We hear from trans-activists (including on this blog – see yesterday’s interview with Nick Teich) that one impediment to transgender inclusion in the Jewish community is that many people are unsure what trans inclusion actually looks like. The suggestions below provide a vital entry point for allies seeking tangible steps to make their community more transgender friendly.
These steps are excerpted from a pamphlet created by Rabbis Elliot Kukla, Reuven Zellman and TransTorah, in collaboration with the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation and Jewish Mosaic, which in 2010 merged with Keshet.
Share these steps with friends, family, clergy, and others in your community.
“And G-d created the human being in G-d’s own image…”
What Does “Transgender” Mean?
Transgender or trans is a broad term that can encompass anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes people who take medical steps to modify their appearance and those who do not.
Some transmen and transwomen identify completely with their preferred gender (for example, they may have been assigned male gender at birth and raised as a boy but now see themselves as completely female), while other trans people may identify with an alternate gender identity that is neither male nor female.
What’s at Stake?
Transphobia, the fear of gender variation in society, impacts all parts of life. Children who do not gender-conform are often met with physical, verbal and sexual cruelty and are sometimes forced to drop out of school, while youth are frequently disowned by their families and lose economic support. Transgender adults face discrimination in employment, healthcare, and many social services.
The Jewish community is equally impacted by transphobia. As a result, many trans and gender nonconforming individuals feel unwelcome in synagogue and unable to access spiritual care or support.
What Does Jewish Tradition Say?
Although Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries, they also acknowledged that not all parts of God’s creation can be contained within human categories. Jewish sacred texts include a wide range of gender diversity.
Two gender variant figures – the tumtum and the androgynos – appear more than 200 times in the Babylonian Talmud alone. According to one midrash, the first human being was an androgynos, while the Talmud teaches that Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were tumtumim. Most centrally, Jewish tradition teaches that people of all genders are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27)
The first question to ask about someone else’s gender is: “Do I really need to know?” In most situations, a person’s gender is not relevant. For example, if someone walks into Shabbat services and their gender is unclear, there is almost certainly no reason to ask or comment in any way. The person is there to pray and to be among community. They can be welcomed without knowing what their gender identity is.
If you decide that you do need to know or understand something about someone else’s gender, appropriate and respectful questions include: “What pronoun do you prefer?” or “Is there anything I/we/the community can do to make this a more comfortable place?” It is inappropriate ask about our bodies, our medical history, or how our families feel about our gender.
Making Your Congregation or Community More Trans-Friendly
Synagogues and other Jewish organizations are beginning to make changes and develop programming ideas to make their community more trans-friendly and to help educate members about transgender experiences. The following are examples of some steps that synagogues have taken to become more educated and welcoming.
In flyers, newsletters, announcements, sermons, etc., instead of writing “men and women welcome” or “for both men and women,” try “all genders welcome,” or “for all genders.”
Consider whether all of your facility’s restrooms must be gender-specific or whether one could be made available to everyone. This need not be complicated; covering the “men” or “women” sign with “all-gender restroom” is sufficient. Remember to do this for temporary, shared, or rental facilities also.
• Consider how comfortable a trans person might be marking a wedding, b’nei mitzvah, conversion, loss or other life cycle event in your congregation. How open could they be about their identity during the process? What about from the bimah?
• Transgender people often experience particular life-cycle events such as a gender change or a name change. Some wish to mark these events in a Jewish way, either publicly or privately. Consider how open your community is to developing new rituals or adapting existing ones.
• It is important to be especially sensitive around vulnerable experiences such as mikveh or illness. The best approach is to listen carefully to the needs that the trans person expresses and to accommodate those to the greatest possible extent – even if it’s not the way things are “usually” done.
• Rethinking liturgy: Are there non-gendered and gender diverse language options for human beings and for God?
• Invite the community to a panel discussion, workshop or other event that will open up dialogue.
• Offer an adult education class or sermon about trans issues in general or about trans and intersex issues in Jewish text or Jewish community.
• If another organization is putting on a trans-related program, offer to host it, co-sponsor it, or advertise it.
Political and Social Action
Include transgender and gender diversity issues as part of your community’s social action work. There are many transgender community services and advocacy organizations that are in great need of our support.
• Make sure to publicize changes that your congregation is making, as well as programs that you are planning. This will help to let trans people know that your community cares about being an affirming place for them.
• Consider an outreach plan. The world at large is not very welcoming to transgender people. Therefore, trans people often assume that they are not welcome or included – unless it is stated otherwise.