Thursday, November 26, 2015

That Night I Cried With the Trans Rabbi From Brooklyn

“She weeps, yea, she weeps in the night, and her tears are on her cheek; she has no comforter among all her lovers; all her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.
-         Book of Lamentations (Eicha), 1:2
Four years ago, around the time I started the first half of my transition - leaving the Ultra-Orthodox community - a prominent rabbi from Brooklyn contacted me. In a pretty nice way he tried to convince me about the ‘truth’ of Ultra-Orthodoxy, claiming that he really only cares about me. In fact, he was one of the only rabbis (they were a lot of them involved) who never tried to talk to anyone behind my back, knowing that if he really wants to help he has to talk just to me. His arguments however, were just the typical arguments used in these communities, such as showing how ‘holy’ our leaders were and therefore they cannot be wrong. Later he moved on to more ‘sophisticated’ methods, such as trying to convince me that it is worth to stay Hasidic for whatever reason, and so on.
As you all know, he had no success, I left the community. But, he was one of the only people of my former community, who left some sweet taste in my mouth.
Two weeks ago Thursday, the day after I published my Coming Out post, I got a lot of phone calls, like, a lot. I ignored most of them - I was overwhelmed. Within the sea of missed calls, one number got my attention. Not just for the fact that they called three times, and left two voicemails, but because I recognized the number - it was the abovementioned rabbi from Brooklyn. At first sight, I thought he just wants to give me another ‘nice’ speech about why it is just not worth for me to go forward with the second part of transition, and live openly as the woman I am. After seeing how aggressively they are trying to reach me, I decided that they are nice anyway, nothing to lose, so I picked up when they called the fourth time.
“I need to talk to you, vie amshenelsten [a Yiddish expression for ASAP]” he half said, half screamed, half cried (I know, that’s three halves, but that is how it felt, confusing). To be honest I was terrified of his tone, thinking, “Okay, he is not happy with what I am doing…” I tried to ask him what he wants, but all he said was “I have to meet you.” It was after 10 at night, so I told him, I will still be up for a while, and if he wants to come up to the Upper West Side now, we can meet. He agreed, and said he will drive up to meet. It was weird, and I was wondering what is so important for him to drive to the City so late at night, but I still thought that he is going to try to change my mind.
At 11 o’clock, on a chilly Thursday night we met on the streets of NYC.
When he arrived, I realized right away that it is not what I thought; he is not here to convince me I should not transition. His eyes were red and full with tears, and he was shaking. He asked me if I am okay with a hug, he hugged me, and starting crying heavily. Only after a few minutes, I was able to understand what’s going on. From in between his words of ‘I am lost’ ‘I cannot live like that anymore’ ‘you have to help me’ ‘I tried suicide already’ and so on, I got the picture.
In short, He Came Out. He said that he has been struggling with gender identity for the last forty years.
(Note: I know that I should use different pronouns, but he preferred that I use he/him/his for now).
I am not going to share everything that we discussed in the next two hours, as we both unraveled our life experiences living with Gender Dysphoria, in a community that ignored our existence. They are private details, and for now, I cannot share publically. I will just give a basic picture of his life (as approved by him): A child raised in a typical Hasidic family in Brooklyn, went to the best Yeshivot [Jewish/rabbinical school], and got married to a nice girl from a rich family. After his wedding, he went to rabbinical school where he was seen as a rising star in the world of Kashrut [the industry that studies and overlooks the laws of food in the Orthodox world]. After getting a rabbinical degree, he went higher and higher in the field until he got to where he is today, one of the most prominent authorities in the field. There was just one other part that no one knew about him, he did not feel like a boy/man.
(could not resist adding this picture...)
(Trigger warning: Suicide - Just the next paragraph)
We spoke in detail about out different yet similar struggles. There was just one part where he struggled much more than I ever did; despair. While I also felt hopeless most of my teenage years and early twenties, I never considered suicide. He did, and had tried it twice, with the latest having been just a few weeks ago. The first time he was away from home, and his family never knew that it was a suicide attempt. The second one his wife knew. They went to talk to a Rebbe [a spiritual leader in the Hasidic world, believed to have some kind of stronger divine connection] and he told them not to see a ‘secular’ therapist, but rather take on to be more careful in observing certain Jewish laws. No need to say that this did not change anything, he just fall into even greater despair.
“When I read your post last night, I felt for the first time in my life that maybe there is hope,” he said in tears - the first tears of the night that were not purely sad. “I don’t think I can logistically do what you did. I have a family of ten kids, some of them married, and I have grand kids,” he explained. From the other side it was clear to both of us that if he just continues to suffer in silent, his family will lose him anyway; there is no easy way in or out. However, it was clear that just knowing that they are others like him within our community, is an amazing relief. I did not know either what exactly I can do to help, but I did convince him to start seeing a therapist (to the dismay of his rebbe, a secular one…), and by the time I publish this post, he has an appointment with one.
During the last two weeks, as I have already mentioned, a few people reached out with similar experiences. The more people discussed it the more people reached out, the more awareness we raise, the more people we can help. My meeting with this rabbi that night was definitely the hardest encounter I had in the last few weeks. When I reached out to him last week asking if I can write about it, he agreed, knowing that this can help even more people. At the same time, we were both aware that there is too much at stake for him if his identity comes out. Since last week I wrote several drafts of this post, and after changing as many identifying facts as possible while keeping the story 100% true, we both felt comfortable enough sharing it. I am grateful to him for sharing it with me, and now with the world.
Usually, at the end of posts, I give a clear message to take away. This time I think that there is so much to take away, that whatever I say would not do justice. All I can say to the world as a whole, but especially to the Jewish/Orthodox world, is, WE ARE HERE, AND WE CAN USE SUPPORT.
On that note, Happy Thanksgiving my dear readers!
Abby @ The Second Transition

