Bombs, bias, tolerance greet award-winner in Israel

Noach Dzurma had two big scares during his year in Israel. The first when a deadly Hezbollah rocket exploded nearby. The second: seeing posters in a Jerusalem Orthodox neighborhood claiming it is OK to kill gays and lesbians.

He took both threats personally, the latter because Dzurma is a transgender person who grew up female and now identifies as a gay man.

Dzurma is also a pious man. The grandson of a priest, he grew up a Catholic in West Virginia, and later converted to Judaism. Last year he won the Haas-Koshland Memorial Award, given annually for people who want to pursue Jewish studies from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund in honor of Walter Haas and Daniel Koshland.

The $15,000 prize money enabled him to continue his Judaic studies at Jerusalem’s esteemed Pardes Institute.

Known for its pluralistic approach to Jewish learning, Pardes welcomed Dzurma, something that caught him off-guard.

“I didn’t know how the Orthodox rabbis would respond to someone who is transgender,” Dzurma said. “Would I be allowed to participate in minyan on the men’s side? I decided I was going to identify myself as transgender. They said absolutely, no problem, come on down.”

Dzurma’s first stop was Haifa to enroll in a two-week Hebrew language class. Early to class on the first day, Dzurma looked out the window and saw what looked to be rocket falling out of the sky. It was one of the first bombs in last summer’s war with Hezbollah.

“I was scared,” he recalls. “In a house with fulltime Israelis, I figured if they got scared, I got scared. When I recounted the story to the people at Pardes, one of the faculty members said, ‘I’ve been in Israel for 20 years and I never experienced what you did. You’re an honorary Israeli.'”

Pardes had accepted gay people in the past, but as far as he knows, Dzurma is the institute’s first transgender student. Still, he was surprised by the one request Pardes made of him.

“They said, ‘Don’t make gender your agenda.’ That made me a little uncomfortable. I went out of my way to tell them I’m just a master’s in Jewish studies, interested in studying text like anyone else.”

Study he did. Dzurma and fellow students would pore over Torah and Talmud from dawn until dusk. As is traditional, he paired with a study partner — a chevruta — with whom he plumbed the texts’ meaning. “We had an amazing time studying together because we worked through the logic of the sentences the same way,” he said. “You go beyond the grammar to the intention behind the text.”

While in Jerusalem, Dzurma found himself drawn to the Kotel (the Western Wall). But like so much to do with transgender people, even this basic Jewish experience presented challenges.

“It’s an interesting gender situation,” he says. “I went as a man among men. But I found my favorite place was not actually the Wall but the little shul off to the side. It was my holy of holies.”

Dzurma was referring to the excavated tunnel north of the Wall, now a sacred space for Jewish men. There, he was captivated by the soferim, or Torah scribes, busy at work. “That’s the life of the Book right there in front of my eyes,” he said.

As for the homophobic poster he saw in the Haredi neighborhood, Dzurma says it sparked “the same sort of unreality as when I saw a bomb fall from the sky.”

More often than not, however, he encountered warmth and acceptance from all quarters. “An Orthodox rabbi I was out to said that. because he met me, he won’t be afraid for his son, who sometimes likes to wear his sister’s skirts. He said, ‘It used to worry me but now I have a context.'”

Dzurma says his life has been permanently changed by his trip, and he has the people behind the Haas-Koshland Award to thank. Meanwhile, he’s finishing up his master’s degree at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. His Web site is

“I want to work in something Jewish, something queer, something related to how funding happens in the Jewish community.

“I have big plans,” he continued. “In my dreams, I see a place where there is a queer Torah study with a yeshiva flavor to it — a place where secular and religious people can meet and build queer Jewish practices and social forms, an incubator of tomorrow’s Judaism.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.