April 28 2015

The big deal about Monday night’s book signing at JTS is that it wasn’t a big deal at all. 

Yischa Smith, a Transgender spiritual activist, Jewish educator and former Lubativitch rabbi, taught hasidic texts, shared her astounding life story and read from the memoir she just published – 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.  

The event was sponsored by JTS’s RSSO  – Rabbinic Student organization and KESHET JTS – the LGBT alliance, along with Columbia Barnard Hillel and Lab/Shul NYC.  Those of us who worked on the event wanted to link Smith’s visit to the annual anniversary of the 2006 historic decision of the Conservative Movement  – welcoming LGBT students to the rabbinate. Since that decision,the LGB voices have been heard among the faculty and students of JTS. Smith’s inspiring visit enabled us to honor and celebrate the T voices in our community – with one more move towards inclusviness, dignity and progress. 

Smith’s story is truly astonishing, it is “The story of a man, facing his truth, embracing the woman she was always meant to be, and returning to her faith with wholeness and authenticity.”


When he was 20 years old, visiting the Western Wall for the first time, Smith knew that he was on the wrong side of the partition – longing to be on the other side, with the women.  He was also drawn to discovering Judaism on his own terms.  He became a Lubavitch Hasid and local leader, married, and six children and woke up each morning struggling to be grateful for life – and challenged by thanking God for life in the Hebrew words of the prayer that were spoken as a male. ‘Both prayer and pronoun were a lie’ She told the room of rapt listeners. ‘I had to face my truth.’

It took 40 years and a brave process of transition for that wish to come true and for Yiscah to move those few inches across the partition to the sacred authenticity so longed for. 

Some 30 people gathered to listen and learn with Yischa at JTS, among us, Father P., a Catholic priest in his 70’s who shared is own startling journey of transition in process – from male to female, from father – to sister! 

Unable to continue serving his parish and asked by the church to no longer wear his vestments, he is now preparing to resettle and devote her life with a new name and identity to the spiritual wellness of other Trans people. 

Yiscah, now in her sixties, radiant smile, elegant and confident, told of years of hardship and loneliness, yet celebrates faith and a connection to the divine in a deeply profound way.  Like Father P., her commitment to brining light to the darkness and sharing hope and courage with the rest of the world – and esp. those of us seeking validation, compassion and welcoming while living our authentic selves, is deeply moving.  He was an outreach Chabad activist for all those years, and that essence has remained the key to her life – the only difference being her gender – and her happiness. Not a big deal, yet such a huge statement about our lives and times. 

Sometimes a leap of faith is a physical transition, reconnecting body and soul in a brave recreation of creation. The journey to authentic living, we were all reminded, will invariably include crossroads and transitions, and ultimately call on each of us to leap from our own wound into sacred truth. 

Today Yiscah goes back to Israel, to continue teaching Judaism and to help lead the spiritual transgender movement worldwide.  It’s an honor to welcome her, celebrate her courage and share her vision. It’s a very big deal – and we are lucky to live at a time and a place where it’s really just a big deal at all – just a great teacher sharing deep wisdom about what life and love is all about. 

Her book is for sale, and highly recommended: 

40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living

Amichai Lau-Lavie

"And Aaron was silent" - Mourning a Master