For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few times—I first came out as queer as a teenager, and now as an adult I have come out all over again as transgender. This latest coming-out process has taken me the better part of two years, countless half-steps in the direction of being out, and finally the decision to just trust that it would work out.
The first step, and the hardest, was coming out to myself.
On some level, I had known that I was trans for a very long time—ever since I first heard the term transgender. I read everything about gender and transition that I could get my hands on. Something about these stories grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else had. I never could understand why anyone thought it was difficult to understand or unfamiliar—it made perfect sense to me. That probably should have been my first clue.
Then I found gender theory. Oddly, the distant academic language about gender as cultural performance became one of my best tools for convincing myself that I was not transgender: If gender is not real, if it is culturally arbitrary, then it does not matter what gender I am. If it does not matter what gender I am, then I can’t be trans, right? Or how about another one: If culture defines what genders are acceptable and legible, and our culture has a gender category for a person with my genetics and body to look the way I do, then I can “get by” as a butch. That means I’m not transgender, right? I can “slide by” in public as a just-barely-almost-not-quite-kinda-sorta woman, so I don’t need to think of myself as transgender, right?
There was one major area of my life where these justifications and excuses did not work.
In my relationship with Jewish ritual, which was becoming more and more important in my life, there never seemed to be room for these excuses. In fact, there never seemed to be room for my sense of ambiguity around gender at all: so much of our ritual, language, and practice is strictly gendered, even in our progressive and egalitarian movements. It seemed impossible to approach a Hebrew text, be called to the Torah, or pray in Hebrew without thinking about gender. I always had to insert some distance between myself and our tradition—between myself and God—to avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.
It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggle—and have some success, however imperfect—at becoming a tradition that welcomed and treated with dignity all people. I wasn’t always happy with the way these conversations were going, and I came to the rabbinate in order to add my voice. I came out of a sense of obligation to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and a desire to build moral and welcoming communities.
Over time, it got harder and harder to do the work of becoming a rabbi without engaging my own “gender stuff.”
Finally, one Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat, it just clicked: I didn’t have to think so hard about gender all the time. I didn’t need a mental list of justifications for my gender identity—and I was exhausting myself by constantly maintaining that list. The truth was much simpler than that: I was just transgender. It was a scary feeling, because seeing myself as transgender was something I had worked very hard not to do for so long, but it was also a tremendous relief. Over the course of the coming weeks, I felt myself letting go of the emotional distance I had kept between myself and my life. I was not sure what my next steps were, what kind of new gender identity I would build for myself, what coming out would be like, whether I would transition—there were plenty of reasons to be anxious. But I began to notice that even with all of the anxiety, I was present in a way that I had not been before.
From that Shabbat, it took more than two years to come out more or less completely, to figure out how and whether to transition, and to begin negotiating the complex legal, medical, and bureaucratic mess that those of us who transition have to deal with.
A few close friends and family members knew right away, and were there with me as I thought about when and whether to come out, what transition would mean, and all of the other questions I had. Sometimes I wish I had come out sooner. I especially wish that I had been more completely out during my time in rabbinical school—I wish that I had been able to add my voice specifically as a trans person to our conversations, and that I had been more present to my classmates, colleagues, and teachers. Most importantly, I wish I had been in a position to show them at the time the trust that I know they deserved. But there were too many other factors in life, and my time line did not allow that. In the end, it was reaching the end of my studies and preparing to work as a rabbi that gave me the final push to put the last pieces in place to be able to transition. It was in thinking about the ordination ceremony that I knew for certain that if I could not stand in front of my teachers and mentors in my full self, and have them call me by a name that fit me, the ceremony would feel empty and fake. And, shortly afterwards, I decided that if I continued to put off transition for “someday” in the future, I would continue to not be present to the work I was doing right now in my community.
How could I possibly be a rabbi building Jewish community if I was hiding from the community I wanted to serve?
