NEW YORK – More than most kids, Moshe, who lived with his mom and siblings in a midsize Midwestern city with a small Orthodox community, loved going to shul.
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But shortly after Moshe began preparing for his bar mitzvah, he suddenly changed. From a sunny little boy to one who was withdrawn. Depressed. His grades, which had always been excellent, plummeted.
“He wasn’t himself. I didn’t know what was going on,” says his mother, Rebecca. “He started refusing to go to shul, not seeing his friends. This happened very, very quickly over about two months.”
One day, 12-year-old Moshe stood in his mother’s bedroom and said, “‘Hashem [God] knows I’m a girl,’ going on to explain that he just couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t have a bar mitzvah, that every time he put on tzitzit [ritual fringed garment worn by men] he was lying to Hashem. It just began pouring out of him,” Rebecca recalls.
His tutor had been emphasizing that becoming bar mitzvah meant Moshe was preparing to take his place as a man in the Jewish community.
“This is when it hit him, and he couldn’t take it any more,” says his mother, adding that when Moshe “finally told us what was going on, [he] went into therapy immediately. I think I was more shocked to find out that my beautiful child with the bright and shiny neshama [soul] was contemplating suicide than I was to learn that she was a girl.”
A psychologist and a physician both concluded that Moshe was likely transgender. Moshe and Rebecca traveled to meet with Dr. Norman Spack, a pediatric endocrinologist at what is considered the leading center in the United States for transgender children: the GeMS (Gender Management Service) Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Spack gave Moshe — who is now known as Miryam — a testosterone-blocking implant. At her annual checkup with the endocrinologist this summer, shortly after she turns 14, Miryam hopes to begin hormone treatment to bring on female puberty.
Today Miryam is happy. “She has been fully transitioned living her authentic life for a year now,” says Rebecca, who decided last year not to send her daughter back to the Jewish day school.
Miryam recently finished seventh grade in a local public school, where she participates in two bands, the drama club and multiple other activities, while earning great grades. Last summer officials in the public school district, which has had other transgender students, changed Miryam’s records to identify her as female. The only people aware of her gender transition are the principal and school nurse. Everyone else knows her as a sweet-faced, bubbly girl. But Miryam can’t go on sleepovers or participate in sports that involve changing clothes in locker rooms.
“We’re praying she can get through middle school and maybe even high school,” her mother explains. “Right now she’s so happy and so social. When she was little she’d sit at a lunch table with girls, and they’d say ‘go away.’ Now she would come home from school and say, excitedly: ‘Oh my God, we were talking about hair and boys.’ She is so excited that she had a group of girlfriends she could talk with. She’s afraid of losing that. What terrifies her most is [getting] outed.”
Miryam’s happiness has also come at a cost in terms of the Jewish life of her whole family, which was nestled in the bosom of a tight-knit community where they shared Shabbat and holiday celebrations with lifelong friends.
Miryam misses it. In an interview with Haaretz, granted on the condition that her real name and identifying details not be used, she said: “[There] was a nice atmosphere where I could go study and be with friends and family. Saturday nights I used to hold the havdalah candle [used in a ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath]. I just miss those traditions.”
She added: “I really didn’t like it because I always had to sit on the men’s side of the mechitzah [divider separating male and female worshipers] and couldn’t be with the women. I liked it on Purim because on Purim I used to be able to wear a girl costume and sit with the girls, and sit with my sister’s friends all the time. I feel more comfortable around girls than guys.”
At present, however, she can't go back to the synagogue in which she has been raised, Miryam said: “The rabbi doesn’t like me going anymore, so I can’t.”
Forced into a suit
A couple of months before Miryam was due to travel to Los Angeles, where she has spent summers with a married sister, Rebecca asked the rabbi to speak to the congregation: “We asked him to make people aware of how they should behave, not say anything ugly to her face. He heard me out, said he had no real understanding of being transgender, asked for time before we told anyone so he could have answers ready.”
Rebecca says she sent him articles and contact information for people to speak with. Weeks passed. Meanwhile, Miryam, who by now was growing her hair longer, had her ears pierced and nails painted, was pretty much a prisoner at home.
“She couldn’t ride her bike or even walk around the block. When I told the rabbi that I was going to start telling our friends, he yelled at me,” Rebecca recalls. “I was totally shocked because I had been prepared for some negativity at the beginning, but I truly thought he would advocate for Miryam. He forbade her from coming to shul. I learned that the next week his contract was up for renewal.”
But Miryam needed to get out and live her life. “In the evening I started taking her out dressed as a girl to a mall where we weren’t likely to run into anyone we knew. She loved it. She was so happy,” her mother says. “Then she would come home and she’d get so upset. It was getting harder and harder to put on boy clothes in the morning. But we needed her to wait. The school year was coming to an end. The bullying [in school] had finally stopped. She hadn’t been in shul. She felt she couldn’t lie to God, and it was too painful being on the boys’ side.”
“We decided to go to shul as a group, with close friends and their daughters. The rabbi said if we tried to enter with her it would be a 'showdown.’ He used that word repeatedly. Then he says he wants me to call everybody I’ve talked to and tell them that I’ve jumped the gun, that we’ll address the issue when she comes back from Los Angeles,” Rebecca told Haaretz. “I said then it will be Rosh Hashanah. He said she couldn’t come for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, there was no way he was seeing that she’d ever be able to come for davening [prayer].”
That experience involved a painful realization for Rebecca and Miryam and their family.
“There are ripples that go out across the family and the community,” Rebecca explains. “So many people are outraged by his behavior that there’s a backlash against Orthodoxy and him. When there’s just one Orthodox congregation and he won’t allow it, it makes people angry. I’ve really been shocked by how often people are upset with me for not being more upset with him.”
The rabbi declined to comment, noting only that he does not believe Rebecca’s information is accurate.
Being shut out of the synagogue that she so loved attending has been very hard on Miryam.
“I was really upset and angry, but [the rabbi] told us: ‘You can come and sit with the boys and wear a suit or just can’t come.’ I feel like I’ve been kicked out of my place where I felt comfortable,” she says. “It’s a lot to give up.”
The last time they went to their old synagogue was on Shavuot, last year. Miryam “forced herself into a suit and we went and she looked like she would cry the whole time,” Rebecca says. “She was looking around wondering who was going to hate her when they knew the truth.”
For her part, Miryam is hopeful that things will change for transgender kids. “By the time I have kids, when I’m an adult, more people will just not make such a big deal out of it,” she declares. “In each generation it’ll get better.”