(JTA) — In the days leading up to the start of the school year earlier this month, Talia Avrahami wrote a whiteboard message to her students at Brooklyn’s Magen David Yeshivah, where she would begin a new job as an eighth-grade social studies teacher: “Welcome to the classroom of Mrs. Avrahami.”
Just one week later, Avrahami was out of the job after a firestorm erupted about the fact that she is transgender.
The firestorm included harassment in school, at home and online, according to people close to Avrahami and to evidence circulating in Orthodox media, where the situation has been widely discussed, often in terms that are starkly disparaging of transgender people. Someone erased the “s” on her classroom whiteboard message to students, changing it to read “Mr. Avrahami.”
The situation at Magen David Yeshivah, an Orthodox school serving mostly children from the Syrian Jewish community, comes amid intense debate over the acceptance of LGBTQ individuals in Orthodoxy. Avrahami is one of more than 1,200 students and graduates of Yeshiva University to sign a petition this week supporting students there who want to form an LGBTQ club but are being blocked by the flagship Modern Orthodox institution, which says it cannot endorse a group that it sees as at odds with Orthodox values.
But even as Avrahami has indicated that she is considering legal action against her former employer, she says she just wants to live the life of an observant Jewish woman. She wears skirts, covers her hair with a wig, observes Shabbat and keeps strictly kosher — conforming completely to expectations for married women in Orthodox communities.
“There’s nothing we’re doing that is against Jewish law or halacha. We’re completely in line with Orthodox teachings,” Avrahami told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday.
She cited Eliezer Waldenberg, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and legal scholar who ruled that a transgender woman who undergoes gender confirmation surgery is legally a woman. “The people who are hating us are uneducated ignoramuses,” Avrahami said.
A job listing for the social studies teacher position at Magen David Yeshivah is accessible on LinkedIn, where the school indicates that it still has multiple vacancies for this year. The ad touts a “warm mission-driven environment” and says the school is “a supportive environment where your opinions are heard and valued.” The posting also says a bachelor’s degree is required.
Avrahami earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School of Jewish Education and Administration in 2021. She was hired shortly before the school year began.
But things went south after a video taken during the school’s parent night circulated on social media. Reports characterizing Avrahami’s employment as shocking and “insane” appeared — and then were removed — in two Orthodox publications, each of which described her as a man pretending to be a woman. Details about her family, including their home address in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Manhattan, circulated on WhatsApp, the social media network favored by many Orthodox Jews. On Friday, the family was filmed leaving their home, bags in tow; shared on an Orthodox YouTube channel, the video has been viewed more than 8,000 times.
“It is a very serious concern if they are even safe enough to live in their apartment,” a person authorized to speak on Avrahami’s behalf told JTA earlier this week, declining to be identified for fear of facing the kind of harassment that Avrahami and others who have run afoul of the Orthodox community’s conservative social mores have experienced.
The video was filmed the same day Avrahami resigned from her position. She declined to comment on her employment situation, but the person authorized to speak on her behalf said she had been pressured to do so, on the premise that the students needed a teacher trained to work with children with disabilities.
To receive pay until January, Avrahami was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement barring both her and the school from disparaging each other publicly, according to the source.
A person who answered the phone at Magen David Yeshivah on Monday said the school would not comment. To The Times of Israel, the school issued a statement: “We respect this former instructor and after mutual agreement have parted ways in an amicable and professional manner.”
Avrahami lives with her husband, Bradley, and baby in Washington Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood that is popular with young Orthodox couples and home to Yeshiva University. Bradley Avrahami works at Yeshiva’s education school and is also teaching a Hebrew class there this semester.
The two met while attending Middlebury College, a secular liberal arts school in Vermont, and became more religiously observant after spending time in Israel. (Talia Avrahami now identifies as a member of the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch movement.) The registry from their January 2020 wedding, accessible online, looked typical for an Orthodox couple: In addition to requesting kitchenware and other home items, they asked for and received Jewish texts, paintings of famous rabbis and items needed to observe Jewish law, such as a hot water heater for Shabbat and a “bug checker” used to ensure that vegetables meet stringent requirements for keeping kosher.
When the couple’s baby was born via a surrogate last year, it was important to Avrahami to have the infant go through a Jewish court to formally convert to Judaism, according to the person close to the family.
“Genuinely, sincerely all she wants is just to be a frum woman living her frum life,” said the source, using the Yiddish word for pious.
Some of the criticism of Avrahami makes the case that she sought employment at an Orthodox school to provoke a controversy over the status of transgender Orthodox Jews. A voice note going around WhatsApp from an unknown woman familiar with the situation alleges that the person at Magen David who hired Avrahami was “not someone that is worldly and this is not something that they would pick up,” referring to Avrahami’s identity as transgender. The woman alleges that the school’s human resources department said it is “possible that she targeted the school so she could sue. And that’s the angle that they think she’s working.”
That allegation is particularly distressing to Avrahami and her allies. “To possibly even remotely suggest that she had nefarious intent is literally insane,” the person speaking on Avrahami’s behalf said. “All she wanted was acceptance and she wanted to be passing.”
For other transgender Orthodox Jews, Avrahami’s experience represents a frightening fact of life at a challenging moment.
“This was a nightmare of mine that I thought about happening to me and then when it happened to her I was devastated,” said Avraham Kolenski, a friend of Avrahami from Washington Heights who is also trans.
“There’s so many Jews that either want to be Orthodox but haven’t found the supportive network where they can be or who are Orthodox and are being pushed out,” he said.
Avrahami has indicated that she is considering taking legal action against Magen David Yeshivah, posting a request for a “lawyer with expertise in defamation, contract law and human rights issues” on Facebook this week. People who have signed non-disclosure agreements retain the right to make claims under civil rights employment law, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 applies to people who are gay or transgender.
In New York State, it has long been illegal to fire or refuse to hire or promote someone based on their gender, which includes anyone “being or being perceived to be transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.”
Samuel Estreicher, an attorney and the director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University Law School, said Avrahami’s situation could make a “great test case” about whether religious schools can make being straight or cisgender a job requirement that takes precedence over anti-discrimination law.
“They’re going to have a hard time saying that sexual identity is an occupational requirement necessary for the job,” Estreicher said.
“If in fact the school is telling her she can’t teach there because of her sexual identity, I think they stand to be violating Title VII,” he added, referring to the federal Civil Rights Act, adding that the school could also potentially be held liable for failing to protect Avrahami from harassment while she was employed there.
“If she was told not to propagate her views, and she refused to listen, it’d be a different case,” he added.