So I jumped in to the coming out process—talking with close and extended family, friends, coworkers, and others. It was both more frightening and easier than I expected. So far, in sharing the news of my transition with my colleagues and my communities, I have received nothing but support and shared excitement. Not a single one of the worst-case scenarios or explosions that I feared has happened. Instead, people have surprised me with their generosity of spirit. Being out has given me the ability to raise my voice, to educate and advocate in my community. More than that, it has given me the ability to experience again what a beautiful community it is.
Like this post?
- Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
- Get breaking LGBTQ Jewish news, resources, and inspiration from Keshet in your inbox!
- Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?
In the spirit of Yom Kippur and the holiday season, I have a confession to make. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable with coming out.
That’s partially because I’ve been shy as long as I can remember. (My high school yearbook picture has the caption “Quietest Girl.”) And it’s partially because, given my ethnicity, it’s already hard to blend in. Nor do I want people to see me only as Chinese-American, gay, and Jewish, especially since I still occasionally feel insecure about my level of Shabbat observance, Mandarin fluency, or GLBT activism.
So most of my initial coming-out experiences happened with close friends (99% of whom already knew!) or in GLBT-friendly environments. Once I started dating Kate (now my wife), my sexual orientation became more obvious. But despite living in a state where we had marriage equality and other rights, I still was tentative sometimes.
All this helps explain why I find one specific coming-out experience so memorable.
It happened in November 2008, when our synagogue, Temple Emunah, hosted a panel titled “Marriage, Intermarriage, Same-Sex Marriage.” The room was packed with people wanting to hear how the local Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis engaged with these issues. We were particularly interested in how Rabbi Bukiet of Chabad and Rabbi Jaffe of Temple Isaiah approached the question of same-sex marriage. (Our spiritual leader, Rabbi Lerner, had already offered to marry us once I’d converted, so we already knew where he stood.)
The rabbis spoke thoughtfully, impressing us with their honesty and willingness to grapple with some thorny topics. Then during the Q&A session, an audience member we didn’t know said they weren’t aware of any gays or lesbians at Emunah. In hindsight, I understand their point of view. We ourselves weren’t familiar with many other GLBT members. At the time, though, I was only aware of feeling invisible, and hating it.
My hand shot up of its own accord as I blurted out, “Um, right here!” “Yes, over here!” my wife chimed in. The questioner seemed taken aback but not angry; I don’t even remember their reply. I was too busy thinking, “I just outed us to this entire room …”
My usual coming-out anxiety was this time mixed: half-amused, half-horrified chagrin. Then I felt relief, as nobody batted an eye at what we’d said (a testimony to how just inclusive Emunah is.) Later, I realized I’d come out to a bunch of people I didn’t know that well … and I was actually happy with having done it.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of this moment. I doubt anyone else even remembers the exchange. And I didn’t suddenly start divulging my deepest secrets to random strangers. (There is way too much ingrained modesty for that to happen.) But I do feel like it helped me be more comfortable with coming out in more public ways, like our aufruf in front of the congregation on Shabbat.
In honor of this month’s National Coming Out Day, I’m taking my cue from this memory. Even when I could pass—when I could get away with not talking about being Jewish or gay or anything else not immediately obvious—I’ll choose to be true to myself and to encourage other people to do the same. Despite all the amazing progress made recently in marriage equality and other areas, we don’t yet live in a world where everyone is fully accepted in all our complexity and humanity. Coming out is one way to help make that world a reality.
Like this post?
- Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
- Get breaking LGBTQ Jewish news, resources and inspiration from Keshet in your inbox!
- In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!
With the High Holidays right around the corner, now is a great time to be thinking about the message your synagogue sends to new and potential members about LGBT inclusion.
Here are several suggestions for how to make your synagogue a more inclusive, welcoming, and safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning individuals and families. This guide is neither exhaustive, nor does it apply to every synagogue community. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original, more detailed version of this guide—which will be published on the Keshet website soon.