Monday, November 16, 2015

On Trans Visibility In the (Ultra)Orthodox World - Remembering Our Fallen

Trigger Warning: Suicide, LGBT discrimination.

May Peleg Friedman, the Jerusalem Open House’s first transgender Chairperson, put an end to her life this week at the age of 31. Born into a world of religious tradition and gender conformity, May tried to live as dutiful son, husband and father, while knowing, since age 4 that her soul belonged in another type of body. News of her death came simultaneously with that of the massacres in Paris. I cannot help but wonder if there is a common root to both of these horrific acts, namely, a form of religious dogma that causes us to see the world in strictly binary terms and gives rise to violent hatred of those who fall outside of what we deem to be “holy”. The violence permitted against the ‘unholy’ is in one case turned outward, and in the other inward, but essentially they are the same. I was taught that the purpose of religion was to increase our connection to creation, to community, mercy and justice, but so often I see that the opposite is true. If there is a God, Zhe is surely weeping…"
When I read this, I started to cry, really hard.

In addition to mourning the lose of a beautiful woman, there is so much more to it. I have to admit, as much as I understand her struggle regarding identity and being rejected by family and community in the name of religion and an "all good all powerful" God, I do not understand the struggle with suicide. Thankfully, I never had to struggle with that. Not because I was not in situations of despair, it just never appealed to me as a solution. However, I know that we, #Girlslikeus, people of Trans experience, have the highest rate of suicide when faced with rejection. In addition to being the minority that is most discriminated against in the Western World.

This week is Trans Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20th). In the last 5 days since coming out in public I was remembered again and again, that we are still so invisible and misunderstood, especially in the (Ultra)Orthodox Jewish world. I am really trying to do whatever I can to raise awareness, simply about our existence. Right now, I cannot even focus on acceptance in that world. 17 people reached out thus far saying that they struggle - most of them it utter silence - with gender identity, and most of them see no way out. Right now, we have to make sure that every person of trans experience knows: They are others like you, and there is a whole world out there who wants to except you for who you are.

Originally, I wrote this just as a Facebook post, it is not that long. However, I decided to write it as a full blog post so it can be shared easier. I never did that before (and without that, this blog was shared more than 1.1k times just on Facebook, and I am grateful for that) but now I feel that I have to do it. I am appealing to each and every person who cares about us, who cares about our existence, PLEASE SHARE TO SPREAD THE WORD. Please make sure that everyone who struggles, in the Ultra-Orthodox world and beyond -you can never know who it is- knows that they are not alone. It is a matter of life and dead, literally.

