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Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

A Jewish Approach to Transgender Awareness Week

After services one Friday night, I was approached by a woman and child I had not seen before. The woman knew I was a rabbinical student, and said she had an important question to ask me. Then, slowly, trying to find the right words, she said, “Let’s say there was someone who was born female but realized they were male—a female to male transgender person. Would that person be able to have a bar mitzvah? Is that something Judaism would allow?”

What providence that I of all people would be asked this question!

I heard myself blurt out, “You don’t know? I’m trans!”

Shocked, the woman took a second to process my words. Then, she grinned and grabbed her son’s shoulders with excitement. “Look,” she exclaimed to him, “the rabbi is just like you!”

When joining a new community, I often hear that they’ve never had a trans employee, or even a trans member. I always respond, “That you know of.” Sometimes I’m in a position where I’m out and open about being trans, where I’m visible as a trans person, where everyone is aware that they’re talking to someone who is trans. Other times, I’m just another person in the room and people may not know I’m trans.

Even though I was “out” to this community, the news had not spread to everyone. While I had talked about acceptance and inclusion of trans people previously, I hadn’t mentioned it in that Shabbat service. The synagogue didn’t have any flags or stickers that indicated trans inclusion. Therefore, this woman had no way of knowing that the community was inclusive. Similarly, none of the other community members had any way of knowing that the little boy starting religious school was transgender.

As members of a community, we make certain vows to support and care for one another. But how can we care for our community if we’re not aware of who is in it? Many people think that “trans inclusion” is not relevant to their community. Yet in reality, there are trans people everywhere, in the smallest of communities, in the most remote of locations. There are trans people who are already members of our communities who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe celebrating that aspect of themselves in a Jewish setting. And there are trans people who wish to join our communities but may be afraid that they will not be welcomed or embraced for who they are.

Transgender Awareness Week (November 13–19) was created to celebrate trans people, honor our identities, and educate others about our needs and struggles. Observing Transgender Awareness Week with trans-specific programming is a wonderful way to signal to trans people that your community is open and welcoming. It is also an opportunity to educate non-trans individuals on how best to respect and support trans people in your community and beyond.

At the end of Transgender Awareness Week is Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20). This is the trans community’s memorial day to recognize the countless lives lost to transphobic violence around the world. This year, Trans Day of Remembrance falls on a Saturday. Many synagogues across the country will be observing a special Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat. Consider bringing this to your Jewish community this year.  

As Jews, we believe that all people are made in the image of God, and each of us is holy and sacred. As Reform Jews, we believe that caring for the most marginalized members of our communities is tikkun olam, repairing the world. By spreading awareness of transgender issues and by uplifting transgender experiences, we are doing our part in healing the brokenness of our world caused by hatred and bigotry.

Here are some ways to observe Trans Awareness Week:

Some suggestions for a Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat:

A Transgender Day of Remembrance Yizkor (Prayer of Remembrance): For Those Who Died Sanctifying Their Names

God full of compassion, remember those whose souls were taken in transphobic violence. Those souls reflected the tremendous, multitudinous splendor of Your creations; they illustrated Your vastness through their ever-expanding variations of being b’tzelem Elohim, of being made in Your image. Source of mercy, provide them the true shelter and peace that they deserved in this world.

Those deaths were caused by hatred in our society. It is upon us to repair this brokenness in our world. May we have the strength to sanction justice, speedily and in our days.

For those who died by murder, we remember them. For those who died by suicide, we remember them. We remember their names, for those names will forever be a blessing.

Nurturing One, comfort all who are mourning. Grant them healing in their hardship.

.וְנֹאמַר: אָמֵן

V’nomar: amein.

And let us say: Amen.

– by Ariel Tovlev, 2019, published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells


Ariel Tovlev (he/they) is the rabbinic intern at CCAR Press. He is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles. His writing appears in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020), and he was a featured speaker at the CCAR event Leaving the Narrow Space: Embracing and Elevating Jewish Transgender and Non-binary Experiences.

Categories
LGBT News Social Justice

The Supreme Court Today Accepted the CCAR’s Position: Title VII Bans LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination

Just less than a year ago, the CCAR joined with other faith groups in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County.  At the time, I shared a message about what that brief said.

Today, the Court decided the case.  By a 6-3 vote, it held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans workplace discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  People who assume that the Court always votes on strict ideological lines will probably be surprised by this outcome and by the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch, regarded by many as a safe conservative, authored the majority opinion.

One reason we keep producing amicus briefs is that neither this nor any other court can be so easily catalogued.  While judges have ideological tendencies, most of them do attempt to apply the law.  This decision used some very traditional legal reasoning to determine that the Civil Rights Act means what it says: treating a man differently from a woman, or vice versa, violates the law.  If a woman who is attracted to man cannot be fired for that reason, neither can a man who is attracted to men.  End of story.

Our brief dealt with whether there might be occasions where someone might not have to obey this law for religious reasons.  We said any such occasions were few and far between, and certainly didn’t come up here. The Court agreed with our second point.  If and when that question is legitimately presented in the future, we will again be prepared to share our views.

In the meantime, our most basic position was affirmed: federal law protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.  For today, that is reason enough to rejoice. 

Categories
LGBT Social Justice

We Just Told the Supreme Court: The CCAR Opposes Employment Discrimination against LGBTQ Individuals

Among its various activities, the CCAR signs on to various briefs filed amicus curiae.  The term means “friend of the court.”  Amicus briefs are designed to inform a court about relevant facts and law that the parties to the case might not have had reason to focus on.  The CCAR signs on to several of these briefs a year, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and in state and lower federal courts.  I serve as the amicus coordinator for the Conference.

In the Supreme Court term that just ended, we signed onto a brief in Commerce Dept. v. New York that opposed the effort of the Administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.  The Court agreed that this effort was illegal.  Of course, not all our briefs convince the courts, but they all get our opinions before them.

The start of the coming Supreme Court term, around Rosh Hashanah, will hear oral arguments on three consolidated cases that deal with employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.  The issue that all of them present is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects these employees because such treatment constitutes prohibited sex discrimination. 

In Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, a skydiving instructor was fired because of his sexual orientation.  In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a funeral director was fired after she informed her employer that she was transgender.  The employer had insisted that she present to the public according to her gender at birth.  In Bostock v. Clayton County, a county child welfare services coordinator was terminated when his employer learned that he was gay.  Two of the federal appellate courts hearing these cases determined that these firings were prohbited by Title VII; the other held that Title VII didn’t bar the termination.  The Supreme Court will resolve this dispute.

I shared the story of each case in order to remind us that court decisions are not just abstract intellectual matters.  How the Supreme Court rules will have a major impact in the lives of real people.

We signed onto a brief arguing that LGBTQ discrimination is indeed illegal under Title VII.  The URJ, WRJ, and MRJ joined us in this.  But this was a very special sort of brief, the kind that an amicus brief should be.  It was written specifically for religious organizations and clergy.  Denise Eger let members of the Conference who are on the Facebook page know about this brief and gave them an opportunity to sign on as individuals.

The brief explains why several religions, including ours, views equal treatment of LGBTQ individuals as a religious imperative.  It refers to actions and positions taken by these religious organizations, including the CCAR and the URJ.  It counters arguments made by other faith groups that their religious beliefs in effect require them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.  It responds that allowing such discrimination in effect favors those religions at the expense of ours and of others who share our views.

We cannot know how the Court will rule.  We can know that we have told it that allowing some to discriminate against LGBTQ people on religious grounds will also constitute discrimination against our way of practicing our religion.


Rabbi Thomas Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.

Read more about the brief on the CCAR’s website.