With Transgender Woman's Suicide, Israel’s LGBTQ and Religious Worlds Come Together

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The funeral for transgender woman Neta Hadid, Kfar Etzion, May 2019.
The funeral for transgender woman Neta Hadid, Kfar Etzion, May 2019.Credit: Lavi Eisenman

Hundreds of people came to the Kfar Etzion cemetery in the West Bank last week for the funeral of Neta Hadid, a 25-year-old transgender woman who took her own life. The word “you” in Hebrew has both a masculine and a feminine form; some relatives who eulogized her addressed her in the feminine, others in the masculine.

The rabbi of her family's synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, and the head of the premilitary course she attended, also delivered a eulogy. When the ceremony was over, Hadid’s friends from the transgender community sprinkled glitter from small boxes onto the ground. The burial ceremony was conducted in the masculine and Hadid’s names were mentioned. These were the ones she was given, Itzik (the nickname for Yitzhak) Yehiel – and the one she chose for herself, Neta.

Neta Hadid, a transgender woman who committed suicide in May 2019. Credit: Neta Hadid / Facebook

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Hadid was from both Alon Shvut and Tel Aviv. She called herself Neta and sometimes Itzik. She was once religious and later she was transgender and polyamorous. She was a person who faced mental health challenges. She was all of these.

Even if good neighborliness didn’t always prevail among the different parts of her identity, they seemed to blend harmoniously on her final journey. Her funeral included the different worlds from which she came; for example, a religious ceremony in accordance with Jewish law, so she was referred to as a male.

For the LGBTQ community, this is considered disrespectful to the deceased, but Hadid was also buried without a prayer shawl, even though that’s how males are customarily buried. On her temporary grave marker as well, both Neta and Itzik are used.

The different worlds in which Neta lived merged for a few hours during the funeral, and then diverged as each community mourned her its own way. Her family, who supported her during her lifetime, invited all her friends without exception to the shiva – the seven-day mourning period – at their home in Alon Shvut. Some accepted the invitation but also held an alternative shiva in south Tel Aviv, attended by many people from the transgender community.

The funeral, which was attended by rabbis and teachers from the high school yeshiva and secular people who knew Hadid as an adult, brought to the surface an issue usually hushed up in the religious community. Even if the notion of same-sex relationships is increasingly gaining acceptance, transgender people remain far behind.

The fact that the funeral was held the way it was is a kind of milestone. “I went to the funeral because I was afraid there wouldn’t be many people there, and I was proved wrong,” says an acquaintance who attended the same yeshiva as Hadid. “The whole community of Alon Shvut was there, including the rabbis. It was very impressive and surprising.”

It was surprising also because Neta’s death was a suicide. Under Jewish law – halakha – suicides are buried outside a fence in a small ceremony without eulogies.

“The funeral could have been held at midnight, in the dark, with a small prayer quorum and a swift burial in order to hide the whole thing, but that isn’t what happened,” says Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, head of the Gush Etzion religious council. “A community comes and hears the talking in the feminine and sometimes in the masculine. No one boycotted. That’s something that never happened here. It’s a statement.”

A person who attended the funeral called it an earthquake. Or Rubinstein, a friend of Hadid’s from the high school yeshiva days, said the ceremony "was sad and painful, but most of the eulogizers respected how she defined herself, and I saw this as something encouraging. At the shiva I also saw a lot of inclusion and openness on this issue, which is not at all to be taken for granted.”

Hadid attended the Neveh Shmuel high school yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. “We were a close group of friends, each a strange bird in his own way, and that’s what connected us,” Rubinstein says.

He described Hadid as an outstanding and unusual person, “whether or not she was transgender. Even when we knew her as Itzik, she was a very special person – always trying to debate and challenge, find the truth, not take anything for granted.” Rubinstein and Hadid would go together to the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance as part of their efforts to clarify their sexual identity.

Hadid, still Itzik, went on to the joint religious and secular Aderet premilitary course. She went there “with a lot of questions about identity: political, religious, gender,” says Assaf Perry, who until recently headed the  program. He too describes Hadid as a person “exceptionally intelligent, full of the desire to explore and question.”