It is hard to know what else we can do to help. It is amazing to know that once people can leave they are so many wonderful Jewish and universal entities that can help, such as Keshet, Eshel, JQY, Nehirim, and more, but up to that point it is way harder. I cannot see the Ultra-Orthodox Communities accepting us in the foresee-able future as much as I hope for that, and leaving is a whole transition for itself. Therefore, for now, we ought to try our best to get visibility. 

Also as a first step we started a Facebook support group for people of trans experience of an Ultra-Orthodox background. If you know anyone in that position, send them our way.

Just an endnote: I love open discussion, but for this post, due to the fragile nature of the topic, I WILL DELETE every hateful comment.

If you, or anyone you know is in danger, please reach out to National SuicidePrevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Wishing and hoping for all the best,
Abby @ The Second Transition

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thank You World - Friday Night Reflection

"When you transition, everyone kind of has to transition around you."- Chaz Bono
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!!!

The last few days proved to me once again that I surrounded myself with the best group of friends and allies a human being can ask for. From the second I posted my “Coming Out” post, positive support, enthusiasm, and admittedly shock, was pouring in non-stop. In the form of Facebook, comments, messages, wall posts, and likes, SMS, WhatsApp messages and phone calls, all with the same love, respect and beyond describable support. If anyone ever says anything negative about humanity as a whole, all I have to do is redirect them to these posts.

Before I make some follow up points, I want to re-post here what I wrote on Facebook on YouTube regarding last Friday night. I still hope to write a longer reflection about my first ever speaking engagement as myself, but for now, these are my initial thoughts:
Last Friday night I missed the weekly services at Romemu, for a good reason. I had an amazing time speaking and engaging younger and older people at the South Orange USY Shabbaton. It was an amazingly positive experience, and hopefully raised awareness for the issues close to my heart, the ex-Hasidic community, and the experience of trans people in the Orthodox and Jewish world, as well as all over the world.
Turns out, I was there. I got to witness firsthand what being part of a community, especially as amazing as Romemu, entails. My dear Rabbi and mentor, David Ingber, gave a heartwarming sermon about my experience.
Every time I miss Friday night at Romemu I go back after that to the archived LiveStream video, and listen to the sermon. As much as I am pretty easy going in expressing my emotions and let tears flow lately, I never ever had such an experience while watching something online.
From the beginning, Rabbi David retold my experience in coming out to my father last week. Some of you might have realized that I didn't mention anything in past days about my experience with my parents, and I am going to keep it that way. However, anyone who listens to this sermon, can get a sense of that experience, by thinking about Yakov (Jacob).
I am also amazingly honored that the inspiring quote by Anaïs Nin that i used on Facebook and at the beginning of my blog post, was mentioned in this sanctuary (at 13:42). It is so empowering, and needs to be mentioned as much as possible.
But above all, was being mentioned as "My dear friend Abby" (14:40). While I see myself as a student of my dear Rebbe, I was proud to be called a friend. Then the amazing singing of "True Collars,” I have no words (thank you Basya Schechter and the musical team).
Thank you Rabbi and thank you Romemu. I want to publish it so People should know that the world is a great place. No matter how your community of origin, friends or family treats you, it is important to know that there will always be people who will accept you for who 'You' are, the true you.

-Please feel free to share this video:

They are several points and reflections I want to talk about as a follow up.

·        I got in the last few days over a 150 private messages (FB, WhatsApp, SMS, Email) and that is in addition to the numerous comments on Facebook on the blog. I want you all to know that I appreciate it, and thank everyone who took the time to wish me all the best. However, as much as I tried to response to as many as possible, the backlog is pretty backlogged. It might take me a few days to respond to all of them, and if I don’t get to it, feel free to reach out again. Just know that I saw them all, and am beyond grateful (on FB I tried to like as many comments as possible).

·        A lot of people asked me, some in all seriousness some in amore laughing tone when the Kiddush (a Jewish ritual were a Saturday afternoon lunch is served as a way of celebrating an important life cycle, such as the birth of a child, wedding, etc.) will be. So I want to get you all excited and announce that yes, there will be one. It will be in one of the upcoming weeks at Romemu. It will be with a full Torah and name change ceremony. It will also be the perfect time to celebrate in person with all of you, in person. Exact date is still To Be Determined, so lookout!

