Religion & Jewish Life

Transgender teen comes out in emotional ceremony

Rabbi Tsipi Gabai blesses newly named Tom Sosnik at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Calif., March 13, 2015. (Misha Bruk)

(j. weekly) — In the middle of the school day on March 13, the community at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Calif., gathered to give a boy his name.

The boy in question was a bit older than is typical in a naming ceremony. Wearing a white button-down shirt, gray slacks and red sneakers — with red and blue patches dyed into the sides of his buzzed hair — teenager Tom Sosnik stood at the front of the room and explained to his 26 eighth-grade classmates why he was receiving a new name.

“I am no longer Mia. I never really was. And now I finally stand before you in my true and authentic gender identity as Tom,” he said. “I stand before you as a 13-year-old boy.”

In front of friends, teachers, parents and sisters, Tom, a transgender student, publicly came out as a boy. He received his new name, Tom Chai Sosnik – Tom, meaning “innocent” in Hebrew, and Chai, meaning “life.” He huddled under a tallit with his parents and sister to be blessed by the Jewish day school’s rabbi, Tsipi Gabai. Afterward, classmates formed a circle around him and danced. It’s hard to imagine he could have had a better welcome.

“There was not a dry eye in our beit midrash [house of learning],” said Elise Prowse, Tehiyah’s interim head of school, who had participated in a months-long planning process with Tom and his family leading up to his coming out. “For us at Tehiyah, this is really part of our dedication and commitment to inclusion.”

Since the ceremony at the San Francisco-area school nearly two weeks ago, Tom’s story has gone viral. A YouTube video of his speech had been viewed more than 54,000 times as of March 24, and his story has been featured on the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, E! Online, Out Magazine and other national news outlets. Tom’s strong, confident statement about his identity and the warm welcome he received from his community have resonated with people across the country.

“I was pretty sure that I would be accepted, and I was, by everyone,” Tom told J. “It was very emotional.”

Tom started at Tehiyah last year as a seventh-grader. His family had lived in Fresno but moved to Oakland to find a more welcoming community for Tom, who was being bullied at school. When he was in the sixth grade, Tom still identified as female, but his appearance didn’t conform to gender expectations and he would be hassled when using the girls’ bathroom, he said.

“The kids from the school would come and be like, ‘You’re in the wrong bathroom, get out of this bathroom, this isn’t your bathroom,’ ” Tom said.

At Tehiyah, Tom has made friends and been accepted as he experimented with his gender expression. When he was in seventh grade, he told his parents, Udi and Esti, both born in Israel, that he identified as a boy. They were immediately supportive.

“We see who you are, we love you, we are behind you,” Esti remembers saying to him. “He is the most loved kid you’ve ever seen. His sisters are crazy after him and we are, too. So he gets a lot of love and support.”

Esti said she wasn’t surprised by the news. Tom had been dressing in boys’ clothes since he was 5, and she always remembered the day he put on a brown velvet jacket and bow tie for his school picture in first grade.

“I was like, ‘You look very handsome, but just so you know, you might be killed by the way you’re dressed,’ ” Esti remembers telling him. He replied confidently, “Excuse me, this is my style, this is how I dress, and I don’t care what anyone else says.”

Starting in November, Tom and his family began working with school officials to plan his coming out as a transgender boy. The school invited Gender Spectrum, an education and support organization about gender identity for children and teenagers, to give workshops for the faculty and parents. Tehiyah added a gender-neutral bathroom for Tom to use.

“Yet another reason I, as a parent, love Tehiyah!” someone wrote on Facebook in response to the new bathroom and an explanatory email from the school that talked about “core Jewish values” and “kehillah,” or community. “Our families, teachers and administrators work together to create an environment that is safe, nurturing, inclusive and welcoming for everyone at Tehiyah. Diversity is part of the foundation of our community.”

Additionally, Tom’s family consulted with a developmental and clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in child gender identity to help them with the transition.

“[Tom] really got to control the message. He got to have it happen the way he wanted to,” Prowse said. “The family really wanted this to be a celebration.”

Working with Gabai, Tom, his family and school officials planned the coming-out ceremony and decided to include a formal naming as a Jewish expression of the transition he was making.

Since no Jewish ritual exists for naming as part of a gender transition, Gabai was in the unique position of getting to create one.

“I reached back into traditional Judaism,” Gabai said of her efforts to cobble one together.

At the ceremony, she told a story from the Baal Shem Tov, then talked about how the Talmud says everyone has three names: the one their parents give them, the one their friends give them and, the most important one, the one they earn for themselves. Using the Hebrew phrase that welcomes a baby boy at his brit milah, or circumcision, people welcomed Tom to his new life by saying “Baruch Habah” three times.

Tom and his parents recited the Shehechiyanu prayer, thanking God for allowing them to reach this moment, and the ceremony ended with everyone present chanting the Birkhat Kohanim (priestly blessing) together.

Since the ceremony, Tom has fielded questions from his classmates, which he said he feels comfortable answering. Prowse said only one family has raised questions about the transition. The school community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

“It was a beautiful ritual, and the children were very impressed,” Gabai said. “Some kids cried from joy.”