Samantha Zerin is a woman that used to teach at a Yiddish class as a part of her synagogue’s adult education program. However, one evening she knew that all of that is about to change. On the 19th of December, Samantha had a very special message to the 775 families at Temple Emanu-El. This is what the message read:
“Over the past several years, Sam has been exploring Sam’s gender identity. This has been a journey for both of us, full of introspection, learning, and growth. Through this journey, we have come to realize that, although Sam was raised as a boy, she is in fact a woman, and she is ready to begin living her life publicly as such.”
The message was the last part of the years-long process that Zerin has been living through for years. A complete rebirth from the gender identity in which she had been raised to the person she had always been inside her.
Samantha Zerin is also the first spouse of a congregational rabbi that transitioned, as Rachel Zerin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative congregation in Providence, Rhode Island.
Although Samantha had already grown out her hair, shaved her beard, and come out as transgender to her wife, family, and friends, it was finally time to announce herself as a rebbetzin. She said that the rabbi’s spouse is a very public figure, and there are eyes everywhere on her in her community.
The rabbi’s wife, or rebbetzin, would traditionally teach classes and offer advice to the women of the congregation, as well as cook for Shabbat and holiday dinners. People of all genders can now become rabbis in the non-Orthodox world, but the rabbi’s spouse still has a prominent role. Rabbis are public figures in their respective communities, and they’re seen as symbolic exemplars. Rubin Schwartz, a historian of the Jewish Theological Seminary says that rabbis and rabbi’s spouses are supposed to live out the values that everyone else, in theory, aspires to live towards.
Samantha was completely aware that she needed to have a careful approach to her coming-out process, because although acceptance of trans people outside the Orthodox world has become widespread, her transition couldn’t be a private matter because of her family’s role in the community.
“When I came out as transgender, as a woman, then all of a sudden that meant that one of rabbis of this community, who is a woman, is now married to a woman and that’s a big deal. So in a sense, when I came out as trans, I was coming out as myself, as a woman, and forcing my wife along with me. And for that reason, it had to be a dialogue with my wife about when we would do this, and also with the leadership of the synagogue.”
Samantha was raised as a boy, but she never felt drawn to typically masculine things, and she started feeling uncomfortable with her gender in general over time. However, she never considered that she might be trans because the image she had in her mind of trans women was filled with stereotypes.
She finally began questioning her gender 2 and a half years ago, and she saw a therapist specializing in gender identity for the first time a year ago. The therapist gave her permission to admit to herself what she was afraid to admit – that she was a transgender. She immediately came out to her wife, who has been supportive. However, it took seven months before she was ready to come out to her community. She wrote about her struggles with her gender under the pseudonym Shuli Elisheva on Twitter, and she was able to find a community with other trans women online. Coming out to her community finally meant that the layer of comfort was gone, and in the end, her announcement was well-received both by her own family and friends, her own community, and the larger Jewish community in Providence.
Many people expressed their support and words of encouragement on her popular Facebook post, and Samantha noted that she was received “very, very positively”.