Hadid joined the army and in that period began to live as a woman. Her friends from those years talk about a stable relationship with her family, which was maintained even after she began to identify as Neta. Over the years, she grappled with bipolar disorder.

After her military service, she lived in an apartment with roommates in Jerusalem and about a year ago she moved into an apartment for young transgender women in Tel Aviv. For a year, until the middle of 2018, she worked as a content coordinator at Hoshen, an Israeli LGBTQ group.

According to the organization’s executive director, Tamar Yahel, “Neta was a brilliant individual, creative and full of life and energy, someone who touched many hearts. She grappled with difficulties, like many transgender women. There has been an epidemic of suicides; each of us knows someone who killed herself. The solutions provided by the government aren't enough, even though the need for aid is very great.”

In the months before her death, Hadid went to the new Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Center’s employment office for transgender women, where she received help finding a job. She was putting together a plan to complete her high school matriculation exams and begin studying at a college or university. But in recent months her mental well-being deteriorated and she tried to commit suicide a number of times.

Even if at her death the religious establishment accepted her identity, at least partially, while she was alive Hadid faced difficulties in the religious community after she began living as a woman. Though she didn’t lead a religiously observant life as an adult, she wanted to maintain a connection with the religious community, an approach not always reciprocated.

“Hi, my name is Neta and in this picture here – that’s me. This group is the most important place for me. Maybe it’s the final strand linking me to the religious world, a world that has tremendous importance for me,” Hadid wrote two years ago in the Hebrew-language Facebook group “I Am a Religious Feminist and I Don’t Have a Sense of Humor.” The group has 16,000 members.

Arbel Mor, left, and Noam Neeman, friends of Neta Hadid.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“As a trans woman in a religious locale, I’m not able to attend synagogue or any other community event with religious significance, only because of who I am. I beg you, help me and preserve this space as a genuine safe space.”

This post wasn’t written out of the blue; a few days earlier the group was abuzz when someone asked whether a transgender woman should be accepted to a course intended for women only. “In recent days there have been painful discussions here about trans women belonging to women’s spaces,” Hadid wrote. “Yes, these discussions have been very, very painful for me.”

Trailblazing document

The discussions in the feminist Facebook groups reflect the situation of the trans community in religious society: Even at the most liberal extremes, where acceptance of same-sex relationships is now almost taken for granted, the discussion on the transgender community is still confused.

“Religious society is built in a way that separates the sexes – in the synagogue, in education,” says Ostroff, the head of Gush Etzion religious council. “A person in an in-between situation could find himself without a clear place, and this is a painful feeling of being isolated.”

An example of the way things are in the religious community can be found in a document published three years ago by the rabbinical organization Beit Hillel, considered liberal by the standards of religious Zionism. The document calls on the members of religious communities to accept, include and respect gay and lesbian members.

This is a trailblazing document but there is no mention of trans women and men. “Redemption comes bit by bit,” says Ostroff, who helped craft the document. “It’s impossible to do everything all at once and it’s impossible to take a step like that without the community being ready. And there’s a complexity of another kind here in halakha.”

Yael Rashlin, a religious transgender woman, tried to persuade rabbis who helped write that document to mention the transgender community, but she was badly disappointed.

“They were afraid of ‘what people would say,’ they feared that if they said the word 'transgender' the document would lose its legitimacy,” Rashlin says. “The prevailing view today in the religious leadership is that they don’t speak to us and don’t mention us.” For years she been trying to persuade liberal religious-Zionist rabbis to speak about the issue in a positive way.

Rashin has collected religious responsa that have been published online, among them hurtful and exclusionary statements about transgender people. “Anyone who does a Google search for ‘transgenders and halakha’ will find horrible answers,” she says. The excuse is always that this is ‘an abomination.’ But there are other sources. There is ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Where is there anyone who’ll say that?”

High suicide rate

More than 70 kilometers (43 miles) from her parents’ home, at the alternative shiva in Hadid’s memory in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, a purple memorial candle burned and flickered in a glass dish. In the dish were also objects that characterized Hadid's life: glitter and pebbles, symbolizing her great love for the sea and fish. She planned to study marine biology.

