Queer Clergy in Action: Rabbi Reuben Zellman

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.

Rabbi Reuben Zellman
Rabbi Reuben Zellman

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.

For me, what has worked in my life is a big and broad view of what queer identity is – and it affects the assumptions I make or don’t make, including how I work with straight people. I only worked with LGBT congregations through rabbinical school (mostly because they were the ones that would hire me), but now I’m at Beth El [which is not primarily an LGBT synagogue]. That process of how you transfer rabbinic work from entirely queer communities to predominantly, well, not-queer communities remains a powerful learning experience for me.

What should we, as members of the LGBT Jewish community, be focusing on now?

There a million things I think are important – let me start by saying that. I have a few things that have been kicking around my mind, but really, there are so many important things we should all be working on right now.

I would really love to be able to look back in 20 years and see that LGBT Jews were at the forefront of moving forward some of the really pressing moral issues in queer and Jewish communities. Those issues that the mainstream is not necessarily focusing on.

For example, how queer youth is basically in emergency status, whether you’re going by suicide or homelessness or the dropout rate, all of which are indications that bigotry and neglect are trying to destroy yet another generation of queer people, Jews and non-Jews alike. I’d never dare say that it’s the top priority, because really big issues can’t be compared, but it’s certainly a big issue I’d like to see us focus on.

Plus, there’s the way trans liberation or even just civil rights for trans people is or isn’t effectively incorporated into gay and lesbian issues – I’d love to see them getting more parity.

And, lastly, I think that queer Jews have unique perspectives to offer on issues in the Jewish community. Overall, we’re not doing a good job of including Jews on the margins, whether by that we mean LGBT Jews, Jews of color, Jews without a lot of money, Jews with non-mainstream understandings of what’s happening in Israel. That big queer lens a lot of us have, I dream would be able to be used to help the Jewish community step out of some of the narrowness we see – that lens could help us find our moral compass amidst the day-to-day.

Favorite queer Jewish figure?

How could I possibly choose?!

What’s next for you? A project, a sermon — what are you working on that’s queer and Jewish?

What’s interesting is that I notice that I’m working on fewer queer Jewish things than when I worked exclusively in the queer Jewish community, when that’s all that I did.

I will say that my rabbinic thesis, which I worked on about three years ago, was on the role of intersex and gender-ambiguous figures in medieval Jewish law codes. Like any master’s thesis, you write it and shelve it. At some point, I’d love for some of that research, and the many translations I worked on, to get out there, especially since a lot of that material hasn’t been translated into English in the popular, accessible press. All that effort was really was so other people could use those resources, too, so I’d like to resume work on that again soon.

My approach is integrative, so I try to bring a little queer to everything I do. (I’m also a professional musician, so let’s be honest: everything I do is a little queer.) One thing I learned from queer Jewish communities is that Judaism has to be relevant and fun and playful and speak to all parts of our lives, including, and especially, those parts of people’s lives that haven’t been welcomed into our synagogues or Jewish communities before. That’s one aspect of my work that will always stem from somewhere queer and Jewish, both. And I think it’s something people generally appreciate.

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