Last week the story of Tom Chai Sosnik, a teenager who came out as transgender at Tehiyah Day School, his Jewish day school, made headlines. Inspired by Tom’s courage, and the need to support transgender and gender-expansive teenagers everywhere, Rabbi Becky Silverstein penned the open letter below to Tom and teenagers like him, which Jewish LGBT rights advocacy group Keshet proudly shared on Transgender Day of Visibility.
As I was preparing my sermon last Friday afternoon, I decided to take a quick Facebook break and saw the video of you addressing your school. I watched it and immediately shared it with my own social network, commenting that “while I don’t know this young man, I have the privilege of knowing others who share a similar story. Almost nothing in the world could make me smile wider than this.”
Tom, we have never and may never meet, and yet I feel as though I know you.
I see in your face the faces of the LGBTQ Jewish teenagers I have had the opportunity to work with in my time as a Jewish educator and rabbi. In your face, I also see a vision of what I want so badly for our Jewish community to be: a place where everyone can be celebrated for the entirety of who they are and where nobody feels the need to hide a piece of their identity.
Tom, in your face I saw the reason why I am out, why I share my story, why I work to make our communities more inclusive. Tom, your courage gave me courage.
The moments before and during the actual exodus from Egypt were extremely risky. How could the individual Israelites be sure that they would be redeemed? And yet, in order for our story to continue, each individual needed to take a risk, needed to take a leap of faith, and perform the Passover sacrifice.
Tom, at the heart of our communal narrative is the courageous action of individuals taking a risk. In sharing your transition with your parents, community, school, and the greater world community, you modeled for all of us what it means for us to feel as though we ourselves were leaving Egypt, a central commandment within the Passover Hagaddah.
Tom, it is only through courageous acts of risk-taking that Judaism will continue to thrive and grow. Thank you for urging that process along.
I hope you don’t mind my taking this moment to also address those around you.
To your family: May you continue to be strengthened along the steps of this journey. May G-d continue to shine upon you, and may you continue to shine upon each other.
To your school principal: Thank you for setting an example of courageous leadership and providing your staff the education and training necessary for the true embracing of all members of your community.
To your rabbi, Tsipi Gabai: Thank you. I am proud to call you a colleague, and I urge you to share the ceremony you wrote for Tom. Put it on RitualWell and in the Keshet resource bank where it will join other rituals written by transgender Jews and allies. You and I know well that the transgender and Jewish communities are hungry for new and meaningful liturgy; allow others the access to your ritual creativity.
To your classmates: Thank you for modeling what it means to live in a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. The photos of you dancing in celebration of Tom’s tradition were, quite simply, amazing. May your warmth and understanding be a model for all of Klal Yisrael.
Tom, it seems as though you have an amazing community around you. And I want you to know that you are not alone. The LGBTQ Jewish community is growing, the trans Jewish community is growing within it. Though there is much work to be done, there is also much to celebrate.
There are folks generations ahead of you (and of me) who have paved the way and are continuing to do so that you can be you. Take pride in knowing that with your YouTube video you took your place in the line of folks working to make the Jewish community more inclusive, more embracing, stronger. In that, I’m proud to call you my colleague.
Lastly Tom, there are folks in this world who just don’t get it. Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice: approach them with compassion, don’t read the comments, and remember, I’ve got your back.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein
RABBI BECKY SILVERSTEIN is the Director of Education at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center community. Ordained from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, he also holds a Bachelor of Science in engineering science from Smith College. Over the past six years, Becky has been energized and inspired through his work with youth and their families in a variety of settings, including Genesis at Brandies University and Congregation Kehillath Israel. He has been an active educator and facilitator with Keshet. Becky believes that active engagement with Jewish tradition, texts and culture is key to nurturing and developing strong Jewish individuals and communities.