·        I got several questions about my name, Abby, its meaning, and why I chose it. First, I want to say that I am preparing a longer article about that, where I hope to go into more detail. For now, I would just say that I think the main part of a name is how it relates to ones self, so above all, I relate to Abby, it just feels like me.
The origin of the name is the Biblical Abigail (or Avigail) who was King David’s wife (Book of Samuel). Its literal meaning in Hebrew is “Father’s joy” (אבי-גיל), which is part the same as my middle name given at birth - Abraham (אברהם). I love the joy part of it, and to be honest, it is a great Hebrew name that is American enough… In addition to that, I see it as a wish, as it could mean “My father (referring to parents and ancestors as a whole) should be happy” (אב-יגיל). I hope that with all this I can be a joy and source of happiness to my family.

·        A comment about blog comments:
While I would love to foster a free and healthy uncensored conversation, I cannot afford to tolerate hate comments and personal attacks on other people. You want to hate and talk against me, enjoy, but leave others out of it. Obviously, the best way to get your message across successfully is to talk about the ideas people said, and back up your claims. Do not attack people, and do not just shout arguments without any backing.
Until next time, wishing you all the best with everything in life!

Abby @ The Second Transition

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

And, The Time Has Come... COMING OUT!!!

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

I know that most people that are reading this, will be understanding and accepting. However, I still want to start with this inspirational quote, written as an opening to a Coming Out letter:

"Some of you might think that the information I share with you herewith is a joke. It's not. And comprehending this, in fact, may take a large portion of patience, understanding, and compassion. You are likely, in fact, to need a long time to fully process it."

Growing up, I think we all try to remember our first memories, and we are being asked (especially in therapy sessions...) what our first memories are. I never answered this question honestly. I was terrified from my first memories, and for 20 years I was trying to run from it. One of the first things I remember about myself, is thinking, Hey I am not a boy. this thought, feeling, confliction, confusion, realization, is something that never left me. I had - as I figured out at the age of 20 - what's called today (and no, I don't like this 'diagnose') "Gender Dysphoriathat is, when the gender assigned to an individual on their Birth Certificate is not who they are.

I can go on and write a lot about my horrible experience growing up. Not only was I confused, but as you all know, in the community that I was raised in, Trans did not exist, neither was it ever discussed. I was therefore convinced that I have to be crazy, and that I have to get this "stupidity" of feeling like a girl, out of my head. As always, this didn't work well for me. I can write some great SciFi about all the dreams - awake, I had of how I can "become a girl', but in my world, this was something that I knew I can never mention to anyone. 

As a result, from the age of 14, I dealt with bad depression. I couldn't go a month without falling into total despair (I think anyone who was ever been in touch with me knows that they were always days that I just wasn't responding to anyone). I knew throughout this entire time where it comes from, but I had no idea how to deal with it.

At age 20 I left my community of origin. While my decision to leave was not based on being a woman, the urge to search and read 'outside of the box' was triggered by the feeling that "I" am not who I am.

Being convinced that these feelings are crazy, I tried to convince myself that the problem is something else. I moved around in life trying to tell myself that getting out of the box, getting a job, getting an education, etc. will solve my problems. They were all great things, but I couldn't convince even myself to let go of the dream of living MY life. and let me tell you, lying to yourself is not pretty.

Skipping ahead. Finally, last spring, I went to see a gender specialist, after a few sessions, they told me pretty clear: You are a woman, and you ought to deal with that. Otherwise, nothing is gonna change.

My initial response was, as always, stop talking to them. I still couldn't face it, especially knowing that the road ahead is long and complicated. So as until now, I thought that ignoring it is the best way to deal with it (ya i know, stupid me). I went to camp over the summer pretending everything is fine. But as research has shown, ignoring Gender Dysphoria, only makes it worse, and I wasn't any different.

Finally in the beginning of August, I made the best decision in life, thus far: I went to see a primary physician, who specializes in Gender Affirmation.

