Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is designated as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Holy One. We are abjured against violence to the human body so strongly that even after death, we treat dead bodies with reverence.

Transgender people deserve the same respect as every other human being, but in fact they are at grave risk of bodily harm and murder. I learned this on a visceral level years ago, when a young person who had grown up in my kitchen embarked on transition to a greater wholeness. I found I was terrified for him – terrified in my bones, because I knew what might to happen to him even on his college campus here in California.

It’s a happy story: he’s a healthy young man, pursuing his career, contributing to society. Now that he’s a thirty-something with thinning hair and a professorial air, I don’t worry about him quite as much.

But far too many transgender persons, especially transwomen of color, don’t make it to their thirties, much less beyond. Too many are murdered every year. For a sense of that, read Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015: Those We’ve Lost from The Advocate. The graphics there are not visually upsetting – no photos of bodies – but they are nonetheless shocking: too many dead.

Then DO something: join me in supporting the Transgender Law Center, a public interest law firm that has been worked hard for many small changes in US law and policy. There is much work to be done, but I have been an active supporter of TLC for over ten years and I have seen them squeeze more from a dime than any other non-profit I know.

The slaughter of transgender people is an ugly reality. Today, let’s acknowledge it by making the world better.

URJ Takes a Stand on Transgender Rights

This past week the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) passed A Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. While a resolution is not binding on URJ congregations, it does set a standard for policy in URJ congregations. The URJ is the association of the 900 Reform congregations across North America, just as the CCAR is the association of Reform rabbis, and the ACC is the association of Reform cantors.

This is a landmark resolution. As the International Business Times reported, “It is the most comprehensive and extensive set of guidelines for transgender rights adopted by any major religious organization.”

The resolution addresses the very real concerns and needs of transgender and gender non-conforming members of our congregations and communities. I am sure that someone, somewhere, is saying that this is just the Reform movement being trendy, but the truth is that we have these members among our families and we need to serve them properly and with care for their dignity. We are also responsible as Jews to speak up for the disenfranchised and the oppressed in our larger society. All human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One. As such, there is no excuse, ever, for causing a person embarrassment, much less physical distress. Every human being has a right to physical safety and human dignity.

A resolution is not a revolution. It is likely that every congregation falls short in some aspect of the ideals enumerated below. It’s up to us to make teshuvah for past wrongs and to make the necessary adjustments in our social action, in our buildings, in our paperwork, in our classrooms, and in our language. We can do this.

I invite your feedback and discussion in the comments after you read the resolution. What do you like in it? What troubles you? What do you wish were there?


Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People

Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism


Throughout the Reform Movement’s history, we have worked tirelessly to fight discrimination, support equality, and strengthen the rights of minorities and women. In 1977, both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed resolutions affirming “the rights of homosexuals.” We welcome and celebrate people of all sexual orientations in our congregations and oppose laws that fail to uphold principles of equality for all. North American culture and society have, in general, become increasingly accepting of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual, yet too often transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are forced to live as second-class citizens.

“Transgender” is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Gender non-conforming is a term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.

Although much work remains to be done to fully overcome discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities face particular ongoing legal and cultural bigotry and discrimination. Transgender individuals are often unable to easily update their government documents, such as passports and birth certificates, in order to reflect their correct gender and name. As a result, transgender individuals can be denied the right to vote because their documents do not match their gender. In Canada, six provinces (Ontario, 20 Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Newfoundland) and one territory (Northwest 21 Territories) offer protections based on gender identity yet a federal bill has long been stalled in Parliament.1 In both the U.S. and Canada, transgender individuals experience frequent incidents of hate crimes and harassment, and often face discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing. Simply choosing their preferred pronoun or accessing facilities based on their gender identity without facing others’ objections or fearing violence can be a challenge for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The combined impact of all of these factors has contributed to higher than average poverty, homelessness and suicide rates among transgender people.23

Efforts within the Reform Movement over the past decade reflect our commitment to greater inclusivity of transgender and gender non-conforming people. In 2003, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student. Recently, both NFTY and URJ camps have taken steps to become more inclusive of transgender participants in their material, application forms, facilities and programs. In 2015, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Rabbinical Placement Commission updated its policies to require that congregations and other organizations seeking a rabbi commit to including in their search all candidates regardless of gender identity. The Reform Movement has also built partnerships with organizations like Keshet (, to create and improve resources for our congregations, institutions, affiliates and programs. Despite this important progress, there is more work to be done to make our Movement and our society fully inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Two key Reform responsa highlight the imperative toward full inclusion of transgender people in accordance with Jewish tradition. A 1990 responsum (CCAR 5750.8) affirmed that being transgender alone is not a basis to deny someone conversion to Judaism. A 1978 responsum affirmed that a rabbi may officiate at the wedding of two Jews if one partner has transitioned to the gender with which they identify, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth (“Marriage After a Sex-change Operation” in American Reform ResponsaVol. LXXXVIII, 1978, pp. 52-54). These responsa reflect biblical tradition that teaches us that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim—in the Divine image. As it says in Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” From this bedrock principle stems our commitment to defend any individual from the discrimination that arises from ignorance, fear, insensitivity, or hatred. Knowing that members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities are often singled out for discrimination and even violence, we are reminded of the Torah’s injunction, “do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Union for Reform Judaism:

