How synagogues can make transgender Jews feel welcome
IN THE past few months, transgender people have moved from the twilight into the spotlight. Thanks to celebrities including Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Kellie Maloney, transgender people and issues have found their way into the mainstreampressandhavebeentrendingonsocial media. Amazon TV series Transparent has received multiple awards for its portrayal of a Jewish family man coming out as a woman named Maura Pfefferman. For many years, the Jewish community was not somewhere transgender people could find belonging and religious meaning. However, that is now changing, especially within the Progressive Jewish world.
Within the Liberal Jewish community, a growing number of people have openly identified as trans. Liberal Judaism has even launched the pioneering Lottery-funded oral history project Twilight People, exploring the intersection of gender identity and faith.
The movement, its rabbis and communities are also working hard on the practical life-cycle issues around being transgender, including name changes and wedding ceremonies. When marriages have taken place, the only practical difference for the rabbi is finding out which gender the couple identify as. Once that is known, the marriage ceremony is prepared like any other, with the language and prayers reflecting whether the couple are of the same or different genders.
Rabbi Mark Solomon, the associate chairman of Liberal Judaism’sBeitDin,said:“TheonlyoccasionsofarwhentransgenderissueshavearisenwiththeBeitDinitself isregarding a change of name on a status certificate, and the Beit Din was very happy to respond positively to the request. As a Liberal Beit Din, we would always respond in a respectful, open way, respecting people’s gender identity.”
Other practical issues facing transgender people have been discussed, such as circumcision and ceremonies to mark a gender transition or for non-binary identified people (those who neither identify as male nor female).
Rabbi Solomon added: “I have had occasional discussions with people who have transitioned from female to male regarding whether they would want or require a circumcision. The best response I can give at the moment is that we would always respond as positively as we could to anyone, always in consultation with appropriate medical advice as to whether circumcision was appropriate or required in any individual case.
“If it was felt that some form of symbolic ritual, to mark both their new gender identity and their new Jewish identity, was desirable, then we would certainly try to facilitate such a symbolic ceremony.”
Twilight People project manager and transgender activist Surat-Shaan Knan is someone with first-hand experi- ence of the difficulties that transgender people of faith have to deal with.
“Despite the transgender community’s increased visibility and the great work being done by Liberal Judaism and Twilight People, I still don’t really feel understood and included in UK Jewish community life,” he said. “My own coming-out experience has been replete with unspoken questions and awkward encounters, stemming surely from a lack of visibility.”
Education about the subject should start at an early age, he said. “We need to promote a greater knowledge and understanding of the needs and requirements of transgender and gender-variant people. Often there is little awareness about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Every rabbi should look into the development of life-cycle events and liturgy. Jewish ritual should be adapted in trans-inclusive ways.
“I would also like to see Transgender Day of Remembrance, which happens annually on November 20 to commemorate the victims of transphobic violence, added to the service calendar in every congregation. This year the Twilight People project will be hosting a multi-faith Shabbat ceremony at a London university.” Liberal activist Surat-Shaan Knan at the Knesset earlier this year for Israel’s first transgender consultation
Practical issues around being transgender have also been at the forefront of thinking in Liberal Judaism’s youth movement LJY-Netzer. Two leaders on LJY-Netzer’s Machaneh Kadimah summer camp had recently come out as trans, leading to discussions around which gender dorms they should lead. On camp, both were assigned dorms of the gender they identified with and were given the same treatment as any other leader.
Twenty-year-old Ruth, one of the leaders, stresses how welcome she was made to feel. “I believe that respecting identities is at the core of the Liberal movement,” she said. “At camp, we had some really inspiring and engaging sessions with young people aged 8-15 about gender issues. It’s made such a difference to their lives.”
Liberal Judaism’s chief executive, Rabbi Danny Rich, said that the movement has “responded to the pain that many trans people feel when condemned by religious authorities and isolated by ignorant neighbours. I am proud we are at the forefront of efforts to make trans voices count.”
Two leaders on Liberal Judaism’s summer youth camp recently came out as trans
Rabbi Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student and young-adult chaplain. For information on the Twilight People project, see twilightpeople.com