Transforming Stories

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.

Becky Siverstein
Becky Siverstein

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. 

Please share a few general thoughts and reflections on the book:

I learned a lot. I do not have any direct or close personal experience with the issues associated with transsexuality, and I had not previously confronted the anguish of gender dysphoria and the direct causal link between untreated gender dysphoria and suicide. While I read, I was keenly aware of how little I know about the struggles of trans-identified people, and I wondered how useful I might prove in supporting a friend, a fellow congregant, a student, one of my children experiencing a journey similar to Ladin’s.

Yet even as I climbed this steep learning curve, the emotions evoked in me by Ladin’s story were familiar themes with which I struggle frequently in my work as a synagogue lay leader, an active member of my Jewish and secular communities, and probably most deeply, as a parent. How can we help those who are struggling, particularly with pain that they themselves do not yet know how to cure? Community members who are grieving the loss of a parent or coping with the dissolution of a marriage, or those who are trying to balance the need to care for themselves during an illness while somehow managing to remain the always-available parent and spouse that lies at the core of their identities – these are the people for whom a synagogue community must be present, constant, comforting, and reliable. Similarly, the idea of a child suffering in silence as he is denied access to his own true self evokes anguish in me as a parent, as does the concept of the suffering endured by a parent whose journey to realize her true self results in agony and alienation for her children.

How has Joy’s story influenced the way you view your work at KI?   

I serve as a member of KI’s board of trustees, specifically charged with programming around youth education. In this work, I attempt to define the relationship between organized faith and the developing individual at several key transitional moments in the life span of my fellow congregants – during nursery school (as experienced by young parents as well as young children), and during religious school and broader youth worship experiences (leading up to the
b’nai mitzvah
ceremony and beyond). Joy’s story is all about the developing individual – learning to heed and respect the internal voices that make us who we are and who we are meant to be. Her visceral, heart-rending account of her journey highlights for me the important role that faith, and an organized faith community, can play in the life of the individual, and in the individual’s lifelong journey toward self-actualization, no matter what that journey looks like or how complex it might be.

Reading Joy’s story, and thinking about the ways in which, had she been a member of KI, we might have supported her and her family, inspires me to work with all of our educational programs, to ensure that we are truly a faith “community,” in the deepest and most literal sense of the word, and that we embody inclusion and embrace diversity in all its forms:

  • Our educators’ professional development and training must explicitly provide strategies for helping children who are questioning their own gender identity or growing up in a LGBTQ family feel supported, welcomed, and loved.
  • Our outreach to families must reflect the identities of all different types of families – we are launching a congregation-wide book group focused on the life stories of marginalized Jews, which will hopefully elevate this discourse to a much more overt and communal level.
  • Our growing students must experience, through the lens of our Jewish identities, the entire range of diverse experiences within their community, connecting with other young adults who are similar to them as well as very different, as they continue privately and publicly to define their roles within that community and beyond.

Is there a specific moment in the book that you are carrying with you? 

Young learners, really all learners, experience a tiny version of the crisis of identity endured by Ladin during her two visits to the Wailing Wall [first as a man, then as a woman]. We open ourselves up to a certain vulnerability when we come to worship or to learn at shul; we admit that we are not whole without this learning, this faith, this community. In many ways our community at KI is a diverse one, but we have a long way to go. I know that gay congregants, people of color, and our talented and courageous queer rabbinic intern look around the sanctuary at KI and do not see enough others with whom they can wholly identify. It is my hope that Ladin’s adaptation of her daily blessing, “You made me, God… I belong in this world, just the way I am” (page 213) will infuse the learning, teaching, and worship of the young people at KI, and that the words “this world” will refer for them not only to our larger worlds of Brookline and Judaism, but specifically to the smaller world of KI. Reading and discussing this book together is a good first step toward articulating some of the ways in which we need to grow as a community; I look forward to continuing this work.

Jennie’s reflections are only a piece of the conversation happening at KI. The current conversation centers around two processes: my personal process of bringing my full self to the community, and a community process investigating how to surface and support the diversity that already exists at KI (with the hope that this will make the community more accessible to others). I have been excited and energized by the willingness of the rabbis and these lay leaders to engage in the ongoing process towards more inclusion of LGBTQ identified people, as well as other marginalized groups. As I undertake this work with all of them, I remain grateful to my classmates, friends, and Keshet for their support. I am also grateful to Joy for modeling vulnerability and strength. Joy (because I know you will read this), thank you for putting your voice into the world. I feel privileged to be walking and working with you. 

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