Values and Policies:
Here a few suggestions to help you express your values clearly through your synagogue administration:
- Make inclusion of LGBT members a core value of your synagogue: Before you can examine how your synagogue could become more inclusive of LGBT individuals and families, there must be a commitment and buy in on the part of all staff, lay leaders, and members for this to be a core value of your community. It is essential that this value be explicitly expressed and discussed openly. One way to do this is to open up public and communal discussions about LGBT inclusion at the beginning of the year, or when discussing the vision and values of your synagogue. LGBT inclusion must be discussed by your board, professional staff, clergy, committees and lay leadership, general membership and in your religious school and teen programming
- Make sure your registration forms are inclusive of LGBT families and individuals: When crafting registration forms and other documentation, be sure that they are welcoming to a spouse or partner of any gender. Rather than marking only “mother” and “father,” or “husband” and “wife,” write “parent 1” and “parent 2,” or “partner 1” and “partner 2,” etc. If you need to ask for the gender of an individual, allow room for a write in category if the member identifies outside of the two binary genders (male and female), or avoid asking for gender if the information is not necessary.
Language and Communication:
As a synagogue professional or lay leader you are an important role model in the lives of the individuals in your community.
- Do not assume the sexuality or gender of your members: When leaders make incorrect assumptions about the sexuality or gender of community members we risk rendering gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals invisible. For example, when talking to members of all ages about dating, don’t assume that they are interested in the “opposite sex”, and rather than referring to members as “ladies,” “girls,” or “boys,” ask them how they identify, and what words they use to describe themselves.
In order to achieve your goals, your values of equality and inclusivity must be embedded in the everyday culture and activity of your synagogue.
- Talk together about how to make your synagogue more supportive of LGBT members…often: The only true way to create a fully open and supportive community is to be committed to values of equality and respect all the time, every day. Have your rabbi, professionals, lay leaders and members check in regularly and discuss how your synagogue is meeting its goals and achieving its values.
Torah and Ritual Moments:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBT Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value.
- LGBT issues on the bimah: Invite clergy or others speak from the bimah about Jewish values of equality, inclusivity, and safety for all LGBT individuals. This is an important way to teach about LGBT issues, encourage sensitivity regarding sexuality and gender expression and also publicly discuss your synagogue’s commitment to its LGBT members. Click here and enter the keyword “sermon” to see examples of sermons on LGBT themes.
- Provide adult learning on LGBT topics: When appropriate, integrate LGBT issues and topics into lectures and learning series in order to see how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. When discussing Jewish ethics around love and sex, do not just refer to heterosexual dating and marriage, but include a full spectrum of relationships and ways to experience human love. When studying Torah, understand the text using a LGBT lens. One way to do this is to use the book Torah Queeries, or Keshet’s Torah Queeries online database, which provides a LGBT reading of each parasha (torah portion). You can also introduce or bring in LGBT scholars who interpret Torah from a LGBT perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg. When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBT Jews (for example: http://lgbtjewishheroes.org/). And start a conversation about Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community with your community. These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBT and Jewish topics.
Like this post?
You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
Like this post?
Last week I stood in a room full of Jewish leaders who made me hopeful about the future of the Jewish world. These leaders—from 16 Jewish day schools, synagogues, camps, Hillels, and community organizations—came to Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit to study together, discuss LGBT inclusion practices, and create action plans for greater LGBT inclusion within their institutions in the coming year.
These leaders are ready to go beyond acceptance and move towards proactive inclusion, devoting their time and resources to intentionally working to create communities where inclusion is a central value.
I love what one religious school teacher from a Conservative synagogue said when asked what the most significant thing she gained from the day: “Being LGBT friendly is more than welcoming someone with your words—it takes systematic planning on the program and policy levels.”
I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the coming year.
Below are some of our favorite photos from the day—take a look! And check out our full album of photos here.
Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project here!
A Small Revolution in a Synagogue Book Group
This past January, Hebrew College invited poet and scholar Joy Ladin to speak during our Winter Seminar on Feminist Theology, Theory, and Practice. Weaving her personal story of transition with a clearly articulated theology, Ladin held the community’s attention for over an hour. I sat in the front row, typing notes and being held by her gentle, soft-spoken way of being. As a trans* identified student, I was overwhelmed by the ways my story and my experience of the divine were being seen and lifted up for what felt like the first time.
