Categories
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 parenting

A Thank You Note to My Son

Rabbi Peter Kessler is senior rabbi at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Here, to honor Transgender Awareness Week and the transgender community, he shares an open letter to his son, Floyd.

Dear Floyd,

I loved spending the past weekend with you at Alfred University. Your freshman year is off to a stellar start!

Your dad and I could not be prouder of you as you continue your journey to becoming a responsible adult. I’d like to tell you some of the reasons I am so proud of you, and your adjustment to life off at college.

Floyd Kessler with his college art project,
Jack, the puppet

We have always been a “different kind of family.” You never had any issues adjusting to a world that may have looked at you sideways as you had two dads. You were always kind, polite, and were more interested in changing the world rather than fighting change. When you told us that you were born into the wrong body and were transgender, I was brought back to the time in the 1970s when I was your age and told my parents that I was gay. They were frightened that I would be cast aside by friends and family, unable to have a happy life, and that I would not able to become a parent. I helped prove to them that my life was just beginning—and that happiness would certainly come my way.

But you have taken that story to another level. You came into our lives and taught us how to become loving parents, strong allies of the disadvantaged, and open to any possibility that you brought home, even when you told us that you were transgender. We supported you by taking you to therapists and doctors to guide you, and you supported us with your words of encouragement, worrying more about us than yourself, and allowing us to walk with you on this often difficult journey.

Floyd Kessler’s artwork on display
at the Art Association of Harrisburg

Of course you were blessed with an open loving congregation, kind and caring friends, and KESHET, the national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in all facets of Jewish life. Your involvement with KESHET and your openness to help everyone in the trans community who comes to you for advice and support makes me proud of you every day.

Now you are becoming an adult, and while you still hug us and love us unconditionally, as your parent I must thank you, and tell you that you are an inspiration to any parent blessed to have a son like you. We are proud of the person you are becoming, and we’re proud of your artistic talent as you create the pieces that chronicle your story into becoming the person you needed to be.

Floyd, thank you for being an amazing person, one committed to making the world a better place, and someone I will always love unconditionally.

With love and admiration,

Papa