Trans Student Kicked Out of Yeshiva
A transgender student forced out of a yeshiva in Jerusalem less than a month after moving to Israel, speaks with The Scroll
The following story comes from Tablet contributor, Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler who can be reached at hk@HillelTheScribeCommunications.com.
Avraham Kolenski is passionate about Jewish learning. He enjoys delving into the Talmud to try to understand the thought processes of ancient scholars debating fine points of law.
Kolenski, a transgender person, might merit a Talmudic discussion on his experiences this week.
Until last week, Kolenski was enrolled at Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Classes are taught in English and geared toward men in their twenties and thirties who are from abroad and are new to Jewish observance. Kolenski, 31, converted to Judaism five years ago.
But his stay lasted just over a week. On Monday, he was dismissed from the school, told that his presence could adversely affect donations.
“I feel devastated. I really love learning Gemara. I really love the logical connections that can be made in such a huge body of work. I was excited to be in an environment focused on learning Torah,” Kolenski told The Scroll in a video conversation on Wednesday. “Coming to yeshiva was a dream of mine for a long time.”
Kolenski made the decision to relocate to Israel from Manhattan, where he worked with disabled children, only after thoroughly researching yeshivot there. He thought he’d identified the right place.
He landed in Israel on Sept. 7, concerned about lagging behind students who arrived in August. The next morning, Kolenski commuted from his rented apartment in downtown Jerusalem to the first of his six classes, including one on the Talmud tractate of Bava Metzia, which famously begins by relating a dispute over ownership of a tallit between two people grasping it. He began to make friends.
On the video call for this Scroll interview, Kolenski looks and sounds like a man. With his facial hair, white shirt, and kippah, he’d have no problem melding into Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem or Brooklyn or Manchester.
He was born female. At age 19, he began identifying as male. He wouldn’t say whether he’s undergone sex-change surgery and did not provide his previous name.
The school’s dismissal caught Kolenski by surprise, given his careful planning. He says that he’d been upfront with one of the yeshiva’s top rabbis, senior lecturer Yitzchak Breitowitz, about his transgender identity even before the two spoke by video in July. Kolenski said he leveled with Breitowitz because he wanted a defense line in place when word got out, as he figured it would. He hoped Breitowitz would secure additional support among fellow Ohr Somayach faculty.
Just before a 10:00 a.m. class this Monday, another rabbi called Kolenski in for a meeting. The new student feared something bad was brewing. At 11:00 a.m. the rabbi and another rabbi asked whether Kolenski had undergone any surgeries; they meant an operation related to transitioning from female to male. Kolenski played dumb, saying he’d had his wisdom teeth pulled. The rabbis asked whether rumors had circulated about him. Kolenski didn’t know what rumors they meant; he asked whether he’d be kicked out of the yeshiva. “Likely,” they replied.
According to Kolenski, an email identifying him as transgender had reached the rabbis. Kolenski doesn’t know who sent it but suspects several people he’d known in the Orthodox community of New York City. Kolenski doesn’t assume ill intent across the board; word might’ve emerged innocently, he posits, then followed an unintended path to Jerusalem. He doesn’t fault Breitowitz, who called him on Monday night to confirm the dismissal. Kolenski expressed concern that this article could harm Breitowitz.
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But had the rabbis who knew of his status stood by him, Kolenski believes, they could have deflected opposition. Besides, he said, referring to Breitowitz, “What is the point of having a posek”—a religious authority who issues decisions on halachic matters—“if you don’t listen to him?”
“It didn’t have to be a public thing. I am just like every other guy in the yeshiva, but [for] my medical history. It’s private,” he said. “They could have treated me like every other guy.”
He confessed to feeling angry and disappointed at what transpired, but spoke in measured tones, clearly still processing the developments. He came across as gracious, even magnanimous.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Breitowitz told The Scroll, “It’s a private matter, and I’m not comfortable talking about it.” He wished this reporter “shana tovah” and hung up.
That was two days after Kolenski tweeted about his dismissal. Supporters on Twitter quickly chimed in. One asked why Kolenski would wish to attend a yeshiva or belong to a faith “where the majority of them believe you shouldn’t exist or minimally don’t belong.”
Kolenski hadn’t come out as trans. Even following the school’s dismissal, he said, he doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer for trans rights. He’s going public now, he said, because “I don’t feel people will let me live the quiet and dignified religious life that I want.”
Kolenski said he’s turned the page on Ohr Somayach. Regarding Judaism, he said, he’s as committed as ever.
“I won’t allow a human to ruin my relationship with Hashem and the Torah,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way, but the fact we have to fight to be ourselves in the community—it’s a huge act of faith, because … we could just leave.”
He plans to remain in Israel and will apply to officially immigrate. It seems likely to be approved, since Kolenski converted twice: in the Conservative tradition and then Orthodox.
More than anything, he seems perplexed.
“If someone believes Orthodoxy to be the truth, why would you drive someone away?” he said. “Those of us who stay, we really believe in it. We’re willing to go through pain. We’re willing to go through rejection.”
Kolenski is looking into other yeshiva programs in Jerusalem. He seems not to hold a grudge toward Ohr Somayach, especially with the High Holy Days approaching.
“I don’t know whether they have malicious feelings toward trans people or not. But they’re scared it will affect their reputation. I wish they had supported me. This could have been different, but I do understand their position,” he said.
“I’m hoping to start the new year finding communities where I can be Orthodox and trans and strengthening my connection with God. I’m hoping for a new year where we all treat our fellow Jews more kindly as well.”