The shiva was at the home of Arbel Mor, once Hadid’s partner and later her good friend, and Mor’s partner Noam Neeman. Hadid felt at home in this apartment, and on the shopping list on the refrigerator there are items in her handwriting.

Hadid’s suicide touches a serious issue in the transgender community: the high suicide rate. Eight members of the community have taken their own lives since 2015 and 30 to 50 percent of transgender teens report suicidal thoughts and behaviors – a rate three times higher than for teens overall.

Hadid is the second transgender woman to commit suicide this year; the other is Natalie Weisberg, who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. But Hadid’s closest friends say it’s wrong to view her a statistic. “Neta was proud of herself, she loved her body and she was confident about it. She filled it with courage,” Mor says, adding that Neta would walk in the middle of the sidewalk, not hesitating to be seen and take up space.

The group Ma’avarim for support for the trans community said: ‘When we address the suicide rate in the trans community, it’s important for us to relate to the overall context that leads to suicidal thoughts and behavior. It’s not just belonging to the trans community. There is also a high rate of suicidal behavior in the bisexual community and also among people who leave the religious life. Many of the women are survivors of violence, and it’s really important not to ignore everything and say, ‘Oh, of course. She was trans.”

Nora Grinberg, a transgender activist and former chairwoman of the Aguda LGBTQ task force, says no one commits suicide for being transgender, but rather “because society doesn’t accept them as transgender, because there is no respect for their identity and feelings, because they aren’t given enough legitimacy. All the research shows that even though trans people are at very high risk for suicidal behavior, the moment there is acceptance of their identity, this percentage falls significantly.”

Grinberg has helped religious and even ultra-Orthodox families who have accepted the change in a family member. “Religion can be a good excuse for hatred, but it doesn’t have to be,” she says.

“No one in the Torah said you should harass your children. I don’t accept the claim that religious parents can’t accept a transgender child. It doesn’t have to be a story that ends in tragedy, even though the problem is often that religious families are under the influence of people outside the family who have a very negative view of the issue.”

The more conservative the place where a person lives, the greater the chances of being rejected by the family, according to a social worker at the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Center. “Of course the conflict with religion is also complex,” she says. “We’ve accompanied a lot of cases of religious transgender people who lacked support from their families. Hadid’s’ case was an exception – there the relationship remained close and loving.”

As Michal Stoller, a social worker at the group Israel Gay Youth, puts it, “We have concerns about a narrative that’s getting established of transgender women committing suicide. We have to talk about what’s happening, but we have to do this carefully. For years now the organization has been investing a lot of work in suicide prevention, developing special services and hostels, and there has been very positive progress.”

Zehorit Sorek, a social activist and a founder of the LGBTQ religious community, says the change there is too slow, leaving the religious transgender community in triple jeopardy. “They suffer from discrimination by society in general and state institutions, while their religious society also doesn’t accept them,” she says.

“The violence against them is an everyday thing. There are processes of change but they aren’t fast enough to save them all. The time has come for rabbis and religious leaders to rise up and speak out on behalf of this community. We’ve already seen this with gays and lesbians.”

Recently the rabbis’ wall of silence has been cracking. In April, Haaretz wrote about Osher Band, a secular transgender girl who was violently attacked at school. After the article came out, 56 rabbis and rabbis’ wives from the religious-Zionist community signed a statement expressing empathy and tolerance.

And there are also religious communities where trans people can find their place. Yael Rashlin and her partner Hadar Rashlin-Becker are part of the religious community in Tzur Hadassah near Jerusalem. “But this isn’t really the vast majority,” Rashlin-Becker says.

First they lived in Ma’aleh Adumim, a city in the West Bank, “and there they would scream at us in the street ‘get out of here,’ when all we were doing was going to synagogue on Saturday. Living in a liberal and accepting community, as in downtown Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, is a privilege. What happens with someone who grew up in Samaria, in the country’s outskirts or even in a Jerusalem neighborhood that’s not in the center of the city?”

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