Welcome to our second installment of “Queer Clergy in Action” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or 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. If you missed our first post in this series about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi, you can read it here.
In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Ordained in 2010, Rabbi Zellman has spent the past two and a half years at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, as Assistant Rabbi and Music Director. We were thrilled to catch up with him by phone.
How has being queer informed your work as a rabbi?
The primary ways being queer has informed my work are really twofold. First of all, I wouldn’t have even considered becoming a rabbi if not for support – serious nudging, actually – from the queer Jewish community of which I was a part. I belong to Sha’ar Zahav, which is such a supportive community, and people there basically convinced me that I could – and should – be a rabbi.
Second, philosophically, I really can’t overstate how being a queer and trans person, having the experiences that queer and trans people of my generation have, has affected how I think about everything: how I relate to the people I work with and for, the congregational system I work within, the issues in the Jewish world that we’re called to deal with. I’m one of those people who believes that queerness, if we want it to be, can be transformative, that it can profoundly affect our way of interacting with the world. Not everyone feels that way, of course, and that’s fine – I don’t judge that – in part because one of the goals of our liberation work is that each queer/trans/gay/bi/gender-funky person can make the choice of what that means to them.