  1. Affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  2. Affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations;
  3. Encourages Reform congregations, congregants, clergy, camps, institutions and affiliates, including NFTY, to continue to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  4. Urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and that require individuals to be treated equally under the law as the gender by which they identify. This includes establishing the right to change without undue burden their identification documents to reflect their gender and name and ensuring equal access to medical and social services;
  5. Calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments at all levels to review and revise all laws and policies to ensure full equality and protections for people of all gender identities and expressions;
  6. Urges Reform Movement institutions to begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. These activities may include cultural competency trainings for religious school staff, the new congregational resource guide on transgender inclusion being created by the Religious Action Center, education programs on gender identity and expression, and sermons on the topic of gender identity and gender expression;
  7. Recommends URJ congregations and Reform Movement institutions, facilities and events ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals;
  8. Urges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language, and offering more than two gender options or eliminating the need to select a gender on forms; and
  9. Will work in collaboration with other Reform Movement institutions to create ritual, programmatic and educational materials that will empower such institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.




Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5

Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.

Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.

In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:

  • zachar – male
  • nekevah – female
  • androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
  • tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
  • ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
  • saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia

Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.

Some readers may think that this is a wild Reform reading of the texts.  (I am certainly a Reform rabbi!) If you are interested in following up, I recommend Terms for Jewish Diversity from Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He gives citations and a count of the time these terms appear in the texts. The Religious Action Center offers a readable article on the subject, Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition.

So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”

What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:

Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.

Don’t Forget the T’s!

June is almost gone, and I haven’t written about Pride yet.

We’re waiting for a big Supreme Court decision that will be a big deal for lesbian and gay rights, the question about whether same-gender couples should have the right to marry in the states that haven’t yet proclaimed that right. (I am sure a lawyer could have put that more elegantly.) What I want everyone to notice that if this does come through, it will be great for the L’s the G’s, and maybe the B’s. It isn’t going to do all that terribly much for the T’s. Life is still very, very hard for transgender folk, and that hasn’t really been changed all that much by a certain transwoman appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.

How is it hard? Transgender persons face discrimination in school and in the workplace. It’s a little better than it was, but it’s not good. Come out as transgender if you aren’t already a celebrity, and you’re going to have a hard time finding work, even if you’re very good at your job. Once you’ve got the job, then you have to navigate bathrooms – bathrooms! – and a million other details. You will have to navigate a web of discrimination when you seek housing, a driver’s license, immigration, even prison. In all these areas, you will have to deal with people in random positions of petty power pulling rank on whatever simple thing you are trying and insisting that no, you cannot have what you want until you tell them about your genitals. Then maybe you can have whatever it is or maybe you can forget it.

In fact, you can’t have a conversation with quite a chunk of America without that topic coming up: what do you have, what do you no longer have, did it hurt, and oh WHAT do you do in bed? (We lesbians used to get that last one all the time, and boy, did it get boring. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have strangers inquiring about specifics of the plumbing on a regular, casual, social basis.) People, this stuff is Not Our Business.

I hope and pray that whatever happens with the Supreme Court, we don’t act like a bunch of [insert rude word here] and tell our transgender neighbors that they are on their own. Because they are us, and they are threatened daily by violence and oppression. Transgender women of color are the most vulnerable: those statistics should break the hardest heart.

How can you help? Glad you asked. There’s an organization doing fantastic work on transgender rights, the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. They have excellent leadership and they make every dime stretch to its limit. They have an impressive list of accomplishments for an organization that has existed less than 15 years. (Click on the link and see!) If you want major bang for your tzedakah buck, TLC is a great investment. I have been a supporter for a decade and I think the world of them.

How can you help if you don’t have any money? Don’t make jokes about transgender people, and discourage such “humor.” Don’t ask about people’s privates, and explain to others who speculate that it really isn’t cool. DO treat a trans person with the same respect and courtesy that you want for yourself. And when and if you have an opportunity to support legislation that makes things more equal, show up and vote.

That’s my Pride message this year.

A Season of Growth – #36rabbis

A little over a month ago, I wrote about shaving my head at the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” event in Chicago. A group of rabbis, mostly but not all Reform, shaved our heads in an effort to raise consciousness and cash for pediatric cancer research. Our inspiration was the life of a little boy who did not survive leukemia, the eight year old child of our colleagues, Sammy Sommer.

The experience has given me one surprise after another.

It turned out that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to shave my head: I actually felt freed by it, and after fulfilling a promise to a friend this summer, I intend to get rid of the hair again. I liked the bald look: elegant in its own way, and striking.

In the meantime, I’m walking around with what looks like a bad crew cut as the hair grows out. My hair is about half an inch long. If I put on a hat, my scalp itches. Every day, I’ve gotten a little more upset when I looked in the mirror, and today I finally figured it out.

I had gone out today without makeup or earrings. While I was pumping gas, I caught sight of a reflection in the car window. The image looked to me like a middle aged man with a bad crew cut. “Who IS that guy?” I thought, annoyed.

Then I realized: That guy is me.  

My next thought was: Never, ever leave the house again without lipstick.

I am quite aware that just as shaving my head was nothing like having cancer, this tiny bit of gender discomfort is nothing like the reality facing transgender people. On the other hand, it does seem that there may yet be more to learn from this experience, especially since now I know why the clerk at Staples seemed to be looking at me funny, and hesitated in speaking to me.

So – if you would like to join me in supporting childhood cancer research, you can still donate here. Truly, it’s a good cause.

And if I learn anything worth passing along about being mistaken for a middle aged guy with a bad crew cut, I promise to print it here!