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Interviewee: ROBERT CROWE

Interviewer: Dena Scher
Interview Date: January 20, 2019
Location: Lake Orion, MI
Interview No.: 01.20.19-RC (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 1 hour 13 minutes)


Themes:Jewish Identity, Conversion, Upbringing

Summary:Robert details the difficult childhood and painful part of his adulthood as he struggled to understand and accept his gender identity. His Jewish identity came about when he was trying to connect with spirituality.

Example of proper citation/attribution:

Scher, D. (Interviewer) & Crowe, R. (Interviewee). (2018). Robert Crowe: Jewish Journeys[Interview index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah:




Earliest memories of religion: Dad was minister at inner city church in Birmingham, England, Anglican—Church of England, both parents Anglican. Both from Braxton, just over border into Wales. Older sister 4 years older, brother 2years older. Total immersion in religion—went to whatever parents did. Remembers a manger scene with real animals. Remembers playing in the hall, has positive feelings.


Moved to Darby when he was eight. Father had been part of team, wanted to be on his own. Stayed there for 12 years, was the sole rector. Involved in everything: choir, rang the bells. It was social, friend, singing. Became confused about religious identity, at about 14 yrs, struggle about confirmation. Belief in the tenets of Christianity---did get confirmed. Discussed it with sister.


Not an easy time, happiest at home, didn’t have peer group friends, was struggling with his gender identity, I was being raised as a girl, body was changing and causing him distress. Could be a tomboy. Hated the changes in his body, did what he could to hide the changes. Found younger friends. Was totally isolated at school, but at home had younger friends in the village. First memory was at age 2 or 3 in the bath with his brother and asked when my body was going to change and look like his, and his sister laughed and said it’s not because you’re a girl. He was angry with her for saying that and thought she was lying. Battles over clothes he would wear—wanted to be called by a boy’s name (age 7). Was confused by it.


The feeling of being a boy persisted. At school was a loner and was bullied because he was a misfit. In school, had changed from being outgoing to being silent. Didn’t do homework. Went to college at 16yrs for two years—was relief because away from the people who were bullying him. Thought he must be wrong, because he didn’t know anyone like him. Grades were not good. Could get into teaching, did not want to go away, accepted going away to Teacher’s College in the Lake District.


Made a decision to act like a girl, let hair grow, wore more neutral clothes (had always worn boy’s clothes), was trying to fit in.

Didn’t know people of other religions, no diversity. All were Church of England.

Moved away from home, Kept trying to be a Christian and a girl. Trying to get a teaching degree, dropped out—basically had a breakdown—anxiety, depression. Ended up in hospital, was self-harming. Had no understanding—everything was homophobic, but not my family. In school, no understanding. Terrible time. Determined to be independent, had made some friends, had no physical contact with anyone. Family did not know, didn’t tell them.


Slowly came out of it. Took until mid 30’s before could live. Was seeing a good psychiatric nurse and got into residential place, Turning Point. Read a book (The Bone People)—was a character who did not feel like a man or a woman, read it a hundred times, first indication that there was anyone in the world who had feeling like I had. Was 19 yrs old. Given up on religious identity. Went back to the village had lived in—Went back to psychiatric nurse, who said he wondered when he would realize it….but he still did not know what transgender meant or anything about it.


Nurse told him that there was a gender identity clinic in London and could be referred there. I had no idea about it, but I knew I wanted to change my body. Felt confused for several months, then I was determined. And there was a long wait and I was depressed and back in the hospital. Told his parents and they were supportive. Was in rehab for two years, went to London and started hormone treatment. Accepted for treatment at 21 yrs. Was living as a male working on a farm—it felt wonderful but was terrified he would be found out.


Carried on treatment, my parents were supportive all along, my brother and sister came along, and my grandparents paid for me to have private surgery. I was becoming more and more happy with my body and so more happy with myself. Still struggling with anxiety & depression. Went to agricultural school and started working on farm and then went back to church & tried to connect. Didn’t connect well and gave up. Then decided wanted to go back to teaching. I like farming, but I was a vegetarian! First year was miserable…second year I joined a mountaineering group and that saved me from quitting. I found people who were nice and understood me….totally saved my life, still friends with them today. Now I was doing well in school. I was getting better. I was in the closet as male—they knew me as a male. Was having a lot of medical procedures. Had about 20 surgeries over 15 years. Doctors were endlessly frustrated—never treated as a whole person, no counseling. Just pushed down the system.


