jewish community have been supportive since the controversy erupted. The Washington Heights community is mostly younger, she said, noting a “generational divide.”

“It kind of reinforces a lot of views that I had before, in that the kids are the future,” she said. Younger Orthodox Jews “have been steadfast in supporting me.”

“This is the future of even Orthodox Jews,” she said. “There is absolutely a place for transgender people in the Orthodox Jewish community and in halacha,” or Jewish law, she said. An online petition in support of the LGBTQ community at Yeshiva University, also embroiled in controversy, has accumulated 55 pages of signatures.

Avrahami and her husband, both from the US, met while studying in Israel and moved to New York to pursue studies at Yeshiva University. Avrahami has a masters degree from the university in Jewish education, and is studying part-time for another degree in Jewish history.

The family friend, who also works in the field of education, helped Avrahami find the job at Magen David at the end of the summer. She asked not to be named for privacy purposes, as the issue is so inflammatory in the community.

“She has every right to work in a Jewish day school,” her friend said.

The friend dismissed rumors that Avrahami had intended to get fired and file a lawsuit, pointing to the years and expenses she had invested in adopting the lifestyle and training to be a Jewish teacher.

“Talia has spent years of her life to become a frum woman, to teach in a yeshiva day school,” the friend said. “All she wants truly is to pass as a woman and live her life.”

“Years of her life becoming this person to have it all taken from her,” she said. “They deserve to be part of the Jewish community just like anybody else.”

Illustrative: A man walks by school bus with Yiddish signage in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“I’m an Orthodox Jewish woman who happens to be transgender, just like there are Orthodox Jewish women out there who happen to have red hair,” Avrahami said. “Before this whole incident, it wasn’t even something that I thought a lot about.”

“I don’t consider this a giant part of my identity and nobody else should.”

Avrahami has hired legal representation but it is unclear where the case will go.

New York law protects workers from discrimination or harassment based on characteristics including gender identity or expression.

On the Zev Brenner talk show, prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz said the Magen David and Yeshiva University cases both relate to freedom of religion in the education system.

“These are complicated, complicated issues, and justice has to be even. Justice has to be equal for everybody,” he said. “If this is a person who’s transitioning from one gender to another then they’ll probably be more protected than if they just engaged in out-and-out fraud in regard to that.”

He predicted that both Yeshiva University and Magen David would win cases in court, but said he did not know enough about the Avrahami case. The radio episode described the case as “an Orthodox man masquerading as a woman at a Brooklyn yeshiva who was fired.”

The family friend condemned the school and the community for the controversy.

“The community and Magen are all complicit, telling her and trans people, ‘You are not welcome.’ And what does that say about us, that only some people can be loved?” the friend said. “They’re just normal people trying to live their normal lives.”

“Hundreds of people are assuming nefarious intent,” she said. “Evil people cared enough to ruin her life.”

The controversy comes as New York yeshivas are already under fire for a perceived lack of secular education, and LGBTQ rights in the community are under the spotlight as New York’s Yeshiva University attempts to block a Pride club from recognition on campus. (Avrahami said her life and her husband’s life has revolved around Yeshiva University in recent years, and said the university “has been great to us.”)

Last week, New York State officials issued final approval to rules that will regulate secular education in non-public schools, after a years-long battle over curriculum that is a major point of contention for Haredi communities in New York.

The new regulations were approved after a New York Times investigation indicated yeshivas receive hundreds of millions in public funding, provide dismal secular education, and some mete out physical punishments against students.

The investigation roiled the religious community in New York, with community representativespoliticians, and other defenders of yeshivas accusing the newspaper of unfairly targeting Jewish schools.

Also last week, Yeshiva University, New York’s flagship Modern Orthodox university, banned all student clubs, as it seeks to avoid recognizing an LGBTQ group. The university has appealed to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, but conservative justices said the college can try again after it exhausts other appeals and would “likely win” before the nation’s highest court.

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