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A trans woman was banned from praying at a Yeshiva University synagogue

Jewish Pride rainbow flag at Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade
A Jewish Pride flag seen at Tel Aviv Pride Photo: Shutterstock

A Jewish trans woman was recently ousted from her Modern Orthodox synagogue due to her gender identity. The synagogue, called Shenk Shul, is affiliated with Yeshiva University, which has also been embroiled in a legal battle over the right of the school’s LGBTQ+ student group to exist.

Talia Avrahami turned to her temple’s new rabbi, Shai Kaminetzky, for help after she was asked to leave her teaching job at a Jewish day school when her gender identity was discovered.

Despite the fact that the previous Rabbi had been accepting – and that Avrahami had helped hire Kaminetzky as someone who would prioritize inclusion – Kaminetzky ultimately facilitated her removal from the synagogue, and according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the top Jewish legal authority at Yeshiva University” also told her she was no longer welcome.

“Not only were we members, we were very active members,” Avrahami said. “We hosted and sponsored kiddushes all the time. We had mazel tovs, [the birth of] our baby [was] posted in the newsletter, we helped run shul events. We were very close with the previous rabbi and rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] and we were close with the current rabbi and rebbetzin.”

Technically, Avrahami wasn’t directly asked to leave the synagogue, but she was told she could no longer pray in the women’s section, a move that the past president Eitan Novick said made it “impossible for her to be a full participant in the community.”

Novick, himself, along with his wife, have stopped going to the synagogue in the wake of all this.

“We really feel like this is a pretty significant deviation from the community that we have been a part of for 11 years, which has always been a very accepting place. This is just not the community that I feel comfortable being a part of if these are the decisions that are being made. It’s not just about the Avrahamis.”

Avrahami said being banned from the women’s section made her want to die.

“A rabbi should not take a position knowing that that position will cause someone to want to harm themselves,” Avrahami’s husband, Bradley Avrahami, said, explaining that Jewish law allows rules to be violated if it means saving a life.

An email written by the synagogue’s current president, Shimon Liebling and obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explains the temple’s unwillingness to violate Jewish law (called halachah).

“I completely understand (and am certainly perturbed by) the difficulty of the situation. Nobody wants to, chas v’shalom [God forbid], oust anybody, especially somebody who has been an active part of this community. When it came down to it, the halachah stated this outcome. As much as we laud ourselves as a welcoming community, halachah cannot be compromised.”

Avrahami told Them she is “optimistic about the future.”

“Most young Orthodox Jews in their 30s and under are open-minded about transgender people in Jewish law. With much thanks to G-d, we are proud to say that we are now members at a different Orthodox synagogue in Washington Heights and are fully supported by our Orthodox rabbi and community.”

Yeshiva is also currently in an ongoing legal battle with the YU Pride Alliance – an LGBTQ+ group it has refused to recognize.

The conflict began when a court ordered Yeshiva to recognize the YU Pride Alliance in accordance with the state of New York’s anti-discrimination law. While the law does contain an exemption for religious institutions, a judge found that the school’s charter identifies it as an “educational corporation” and not a religious one.

In September, the Supreme Court announced it would not block the order. In response, Yeshiva emailed students to say that all undergraduate clubs would be canceled while the school “immediately takes steps to follow the roadmap provided by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect YU’s religious freedom.”

From there, the YU Pride Alliance decided to take the high road, agreeing to give up its right to immediate recognition and instead wait to see how the lawsuit plays out as long as other clubs can resume activities.

Yeshiva then announced the creation of its own LGBTQ+ group. In a statement to The Hill, the YU Pride Alliance called this a “sham” and a “desperate stunt” to distract the school’s critics.

The order from the Supreme Court is not set in stone, as the New York appellate courts have not yet ruled on the case. As such, the justices said Yeshiva could bring its case back to the Supreme Court once the state court has issued a decision.

This week, the university was also accused of claiming to be a secular institution on two different occasions in order to obtain public funds.

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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