Wanted nothing to do with anyone who was like me. Back then I was totally negative. I was living as a male, my parents knew but nobody else. I lived in constant fear of being found out. For fifteen years I lived like that…until I was thirty. I couldn’t have any relationships because then I would have to tell them. Got to my mid thirties and had a major breakdown….had to stop work and I was really was very ill with anxiety and depression. I had had my final surgery and had finished my master’s. I got better and I decided to travel. Jumping forward, I got the best counseling that helped me—it was what I needed. Made the decision to go to New Zealand for six months. I was 35 years. I had been teaching for eight years. I had given up on teaching. All my friendships were superficial. I wasn’t telling anyone anything.


Had the strength to start a new beginning, helped to have family support. My family accepted me and supported me. Went to New Zealand. Went to a running club and they invited me to Christmas dance, I decided that I could be anything, so decided I would be someone who danced really badly and had a good time and so I did. I had that sense that I could be anyone, I could re-invent myself. I travel more and the feeling grew on me that I just wanted to be me and be honest about myself. Went to one week gathering of LGBT people and they were ordinary people and all my prejudices towards that community were ridiculous. So I started to make friends, I finally found the right person to come out to and they were great. Not negative. From that beginning I started to come out to other people. I went to a guest house and worked on the farm and stayed for a while. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care what gender the person was, if I was drawn to the personality, then it didn’t matter what gender they were. It’s hard to define yourself as gay or straight, when you don’t live in a binary world. You don’t see gender in that way.


I became interested in the personality of people. People don’t know you’re transgender unless you choose to tell them—so there was the hurdle every time of telling them and not know how they would react. I was there for six months and then I went back to England. I decided to tell all my mountaineering group, everyone at once, all forty people. And I had a back up plan, if it didn’t work out, if they rejected me, I’d go back to New Zealand. There was a gathering and I told them all at one time—I made a speech and everyone was great, so that area of my life was improving, but still no career and no spirituality. So I went back to New Zealand for 5 months. My first Jewish experience happened then—I went to someone’s house and they were doing Havdallah after Shabbat. I had been to Israel, but this was the first time that I’d participated. I was drawn into the experience.


I went back to the same quest house and Arnie came to visit at the guest house. My van had broken down far away, so I was trying to get back to it and he offered to give me a lift. He was taking a long route and we were going to have to travel together for five days. I was drawn to him as a human being and he was a rabbi, so I could find out more about Judaism. He taught me a lot about Judaism. Our relationship grew over that five day trip. He went back to the US and I had a couple months more in New Zealand. Then I flew back to Britain and three weeks later I went to visit him. We talked about everything and continued to travel together. Arnie did a workshop in Wellington about the Shema and I was there for that. I was definitely interested in Judaism—I had tried various routes.


Not particularly religious, I’m a rationalist. The idea that you keep learning about it, and struggling with it, and trying to make sense of it. I read a lot and found concepts of God that were closer to my own beliefs. I have a spirituality but not a religious understanding. The idea that something outside of ourselves that directs us, I don’t believe, but I do feel a connectedness with the world. I can’t verbalize it as clearly, the sense is still within me. This was during the conversion process—it took a long time because I wanted to be certain that it was for me. The first time I came to visit Arnie, I met a lot of people and he came to England. I came for longer and longer periods.


I went to community college. I tried school counseling, but didn’t want to work with adults. I wanted to work with children. Then I found out about this school through members of Shir Tikvah. I visited Upland Hills and started volunteering here, then part time. Felt like it was a different kind of school. After about three years I thought I could go back to teaching if it was here. I met Arnie in 2007 and I spent three years thinking and studying about Judaism. I had my bar mitzvah at the school. My family has always been supportive; my father had an interest in Judaism. I converted in 2010 and had my bar mitzvah in same year. I continue to learn more and think through different practices and what is most meaningful to me. It’s a continuing journey, I feel like I’m just at the beginning of it. Where the gender identity/sexual orientation and Jewish identity intersect—when I came to Shir Tikvah and Arnie was the rabbi and he was so beloved and accepted and gay, seeing everyone around him and to be accepted so warmly and welcomed so warmly, I began to accept how I saw myself..I wouldn’t say that feeling of shame and internalized homophobia is entirely gone because I know there are times when I still feel it, it made an enormous difference, it was a healing experience. To know that in this community, Shir Tikvah, it was safe. In the outer world there is anti Semitism and Homophobia—I’m aware of it and the homophobia is more obvious when I’m with Arnie because we are a couple. But it is wonderful to know that Shir Tikvah is there. It depends on the synagogue about whether I will feel accepted, some of them are open and welcoming. We were on a panel because the congregation had decided to have same sex marriage on the bimah.




Mon, April 12 2021 30 Nisan 5781