Rabbis Speak Out for Equality

Gov. Deval Patrick signing the Transgender Equal Rights Bill

Governor Patrick joins advocates and legislators for a ceremonial bill signing of H.3810, “An Act Relative to Gender Identity.” (Photo: Eric Haynes/Governor's Office)

On July 1st, Massachusetts moved one step closer to living up to its reputation as the birthplace of democracy – the Transgender Equal Rights Bill that passed in November 2011, went into effect!

Massachusetts joins 15 other states (plus Washington D.C. and 143 cities and counties) in adding non-discrimination laws for gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education, and credit. Hate crimes laws were also updated to include gender identity.

This is a major victory for equality.

However, the bill doesn’t extend protections in public accommodations—meaning that while it’s illegal to fire a hotel employee for being transgender, it’s not illegal to refuse service to a potential guest for the same reason. Keshet, along with other activists and committed state legislators, will continue to fight for full equal rights.

In Massachusetts, Keshet spearheaded the Jewish community presence on the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality (ICTE), a multi-faith alliance to mobilize support for transgender rights legislation in Massachusetts. To the best of our knowledge, the ICTE is the only interfaith group in the country working for transgender inclusion and civil rights.

Almost 60 Jewish clergy, community leaders, and organizations signed a formal declaration of support for the civil rights bill. Below, you can read the powerful testimony of several rabbis in Massachusetts who spoke out on this issue.

Rabbi Joseph Berman
Massachusetts State House
Monday, April 4th 2011

I’m Rabbi Joseph Berman and I serve as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere. I’m honored to be speaking with you here today.

A few months ago my congregation, Temple B’nai Israel, signed on to the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign launched by Keshet, one of the coalition partners. The campaign calls for an end to homophobia and transphobia in the Jewish community. In the words of Julian Lander, who grew up in Revere and Winthrop, runs our ritual committee, and has been out as a gay man in the congregation for many year: our synagogue took this step “in order to state publicly and explicitly what our community has already demonstrated with its actions: that we believe in the fundamental dignity and worth of each person.”

As someone whose gender identity matches the gender that I was assigned at birth, I am not transgender. This means that in everyday interactions I know that people will use my preferred pronouns, I know that people will not ask me inappropriate, invasive questions about my body, and I don’t have to worry that the person I am speaking with is seeing only my gender identity rather than seeing me. No one should have to worry about these things. And yet, unfortunately, trans people are constantly referred to with the wrong pronoun, asked inappropriate questions about their bodies, and interact with people who are focused on their gender and unable to see any deeper. These are the day-to-day things that I take for granted — which transgender people cannot…

I recently watched a friend who is in graduate school apply for jobs and internships. As all of his peers got jobs and internships he was turned down again and again because he is trans. And when he turned to the institution for support they basically said: “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

As a Jew, and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I feel a responsibility to speak against injustice. My grandmother survived Auschwitz because there were people — Jews and non-Jews — who risked their lives to save her. Though at times it may be easier, and safer, to turn away from oppression and injustice, I believe that all of us suffer when others are oppressed. To see another experiencing oppression and neglect to act, to turn away, is to deny their humanity. In doing so, our own humanity is diminished. By acting, our humanity is upheld.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — a teacher, scholar, and civil rights activist — has a powerful commentary on the Jewish prohibition of creating images of God. Why is it that images are really forbidden in Judaism? Some people think that it is because God has no physical form and so anything we could create would be a form of idolatry. But no, this is not the true answer; images are forbidden, but not because God does not have an image. God does have an image: YOU; a human being. You are the image of God.[i] The person sitting next to you is the image of God. This is true no matter what their gender identity is! This is the meaning of Genesis 1:27, which describes the creation of human kind: “And God created the human in God’s image.”…

[i] Art Green. Seek My Face, Speak My Name. pg. 28.

Watch a clip Rabbi Berman speaking out for equality with other faith leaders:

 

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Photo: Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue)

Rabbi Victor Reinstein
Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue

Keshet invited Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom to provide a Jewish voice on the clergy panel for the legislative hearings on the bill in 2009. Legislators were deeply moved by his powerful testimony.

My name is Victor Reinstein. I have been a rabbi for nearly thirty years and am currently the rabbi of the Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain. I am offering testimony in support of An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes. As a rabbi, I have worked with transgender members of the Jewish community and have witnessed their struggle as a minority within a minority.

Throughout my life and career I have sought to respond to the Torah’s call to seek justice, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). As a teenager, I stood in a vigil during the year following my Bar Mitzvah to urge passage of the Voter Registration Act. During that time I heard some of the most ugly epithets that I had ever heard, many of which I did not understand. I did understand that the source of these words was fear and hatred, and I came to realize how quickly violent deeds are spawned by violent words. The wrenching and heroic stories of transgender people underscore how short the span from word to deed.

The Torah does not qualify the pursuit of justice. Offering an equal standard of protection, justice is the guarantor of social equality for every single person, and the curative when equality is denied for any reason. Those who are most easily victimized are those for whom justice is most easily denied. That is why we are here today, to pursue justice on behalf of transgender people, a community for whom justice will continue to be denied without the protection of law. It would be a mistake, however, to think that we are here only for the sake of transgender people. We are here for the common good. Standing together to defend the rights and affirm the dignity of one group, we defend and affirm the rights and dignity of all.

In an ideal society, hate crime legislation would not be necessary. In the meantime, the protection of law in the face of bigotry is an expression of hope, representing a vision and a way that we shall overcome and create the better society. As a Jew, I find comfort in knowing that the law regards an attack upon my identity as an act of hate. Confident that I have equal standing in society, my sense of belonging is affirmed. No one among us should be denied the security that comes of such affirmation.

