Israeli LGBT youth share stories of anguish and renewal

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Sam Rosenfeld still remembers standing near the edge of a cliff at age 12, on a trip to the mountains with his family, and considering whether he should jump.

Born female, Rosenfeld — who, at 18, identifies as a transgender man — had always felt he was trapped in a girl’s body. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family outside of Tel Aviv, he felt depressed, confused and alienated at the girls’ yeshiva he attended.

“Obviously, I didn’t jump,” he said with a shy smile. “I’m still here.”

Israeli teens Anna Shilansky and Sam Rosenfeld share their coming out stories at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. photo/courtesy of a wider bridge

After an adolescence marked by deep despair, Rosenfeld discovered a community that accepted him — first online, then at an LGBT youth group run by the nonprofit Israel Gay Youth Organization. He started hormone therapy seven months ago and is planning sex reassignment surgery — decisions that have cost him his relationship with his family.

Rosenfeld’s story of loss and perseverance was one of many told March 20 at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, where he and his three fellow youth delegates from IGY made one of their last stops on a whirlwind two-week speaking tour of the Bay Area.

IGY, a 9-year-old network of resources for LGBT teens and young adults in Israel, garnered international attention in 2009 when a masked gunman killed two young people and injured 15 at one of the organization’s youth centers in Tel Aviv — a tragedy the teen delegates agreed served as a “wakeup call.”

Co-sponsored by San Francisco’s A Wider Bridge and the Israel Education Initiative, the trip aimed to deepen connections between the LGBT communities in Israel and the Bay Area, share resources in the fight against homophobia and raise awareness about the challenges facing gay teens around the world.

Seated before an audience of about 30 — many of them Sha’ar Zahav members — each teen told a personal story of coming out and how it affected relationships with family members and with Judaism.

Anna Shilansky, an 18-year-old lesbian who was at the center the night of the shooting, says the tragedy reaffirmed her drive as an activist for LGBT rights. She had come out to her family two years prior — a difficult experience, though her mother was more accepting than Shilansky had expected. But that night changed everything.

“I said, ‘I’m never going back,’ ” recalled Shilansky, who was one of the 15 youths injured in the shooting. “Why would I want to go back to the place where my friends were killed?”

Eventually, a counselor convinced her she had to return — that it was her home, her space to reclaim. Since then Shilansky has become outspoken about her politics and beliefs. “I wanted to change the society that created that murder,” she said.

Itzik, a 19-year-old bisexual man who did not use his last name because he is on special leave from the Israeli air force, kept his identity a secret until his senior year of high school, mostly because “no one asked,” he said, getting a chuckle from the audience. He also said that, for the most part, his experience coming out in the military has been positive.

Shirel Touitou, a 20-year-old lesbian from an ultra-Orthodox background, said she became secular at 17 and came out at 18 — major shifts that caused understandable friction in her family. “I felt rejected from the Jewish community just for being who I am,” she said.

Each teen’s take on how his or her sexuality affected religious practice was different: Shilansky felt more connected to Conservative Judaism as she got older and said the Reform synagogues she visited in the Bay Area had presented a challenge for her. Rosenfeld said he became “anti-religious” after coming out because no religious community had ever accepted his identity.

Among the common threads in each teen’s story: tears, confusion and rejection from family members. All of the panelists said that someone close to them — a rabbi, sibling or parent — responded to their coming out by saying, “No, you’re not.”

“I told my mom how I felt in a letter when I was 15,” said Rosenfeld. “And at first she said ‘I love you, I will always love you.’ But she didn’t support the physical [changes].”

Now working as a cook and cashier to support himself in Tel Aviv, he said he’s only recently started communicating with his family after a long period of being out of touch.

Audience members, many of them gay couples, murmured their recognition while listening to the stories and nodded in agreement when a few teens mentioned feeling a connection between San Francisco and Tel Aviv.

“In San Francisco it seems everyone knows someone who’s gay,” said Rosenfeld. “People don’t even think about it.”

The teens said they were exhilarated by the outspokenness of the Bay Area’s LGBT community — and the sense from the general population that being gay is normal and no big deal.

“That’s why we do this,” said Touitou. “We want people to see that we’re not freaks. We’re working to bring change, so we can feel comfortable being who we are.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.