At the same time as Ladin’s story was being lifted up in the Hebrew College community, I was beginning to struggle with the lack of LGBTQ voices at my internship. As the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI) in Brookline, MA, I attend weekly minyanim, teach parsha (the weekly Torah portion) study, lead Junior Congregation on Shabbat morning, and teach the 4th/5th grade religious school class. The KI community has welcomed me enthusiastically and has revealed itself to be more diverse and open than I could ever have imagined, but as the year progressed, I began to notice the way in which the communal discourse continued to tell the story of the presumed status quo: heteronormative, Shabbat observant, two-parent and multiple children families.
I felt the weight of my self-inflicted censorship and lack of other LGBTQ-identified folks and vocal allies. As I struggled to articulate how being present in the KI community was difficult for me, I heard Ladin’s voice again, this time suggesting that I share her story as a way to bring a different voice into communal conversations. I asked my supervisor, Rabbi Rachel Silverman and a small group of board members, who had already begun discussing how we might make the community more inclusive, to read Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders together.
What follows are the reflections of one of the board members, Jennie Roffman. I am grateful to Jennie for her open-hearted and unequivocal support throughout my year at Congregation Kehillath Israel. Continue reading
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country.
We spoke with Rabbi Jill Borodin of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Seattle, WA, to find out how this congregation has evolved on the issue of LGBT inclusion, to become a place where the rabbi performs same-sex marriages and speaks publicly in support of marriage equality. Learn more about Congregation Beth Shalom’s LGBT inclusive offerings here.
What does Congregation Beth Shalom do for same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings? I’ve read that in 2001 your predecessor took a year to deliberate whether or not to perform a commitment ceremony. I know you weren’t at Beth Shalom then, but can you speak to where you are as a community now? What did the process of that evolution look like? Was there community support?
You’re right – we do both commitment ceremonies and same-sex weddings. My predecessor did one, but I think that’s because he was only asked once. I’ve done three in the last eight years, and I’ve got another one on the calendar. Continue reading
“Integrating all of the disparate parts”
Welcome to our fourth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first three posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Rabbi Denise Eger was one of the first out gay rabbis ordained, receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1988. Since 1992, she has served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a community she helped found, which is dedicated to serving the LGBT and wider Jewish community in West Hollywood, CA. She is a founding member of the Religion and Faith Council of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, Rabbi Eger became both the first woman and the first gay rabbi to be president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. We caught up with Rabbi Eger about her work, her inspiration, and an exciting new role for her. Continue reading
20 years of inspiring and provoking
Welcome to our third installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first two posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Rabbi Reuben Zellman.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is no stranger to accolades – but this year, she’s being fêted not only for her accomplishments, but for reaching an important anniversary. Rabbi Kleinbaum was installed as the first rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, in September of 1992. She arrived at the height of the AIDS crisis, and quickly made a name for herself by addressing the community’s tremendous loss with compassion, leadership, and spiritual guidance. In the years since, Rabbi Kleinbaum has made civil rights for LGBT Jews – and the inclusion of their voices as part of the religious conversation – a major part of her rabbinate. This year marks her 20th anniversary at CBST, and the filmmaker David Sigal has put together a video in honor of the occasion, including interviews with politicians, famous rabbis, and of course, her mother, who immediately offers some sweet baby pictures of this indefatigable leader:
This video pretty much says it all, but we had a few more question for Rabbi Kleinbaum, so we quickly caught up with her, amidst all the celebration of her work. Continue reading
Judaism, a religion that focuses primarily on life, rather than the afterlife, provides a meticulous set of standards regarding the handling of corpses, which must be shown great respect. The body is washed, dressed in a simple gown, and never left alone before burial. All of these ministrations are carefully provided by a synagogue or community hevra kadisha, or holy committee.
Because the body is traditionally cared for by those of the same gender, making sure that a hevra kadisha is informed about and sensitive to the needs of transgender and genderqueer people is very important.
Here, Eliron Hamburger, a hevra kadisha member at Chochmat HaLev, in Berkeley, provides a checklist for all hevra kadisha members to consider. The answers may vary from community to community, but the questions themselves are thought-provoking, challenging us to look at this life-cycle event through the lens of transgender inclusion. Consider bringing it to the ritual committee at your synagogue or sharing with your family.