For all of our individual differences that together reflect God’s image, the rabbis suggest that all humanity unfolds from a common gender. In a remarkably sensitive teaching, fascinating imagery is offered that is uniquely relevant to a discussion of gender identity and equality. The rabbis speak of the first human as androgynos, borrowing directly from the Greek. The first human, from whom we all descend, was androgynous, both male and female in one. The rabbis were not afraid to offer an understanding of gender that transcends rigid categories of masculine and feminine. When the first androgynous human was separated into two equal beings, traces of each one’s gender remained within the other. Like all of our other differences, each of them emanating from a common source, the diverse expression of gender identity is yet another reflection of God’s image in one precious human being…

In an ancient rabbinic teaching story, through a person known simply as Daniel the tailor, interpretation is offered to a verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they have no comforter…” (Eccl. 4:1). Daniel the tailor used this verse to cry out against social oppression and the failure of law, challenging the courts for wielding power against the weak and stigmatized, causing them to be removed from the social fold, cut off from the commonweal.

With none to comfort them in a callous society, Daniel the tailor hears the Holy One say, “I will comfort them.” God waits for the makers of laws to act, and moving beyond words, to offer comfort through deed. To offer the protection of law in the face of discrimination and violence is needed to help lift the oppression of those among us who are transgender. Then shall God’s image shine more brightly in the collective face of our Commonwealth.

 

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Transgender Lobby Day, Massachusetts State House (Photo: Ethan Halainen)

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin
Boston Transgender Equality Lobby Day, Massachusetts State House
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Keshet invited rabbi Stephanie Kolin speak at Transgender Equality Lobby Day at the Massachusetts State House, where transgender activists, friends, family members, and allies gathered to ask their legislators to support the transgender equal rights bill.

Good morning. I am Rabbi Stephanie Kolin of Temple Israel, Boston, the largest Reform Synagogue in New England. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this extraordinary and powerful day.

I’d like to share a story with you. A few years ago, I was leading a trip to Israel for young adults who had never been there before. Early on in the trip, one participant came to me and shared with me that she was a lesbian and was worried about coming out to the rest of the people because she wasn’t sure if they would accept her or if, maybe, they would feel uncomfortable sharing a room with her. Now this was a trip full of young progressive liberal Jews and I knew that there would really be no problem, so I encouraged her that if she were comfortable and she wanted to tell them that they would, indeed, be welcoming and open. She did end up sharing this aspect of her life with her new friends and they were, in fact, very open and comfortable with her sexuality.

As we moved our way through Israel’s holy places, beaches, neighborhoods, and historical sites, we finally wound our way toward the Kotel, the Western Wall, the most sacred spot in the world for the Jewish people. The other group leaders and I explained what would happen when they approached the Kotel, as it is set up as a traditional Jewish synagogue is set up — women pray separately from men. And at the Kotel, the right side is for women and the left side is for men. So, after our introduction, the majority of the participants went to their respective side of the Kotel and prayed, put notes in the wall, and stood with their community at this ancient symbol of the sacred.

But the individual who had told me that he, and now I’ll switch to the correct pronoun, that he was a lesbian, started crying. He wasn’t, in fact, gay, he explained to me. He was transgendered and he said, through his tears: “I don’t know what to do.” And, gesturing to the right side of the Kotel, he said: “I don’t belong over there,” and gesturing to the left side, the men’s side, he said: “and no one wants me over there.” And he cried some more and he told me that all he wanted to do was approach what was sacred to his people, to be part of his community, to be counted among the people. He went on to say that he felt this pain every time he wanted to do something as simple as use a public bathroom.

My eyes were opened and his pain was so very real and I knew that we all need to be able to approach what is sacred to us, to be counted and considered one of our own people, part of a community that we consider our family.

That evening, I tried to open some space for him to share his story with the group. I asked everyone to sit together and, if they felt comfortable, to share their story of what it was like for them to visit the Kotel. Everyone shared and until the very end, this one young man was silent, taking it all in. I thought maybe he wouldn’t share, which would be fine, as long as he knew the space was available to him. As the group was finishing, he took his turn and began to speak. He told his story with tremendous courage and this group of new friends surrounded him with love and a profound sense of community support. The last time I checked his Facebook page, he was getting married to a beautiful woman in what appeared to be a very sweet Jewish wedding.

There is an ancient blessing in the Torah called Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Benediction. The last of the three of these blessings is this: Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom — loosely translated as: May God lift up God’s face to your face, and there, in that gaze, may you find peace. The last word, shalom, meaning peace, is the same root as the word sh’leimut, or wholeness. To find a sense of wholeness, to be one’s complete entire self, to feel unbroken and uncompartmentalized and undivided, is a sacred thing. It is a holy thing, a blessing for each one of us, for every person to be able to be their whole self, respected and loved for who they uniquely are.

I want to thank you for the work you are all doing here today. You are engaging in the sacred work of justice, of repairing that which is broken, of making individuals whole. It is sacred work to move this legislation out of committee and up for a vote. It is sacred work to speak with your legislators and share your stories. It is sacred work to make sure that in this Commonwealth, all are treated equally, all have the right to live a safe life, and every citizen is counted as a whole and complete person created in the image of God and reflecting the blessing of wholeness. Let us do this work with our whole selves, let us stand together and act together so that no one may remain broken!

 

Posted on July 11, 2012

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