When I was 21, I came out as transgender and identified as a boy. Simultaneously I also came out as frum. At the same time that I began binding, I began wearing tzitzit. I took on a name I had used with friends in high school while also taking on the obligation of t’filah. I asked people to use the pronouns he/his and him when referring to me and when I was bestowed aliyot at shul, I made sure the gabbai said Simcha ben Rachel Dvorah v’Eben instead of Simcha bat.
After over a decade of feeling uncomfortable in Jewish ritual spaces despite my desire to nurture my neshama (soul), I realized how large a role gender identity played in my ability to move within Jewish spaces in general.
When I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, I sought out different entrances into Jewish community. Upon attending a prospective members’ gathering at a local Conservative shul with my then-partner, I was unexpectedly met with confusion from established members. Addressing my cis-female (i.e. not transgender) partner, a middle-aged man asked “Is this your brother?” referring to me. He was reading me through heterosexual and cis-gender eyes, or from his assumptions about the world as a straight and cis-man. Instead of appearing to him as I was, a 23-year-old queer person with his partner, the middle-aged man rendered me a teenager tagging along with his older sister.
One shabbes whilst attempting to mingle with members of the same shul, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged straight couple. “Where does your family live?” they asked. Slightly confused, I responded that my parents are in Boston but that my brother lives around the corner. After a few more questions with the kind of subtle condescension adults normally intone when speaking to children, they asked if I had ever met Ari. I knew Ari to be a young boy of about twelve who attended the shul with his father. I looked at them perplexed as to why they felt I needed to meet a child. “No,” I said. “I don’t know Ari.” As I endured this well-meaning couple introducing me to Ari before taking leave to talk to other adults, I realized they had read me as belonging to Ari’s peer group.
While I wasn’t turned off from attending the shul’s services, further similar interactions did alienate me from attempting to participate in their community.
Over the two years I vigorously navigated frumkeit as a transgender person I tried various community settings from black sheep Orthodox to suburban chavurah and found the assumption, and often, the law of the gender binary, cis-gender experience and heterosexuality overwhelming. Too overwhelming. Eventually I found it easier to just daven (pray) and carry out mitzvot alone. A position contrary to the intention and spirit of Judaism.
Later still, I chose to depart from frumkeit and Jewish community altogether. Instead I invested my energy into Brooklyn’s radical queer community and found deeply restorative reflections of myself in others. In my newfound circle I was met with more mochin d’gadlut, more expanded consciousness, than I had ever found in a Jewish community. Instead of battling continuous streams of assumptions and straight-tinted goggles, I experienced the possibility of community constantly working on creating awareness of the many different kinds of plights people deal with every day.
Three years ago I helped found the transgender and Jewish band Schmekel (I play drums). The project combines Jewish and punk sounds with Jewish and queer topics. Through Schmekel I have found an entrance into Jewish community on my terms. Performing and talking about the occupation of two currently divergent identities has helped in manifesting a union. In turn, Schmekel has manifested community. This became glaringly obvious to me at an early show we played on the first floor of a queer house. Our last song of the night was New Men with Old Man Names, a celebratory tune intended to poke fun at our transmasculine friends who selected dated appellations like Harvey, Enoch and Amos. The song ends with Hava Nagilah. As we reached the point of launching into the classic Jewish tune, the already packed room made up of mostly queer Jews erupted into a frenzied mosh-hora-pit. As I furiously banged out a two-step, the floor bounced beneath me and the crowd shouted along with such ruach (spirit), I couldn’t distinguish my lead singer’s voice from that of the spontaneous community that had formed in front of me.
Whenever we play the kitschy and beloved Hora song, the always mostly queer crowd instinctively leads us through as if unleashing a lifetime’s worth of alienation around a tradition so profoundly loved. It is from this place that I have begun to pick up the pieces of the emunah (faith) my neshama intrinsically makes home in.
Read an interview with members of the band Schmekel here.
“There was a deep sense of comfort, of relief, of finally feeling like we could be ourselves.”
“I was amazed at how liberating it was to spend time with others with whom we have so much in common.”
“Being in a community that truly felt like a community for so many reasons that are absent in my day-to-day life experience in our Orthodox community.”
— Eshel Shabbaton attendees
When I was 24, I came out to my parents the day before the gay pride parade in New York City. My parents and I were closer than close, and they knew everything about me, except for this. I carried around this decade-old secret in shame, pain and confusion.
The day I unleashed my secret, I felt like I was walking a foot above ground. It was the end of hiding, a realization that I was not going to change and an indication that I had achieved some degree of self-acceptance. My friend came to pick me up the next morning, to escort me to the parade to march with 500,000 other people down Fifth Avenue, steps away from my parents’ apartment. It was one of the most freeing and jubilant days of my life.
What does it mean to be Jewish and queer? What about dating queer and Jewish? Does it make a difference?
I am Shaily Hakimian from Lincolnshire, Illinois studying elementary education at Indiana University. I have been working in the LGBT movement since I was 14 – so about 8 years. I grew up going to Solomon Schechter Day School where I received a Conservative Jewish education as a Sephardic Jew living in America. My dad is from Iran and my mom is from Morocco, though she spent part of her life in Israel. My mom has always had a strong connection to Judaism. Though we have slipped slightly in our observance of kashrut among other things, she still pushes me on a regular basis to marry Jewish. G-d forbid I don’t meet someone Jewish.
I always think of what it would be like bringing someone who was not Jewish to Israel to meet my family. What would my cousins think? In Israel, the chances of a Jewish person not marrying another Jew are slim. But in the U.S., the chances of that happening are far greater. Over the years I have tried to understand why my mom and other relatives always pushed this so hard on me. Why is it so important for me to date Jewish? Continue reading
A new report on LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community was just released and it’s already making waves. The Jewish Organization Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign is the first-ever index of inclusive policies and practices in a faith-based community and nonprofit sector. (The report is modeled on HRC’s groundbreaking indices in the corporate and healthcare sectors and it was Initiated by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, together with The Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor
The report looked at three areas:
- Organizational Inclusion Efforts: Actions and programs that encourage contributions from the LGBT community and foster diversity and an inclusive environment within the workplace.
- Community/Client Engagement: Programs specifically for LGBT members and clients, including programs and facilities designed for youth and the elderly.
- Workplace Policies: Policies and programs in place that support LGBT employees of the organization.
So, how are we doing as a Jewish community?
The good news:
- 50% of the organizations achieved the top score of “Inclusion.”
- 66% of organizations actively reach out to the LGBT community to attract members or clients.
- This is a bit of a mixed bag, but encouraging. 65% of the organizations with a non-discrimination policy include “sexual orientation” in their policy. Only 30% of those also include “gender identity or expression.”
But, not surprisingly, the report revealed that there is a lot more work to be done.
- Only 33% of the organizations that serve youth have an anti-bullying policy.
- 59% of participating organizations have not completed diversity or inclusion training.
- 51% do not provide LGBT-specific programming.
- 79% have not specifically targeted LGBT individuals in employee recruitment efforts in the past three years.
Check out the #JLGBT page where you can download the report, grab some infographics, and find lots of ways to get involved (both on- and off-line). You can also follow the discussion on Twitter using #jlgbt.