Transgender woman pushed out of YU-linked synagogue after uproar over day school job

Talia Avrahami leaves Shenk Shul following controversy over her employment at Brooklyn’s Magen David Yeshivah, which is also accused of discriminating against 2nd transgender woman

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)

NEW YORK — A transgender woman who was asked to leave her teaching position at a New York yeshiva after an uproar over her identity late last year said she has been ejected from a synagogue affiliated with Yeshiva University due to the ongoing controversy.

Talia Avrahami was asked to leave her job in September at the Magen David Yeshivah, a religious Jewish day school in Brooklyn, and agreed to step down after facing widespread harassment.

Avrahami told The Times of Israel last week that after she left her teaching position, she was also asked to leave Shenk Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan that is linked to Yeshiva University, the flagship Modern Orthodox institution of higher learning in the US.

The university, known as YU, and the Orthodox community as a whole have been reckoning with how to welcome LGBTQ Jews, and the school has been embroiled in a yearslong controversy over its refusal to recognize a student Pride club.

Shenk Shul disputed Avrahami’s account, saying, “We have had several conversations with the Avrahamis and we understand their concerns.”

The synagogue denied that Avrahami and her family had been asked to leave, but did not respond to requests for more information. Avrahami said the synagogue told her it “could not accommodate” her and her family.

Yeshiva University referred requests for comment to Shenk Shul and did not answer whether transgender individuals are welcome to attend services at university-affiliated synagogues and prayer groups.

Shenk Shul receives services and support from the university, according to YU’s website, and is housed in a building owned by the university.

Talia Avrahami with her husband and daughter. (Courtesy)

Avrahami said the synagogue had urged her to leave in mid-November. Her family stopped attending at the time, but she had hoped to remedy the situation and arranged a meeting with the university’s leadership. When that meeting late last month didn’t go well, she decided to cut ties with the synagogue. She shared text messages and an email exchange with the synagogue that supported her claim that she had been ejected from Shenk Shul, including an email refunding her membership dues.

Avrahami said she had approached the synagogue’s rabbi to ask if there had been any issues about her identity after the uproar over her job, hoping she could help smooth things over. The rabbi said there had been several complaints from synagogue members who didn’t feel comfortable with Avrahami attending services, and said he had been in touch with Yeshiva University over the issue. University administrators then instructed the rabbi to bar Avrahami and her family from attending, she said.

“We were very close with the rabbi and the rebbetzin,” Avrahami said, referring to the rabbi’s wife. “This is just a big shock.”

She 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 master’s degree from the university in Jewish education, and is studying part-time for another degree in Jewish history. Her husband works at the university.

Avrahami said her life, and her husband’s, has revolved around Yeshiva University in recent years, and said the university had “been great to us,” but that things had soured after the controversy in the fall.

In that incident, she was asked to leave her teaching position at Magen David Yeshivah 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.

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

The school then told her she was not a good fit for the social studies class and she agreed to leave.

“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 at the time.

In another incident at Magen David Yeshivah, last month, the school fired a transgender woman, Zephyr Wingard, who worked in its kitchen. She was removed after less than two weeks on the job and told The Times of Israel she believed the firing was discriminatory due to abrasive treatment from her supervisor.

“I have a very effeminate appearance and my hair is very long,” she said last month. “I can tell you for a fact that because of the way that I present I feel like she was very taken aback and didn’t like it and made a conscious effort to make me feel extremely uncomfortable.”

She said she had complained about her work conditions, and got sick with the flu, then was fired over the phone. New York State law protects workers from gender discrimination and allows for needed sick days from the start of employment.

Wingard has filed a lawsuit against the school over the firing, according to a source with knowledge of the case.

Magen David Yeshivah declined to comment.

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

Avrahami and her family have moved to a different synagogue in the area after leaving Shenk Shul and she has been working as a substitute teacher.

LGBTQ rights in the Modern Orthodox community have come under the spotlight as YU battles in court to block a Pride club from recognition on campus amid a lengthy and acrimonious legal battle in which the school has claimed doing so would violate its religious rights.

The university says recognizing the club infringes on its religious beliefs. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally frowned upon in Orthodox Judaism, though there has been a growing movement within Modern Orthodoxy to welcome LGBTQ individuals.

The legal battle between the university and the Pride group began in 2020, when LGBTQ student activists accused the university of discrimination in a complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, and then sued the university last year.

The legal dispute revolves around whether the university is a secular institution that must adhere to non-discrimination laws, or a religious one covered by the First Amendment’s protection for the free expression of beliefs.

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