September 4, 2015 is the day I will remember forever. The day I started HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). I have since taken a lot of steps towards transition. The road is long, but with the support of some amazing friends and professionals, for the first time in my life I feel like I am getting to be my real self.

In the last few weeks, I have slowly been coming out to more and more friends. I was lucky enough to get amazing support from all of my friends. I owe a special thanks to my 27 roommates at the Bayit - Columbia University who have been an exceptional help. The professionals and members at The Center Gender Identity Project, whom without I would Have not been able to get to where I am now. Rabbis David Ingber and Jessica Kate Mayer from Romemu, who showed me that Judaism and Transition are not only compatible but intertwined. My amazing doctor and medical team at APICHA Trans Health Clinic, who are patiently treating all their patients with love and compassion.
Last but far not least, each and everyone of my dear friends that I came out to in person, you have all been above and beyond supportive, Thank You!!!

Going forward I am looking forward to a challenging yet rewarding journey. I will hopefully keep all my friends in the loop, with all the details of transition, starting next week with an all out "Coming Out" video, keep an open eye!

Lastly, I want to say here, in clear and bold words to all humans out there who are going through similer experiences, and especially these of Ultra-Orthodox background:

"You can Do It!!! It is not going to be easy, but it is way easier than not transitioning. When you start to see the changes, and feel more comfortable with your body, you wouldn't stop loving yourself." 

Full of love, 💕

(Srully Abe)
​ Abby

Two online forums that I found really helpful:

Here is a post I wrote 2.5 years ago on this site: 
​Just in case any of you find it interesting. I had since decided to ignore my feelings. and as you can see, it didn't help. ignore the spelling, please.
Messages: 15
Registered: June 2012
Location: new york
My story is like I wrote in my bio, I always felt I am not who I am, I had a lot female nature's, and was always dreaming of a "miracle" that will change me, due to the fact that until the age of 20 (a year ago) I didn't know that it exists a way of doing it in nature.r thinking that way, something that a lot of people in my community do believe that if you are leaving the community life than you have a mantel disorder), so from the age of 14 I was looking 
I didn't had any education outside my insular religious community, not even reading or spelling a word in English! (I learned the ABC's on my own by the age of 20..., I know it sounds unbelievable, and I grew up in NYC, if you are interest, here is an org. in NY that helps people leaving my community, so you can see on your own that it exist such a community in nyc and of course I didn't know anything about LGBTQ at all.
but, I was always looking for "help" I felt something is missing in my life, and I wasn't able to know what is missing, about my sexuality I was convinced that something is wrong with me for even thinking about a gender change, but what I did know was that could be the true way of living my life is not the way I grew up (and I was smart enough not to think that I am crazy fofor answers on the questions I had on the belief system I grew up to believe in, and slowly I came to the conclusion that the world is free, and waiting for me to go out and live my OWN life.
mean while, by the age of 17 I got married in an arranged marriage, that by chance worked out, and I have a really good relationship with my dear wife, (sounds like I am a lesbian..) but the second she will know what's going on in my mind she will leave me, and 2 years ago I had a son.
and here I found it.
once I was a bit out, and I was able to search the web, I noticed, and I came to know that it does exist such a thing as transgender, and specially transsexual, in other words its possible for me to change all the way, and have the life and "body" I want, and feel I need.
but after all the way I grew up for 20 years wasn't rejected so fast, and for a year, although I was thinking about it, and I watch a huge amount of clips and vlogs from trans people, and I spent a lot of time reading about it, I still had an unexplained feeling that didn't let me say to my self, yes, you are transgender, and after all I wasn't sure that I am, I was saying to my self that maybe its just a natural male attraction to women, etc.
until I found this site: I read it, and everything was clear, I am trans, I have most emotional and physical signs, and its time to move forward.
but where? what's my next step? before I make a life time conclusion I need to make sure I am not fooling myself, I am still living in my community, where such an act will mean for me to lose "everything", from family to friends, my job and living space, where I am going what am I doing?
on education I found the above mentioned org., but on my sexuality who can help me?
and then I found this site.
I still don't know where my life will lead me' but it will definitely lead me to huge changes in "everything", and hopefully to huge success!!!