Reform and Transgender & Non-Gender Conforming Jews

The history of transgender and non-gender conforming people in the Reform Movement goes back further than we might initially realize. There were two Reform responsa in 1978 and 1990, respectively, that addressed related issues: A 1990 responsum (CCAR 5750.8) affirmed that being transgender alone is not a basis to deny someone conversion to Judaism. A 1978 responsum affirmed that a rabbi may officiate at the wedding of two Jews if one partner has transitioned to the gender with which they identify, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth (“Marriage After a Sex-change Operation” in American Reform ResponsaVol. LXXXVIII, 1978, pp. 52-54).  

Slowly but surely, these conversations moved from being at the back of the book to the front page.

In 2010, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained the second transgender rabbi in its history. This past summer, another Jewish camp in our Movement made the news by wholeheartedly embracing a camper who identifies as transgender. Chana Rothman, a singer-songwriter and connected to the Movement, recently released “The Rainbow Train,” an album promoting diverse gender expression and debunking gender norms. And we have been inspired by other rabbis outside of the Reform circle, including Rabbi Tsipora Gabai, who recently officiated a naming and coming-out ceremony for an 8th grade student in her community.

Most recently, at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial conference in Orlando in early November, a landmark resolution was passed: a statement unequivocally affirming and supporting the inclusion of all transgender and non-gender conforming people, welcoming people fully into our synagogues, our camps, and our homes; embracing diversity in a real way and urging Canadian and American government leaders to revise their legislation to protect all, regardless of gender.

I never thought that at any point, a room of 5,000 Reform Jews would be so silent that you could hear a pin drop. There were no “nays” of dissent when voting occurred.  

Today our support and awareness of transgender and non-gender conforming people is growing vibrant and strong. But like most cultural and societal shifts, it took time.

In my university life in the early 2000s, these issues were at the forefront – our Union for Gender Empowerment (previously known as the Women’s Union) had already lobbied for a gender-neutral bathroom and other rights. Friends were coming out on campus as gender-variant and trans.

But in the Jewish world I did not yet see these issues being discussed as openly.

In 2004, my senior year in university, I attempted to write my college thesis – a case study of sex, sexuality, and gender at a Reform Jewish summer camp. I say “attempt” because there were a variety of challenges: for one, although I was studying anthropology, the administration wanted me to have an advisor from the Jewish Studies department, even though I argued that sex and gender issues were neither uniquely Jewish issues nor confined to a summer camp in upstate New York.

I won that battle, but the other challenge was harder: there were few resources on Jewish camping, and essentially nothing on sex, sexuality, and gender in the context of Jewish summer camp. My Judaism teaches me that we have an obligation to continually pursue justice and to make the world a better place. I wanted to give a more formal voice to those stories and whispered confessions I heard first as a fellow camper and later on staff.

I spent my time interviewing previous campers, staff members, and directors spanning a 10 year period of time.

How was sex handled as a subject – both in living spaces and in programming? What support did people feel for differing expressions of sexuality? How prepared is camp to welcome transgender campers and staff? The experiences were varied, and I was left with more questions than answers. While specific people were supportive, as a whole we were grappling with things like where a gender variant camper would live, and how would they be received by the camp community and the world outside.  

My thesis sat on a bookshelf, and feeling a bit alone, I began to wonder how to carry this work forward. Thankfully, the camp I had written the thesis about was still my home, and I began to raise these issues in staff training and all-camp programming.

In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism Press Department published a book called The Gender Gap – primarily addressing issues of how to teach to male-identified youth and adults. The concern was that with the vast increase in women clergy and leadership of women laity that we were experiencing “male flight,” losing the boys and men from our synagogues. That same discussion was playing out in other religious and secular circles as well. Rabbi Hara Person approached me about writing an article for the book on trans-inclusivity and thinking about how to teach to all genders, not just one group or another. It included a section on language, trying to raise awareness of how people might identify themselves, and also offered suggestions on how to be inclusive in our teaching.  

Today, our Movement is creating new resources to take the newly affirmed resolution from theory to practice. As we continue to grow and evolve, I am filled with gratitude at having witnessed real change in a relatively short amount of time. I am a Reform rabbi now, and I wake up every day proud to be part of a community that is open, affirming, and strives to be truly welcoming to all.

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