October 9, 2003
The first transgendered rabbinical student adjusts to life in Israel.
Claire Zellman made two life-altering decisions in 1999.
Her first was to attend a Shabbat service that a friend recommended. After walking into a synagogue for the first time in more than a decade, she cried when she heard the "Baruchu."
Her second was to transition to living life as a man.
Claire is now Reuben, and his flourishing involvement in the Jewish community since taking those first steps has led him to become Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)'s first transgendered rabbinical student.
"Ultimately, what it came down to was that I want to be able to spend a large chunk of my time teaching Torah, and it seems to me that it calls for rabbinical training," Zellman said.
HUC-JIR's acceptance of Zellman is a first -- not only for the campus but for any Jewish movement. His inclusion comes at a time when sexual orientation and gender identity are hot topics in Judaism's various streams.
The Conservative movement is considering a review of its policy on the ordination of gays and lesbians, while the Orthodox are wrestling with issues of acceptance within their own community following the release of "Trembling Before G-d," a film that examines the lives of observant Jews wrestling with homosexuality. The Reform movement, which first welcomed openly gay and lesbian students to its institutions in 1990, recently added bisexual and transgendered to the list of people it now fully accepts.
However, transgender issues can involve but are not exclusively linked to sexual orientation. Instead, transsexuality challenges concepts of fixed, binary gender roles. Scholars in the Reform and Conservative movements have only recently begun addressing this issue and how it will impact Jewish communal practices. Under Orthodox halacha, sex changes are not allowed due to prohibitions on self-mutilation.
"In our society, gender is of supreme importance," Zellman said. "So a gender change has a huge effect on how you interact with the world in general."
Zellman refused to comment as to what steps he's taken toward becoming male, saying that he doesn't discuss the specifics of his transition, because "it's not important." In interviews, Zellman has described himself as "someone who falls under the broader scope of transgender."
Since being accepted by the Reform movement in March, Zellman has kept a level head about his first semester at the institution's Jerusalem campus.
"It's complicated to be a transgendered person anywhere. Moving to any new place is a little nerve-wracking," Zellman said.
He said that a few students and Israelis have mentioned that they've heard or read about him in the news, but that the topic hasn't come up very much since he moved to Jerusalem in August. After completing his first year in Israel, Zellman will return to the United States to spend four years at the school's New York campus.
Zellman, 24, grew up on the Westside and favored sports over shul once he completed his bat mitzvah at University Synagogue.
"At one point it was a choice between Hebrew High or the varsity softball team," the Harvard-Westlake alumnus said. "I went with the softball team." Zellman graduated with a bachelor's degree in linguistics from UC Berkeley in 2001 and recently completed postbac study in classical voice at San Francisco State University. He'd been a choral singer since the eight grade (he's a tenor).
"Music has always been an interest of mine, a love actually," he said.
So when Zellman became a regular fixture at Sha'ar Zahav, a San Francisco Reform synagogue for people of all sexual orientations, congregants encouraged him to get involved; he composed music for holidays, joined the high holiday ensemble and led songs during holidays. At 21, he was hired to perform as a cantorial soloist during the High Holidays at a San Jose synagogue.
While Zellman's initial involvement was musical, he decided to pursue becoming a pulpit rabbi rather than a cantor after reviewing his different educational opportunities.
"I studied the different curricula for each program and talked to as many cantors and rabbis as I could get ahold of and eventually concluded that I would be able to do a broader range of things that I wanted to do with rabbinical training," he said.
Zellman said that he is enjoying his classes and that the people on campus have been very nice. However, he hasn't had much opportunity to venture outside of the Eternal City.
"It's a fascinating city," he said of Jerusalem. "There is such depth and variety of cultures and experiences here -- both Jewish and non-Jewish -- that often I hardly know what to do next."
And for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Zellman spent time doing what he loves. He sang in the High Holiday choir and participated in all of the High Holiday services on the HUC-JIR campus.
While Zellman wished the situation in Israel was better during his time abroad, he's still getting a lot out of his time there.
"I think I can safely say that the conflict here is an ongoing low point for everybody," he said. "But I've had many wonderful experiences also -- attending services at different synagogues, learning new music, meeting a lot of terrific people, appreciating a beautiful land."