Transgender rabbi-to-be: Reform movement accepts student from Oakland

It was a critical year for Claire Zellman, 1999. It was the year she not only found religion but came out as a man.

And now, the Oakland resident has become the first transgender person to be accepted to rabbinical school.

Reuben Zellman will begin his studies at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Jerusalem campus in the fall.

HUC first opened its seminary doors to openly gay and lesbian applicants in 1990, and the Reconstructionist movement has long admitted gay men and lesbians. The Conservative movement is currently re-evaluating its policy.

Zellman was the first transgender person to apply to the Reform seminary, and he wasn't sure what the outcome would be. Hiding it was not an option for him.

"I thought it could be a problem," said Zellman, 24. "No one had done it before, so I had no idea what would happen."

Rabbi Roxanne Schneider Shapiro, national director of admissions and recruitment at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, said Zellman called her before applying to see whether the seminary would consider him.

"Our question is not a matter of his gender identity, but is he in a comfortable place with who he is and where he is?" Shapiro explained. "If someone is just coming out of a divorce or heart surgery, we may not allow them to apply if they are not physically and mentally in a place where they are comfortable with their lives."

When Zellman received his acceptance in late January, he was somewhat surprised. But not for the reason one might suppose.

"Being a rabbi is an enormous undertaking, and I wasn't at all sure that the school would think that I was ready for it," he said. Furthermore, "as a kid, I always thought of rabbis and cantors as special people who knew something the rest of us didn't, or had a more profound understanding of life…I'm fairly ordinary and had never thought about myself in that way."

The blue-eyed Zellman wears a black suede kippah and a small gold hoop in his right ear. He is quick to make jokes at his own expense, but he also chooses his words carefully, pausing a few seconds before answering each question.

Raised in Los Angeles with a barely Reform upbringing, he celebrated a bat mitzvah "and then played varsity sports."

A linguistics major at U.C. Berkeley, since graduating in 2001, he has been studying classical voice at San Francisco State University and teaching Hebrew school.

In 1999, Zellman transitioned from woman to man. He declined to discuss exactly what his transition entailed. (Many people who identify as transgendered have not in fact had surgery.)

Zellman explained that he chose the name Reuben even before knowing that it means "Behold, a son is born." It also turned out to be the given name of his grandfather who had died a few years earlier and who had changed his name to Raymond.

While he had not been very involved in Jewish life on the Berkeley campus, as a freshman in 1997 Zellman was part of a Berkeley Hillel delegation that traveled to Alabama during spring break to rebuild an African-American church destroyed by arson. Zellman played a major role in getting grants for the trip, which was the subject of a 1999 documentary.

"As Jews we are mandated to perform mitzvot," Zellman told The Daily Californian in 1997. "Furthermore, as a people who have historically been persecuted, Jews have an obligation to not let what happened to us happen to other people."

Two years later, he began attending Shabbat services for the first time in years, at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. He was overwhelmed by how welcoming and friendly the San Francisco synagogue was, and when the Barechu (the call to worship) was chanted that night, he burst into tears. After that, he became a regular at Shabbat services.

Zellman immediately felt at home at the queer-identified synagogue for its "wonderful tradition of lay leadership, inclusive liturgy, outreach and very supportive community."

But more than that, the longer he attended, "the people at Sha'ar Zahav saw something in me that I didn't know was there." They began encouraging him to serve on committees and also pursue his musical interests — something that had never happened when Zellman was a woman.

As Zellman began pursuing his newfound musical talent — he is a first tenor — he fell in love with Jewish music and considered becoming a cantor. He has, in fact, served as cantorial soloist at High Holy Days for two years running at San Jose's Temple Beth Sholom.

But because he also loved Torah study and lifecycle events, and had an interest in pastoral counseling, he realized he might be better suited to a rabbinical career. As of now, he hopes to have a congregational post, but he acknowledged that could change.

He also wants a family, including children. (When asked whether he dates men or women, he said he was "flexible.")

As to the likelihood of facing discrimination in job placement, Zellman expressed faith that people will be able to see beyond his sexuality.

HUC's Shapiro said congregations are often very explicit about their requirements, and that could indeed hurt Zellman's chances in getting placed.

"We tell women that there may be some congregations who are not looking for women. And sometimes it's harder for second-career candidates to find placement. And there are some people who don't want gays and lesbians."

Acknowledging that Zellman's case is trickier, she nevertheless said she had no doubts in her mind about admitting him.

"All candidates go through a psychological interview as well as a committee interview, and, together with his GPA [grade point average], he was a fantastic candidate."

Noting that a committee must vote on each candidate, she said, "Yes, he does mark a [first] for HUC, but he was not accepted because of his gender identity."

His transition and increased involvement in the Jewish community occurred around the same time, a coincidence that is not lost on Zellman. Noting that he intends to write about the connection between the two, he said, "I think that I've had a pretty unique and complex experience, which has given me a much deeper appreciation for the unique and complex experience of the Jewish people."

When asked what he, in particular, can bring to the rabbinate, he said, "Everyone brings something unique because we're all different…But I hope I've learned some things about living through big changes, making big decisions and struggling against different kinds of prejudice."

The rabbi-to-be was unsure of how he would cope with all the media attention, but he acknowledged that his trailblazing path will surely be a curiosity for many.

"There's a reason this topic is one of Jerry Springer's favorites," he said. "I think people are always a little disappointed to learn how boring I really am."

Rabbi Camille Angel, spiritual leader of Sha'ar Zahav, said she was incredibly proud of the Jewish man Zellman has become. "He naturally is at home in his being who he is, and in doing so, he inspires everyone to be true unto thine own self."

Also noting his compassion, his devotion to his grandparents — his grandmother lives locally — and his values, Angel said he had "tremendous integrity."

Just as Angel bemoaned being known as "the lesbian rabbi" when she was in the mainstream community, she expressed similar regret that Zellman would no doubt become known as "the transgender rabbi." But at the same time, she said, "part of what his Torah will be is helping people understand the complexity" of gender.

Zellman said he realizes he will have to educate some people on the issues transgender people face, but at the same time he pointed out that a rabbi is, in effect, mostly a teacher. "I'm fortunate that I've been given an opportunity to serve the Jewish community," he said, "and maybe I can do some work where more work is needed."

Zellman has lived in the Bay Area for the past seven years, and has experienced his share of homophobia and ignorance. And he knows that his androgynous look will attract even more attention elsewhere — particularly in Jerusalem, where he will be sharing a crowded city with not only Orthodox Jews but Chassidim.

"I know this will be a big challenge for some people, but in my experience, I have found that when people are presented with a challenge, they usually rise to meet it. That isn't to say that I never worry, but I have faith."

As for his being an affront to Orthodox Jews, Zellman said, "There are many aspects of the Reform movement that more traditional people don't approve of. This is just one of them."

Furthermore, "if I worried too much what the world thought of me, I long ago would have been totally paralyzed," he said. "I am what I am, and I know there are a lot of people who don't approve of it, but I have to live my life. I'm becoming a rabbinical student because I love Torah, and it's unfortunate if that makes some people mad."

Calling Zellman "an incredible human being," HUC's Shapiro expressed the belief that its admissions committee made the right decision. "We simply ask, 'Is this person going to be a terrific rabbi?' And in this case, we know he will be."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."