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:
- Include a blurb about Trans Awareness Week in your newsletter
- Lead a text study on transgender inclusion
- Learn about the importance of pronouns and how to use them
- Post trans-inclusion stickers in your synagogue
Some suggestions for a Trans Day of Remembrance Shabbat:
- Light a yahrzeit candle (try adding a TDOR label)
- Read a list of names of the trans people who have died this year
- Read a Trans Day of Remembrance prayer, such as the one offered below from Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells
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.
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.