“As One” singers Lee Gregory (Hannah Before) and Danielle Marcelle Bond (Hannah After). Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Two voices share transgender story in opera ‘As One’


Even the smallest of operas typically are not written for a single voice, much less for a bifurcated one. But there are quite a few elements of Laura Kaminsky’s new chamber opera, “As One,” that could be considered rule-defying.

Its subject, for a start. “As One,” produced by Long Beach Opera (LBO) in its Southern California premiere, focuses on the journey of a transgender person who transitions from man to woman. The two characters  — Hannah (Before) and Hannah (After) — are sung by a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano. Composer Kaminsky, whose body of work primarily is not for vocal performance, developed the concept and created the piece with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, a transgender filmmaker whose life “As One” partially is based on .

The resources and production values also are decidedly nontraditional. Instead of a full orchestra, the 75-minute “As One” utilizes a string quartet and film footage. Hence, the production’s director, David Schweizer, believes “As One” has found the right home for its Southern California debut.

“Opera theaters are becoming more adventurous about programming new work,” said Schweizer, who has worked extensively at LBO. “There are certain trends which Long Beach Opera has been doing for decades — the idea of doing opera in alternate spaces and new works on more of a chamber opera scale so they’re not quite so expensive to produce. These are more intimate works that open up new opportunities for storytelling.”

“It’s been a transformative piece for me,” added the New York-based Kaminsky, who traveled to Long Beach to attend the work’s opening performance on May 13. “Working with Mark and Kim to create Hannah, we have touched not just people in the trans and LGBTQ community but general audiences, who have had to think about what does it mean to be a fully realized person. This has been a joyful experience for me and it has led to other opportunities.”

In the spirit of unconventional journeys, Kaminsky’s arrival at “As One” came through a couple of separate “aha!” moments.

Having married her wife in Canada before same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States, Kaminsky tracked the issue in the news as state after state voted on whether to legalize same-sex marriage. As the New Jersey vote was approaching, a New York Times account of a New Jersey husband and wife with two teenage children caught Kaminsky’s attention. The father was transitioning to a woman and the family was planning to stay intact, even if the vote went the wrong way for them and the pair would no longer be considered a legal entity once his transition to being a woman was complete.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is an opera,’ ” Kaminsky said. “You’re asking the question, Who are you at your core? Who are you if you are about to change to become more than who you are, and what does that do to your relationship? What does society and its rules and expectations and demands do to that transformation of a person?”

Kaminsky filed the idea away on her creative to-do list. A year later, she received a fellowship to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek out Soviet-era music that previously had not been heard in the United States. Among the music she brought back was a series of Yiddish propaganda songs for Lenin and Stalin, some jazz tracks and some newly discovered operatic arias that Dmitri Shostakovich had written to sing to soldiers on the front lines during the siege of Leningrad.

Kaminsky invited the husband-and-wife singers Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke to perform the Shostakovich works. The experience was so fulfilling that Kaminsky returned to her idea for a transitioning-themed opera, envisioning the same character being played by a man and woman.

“That is not typically how operas happen,” she said. “There was a concept, but there was no story, no opera company, nothing. There was just this persistent idea that crystallized that they would be one person.”

After seeing “Portable Son,” Reed’s documentary about her return to her hometown as a transgender woman, Kaminsky knew she had found her collaborator. Reed and Campbell wrote the libretto and “As One” had its premiere in the fall of 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Cooke and Markgraf singing the roles of Hannah.

Schweizer interviewed to direct that production, but the assignment went to a director the two singers had worked with previously. Eight productions later, when Long Beach Opera decided to stage the work, Schweizer was delighted to be asked to direct it. The LBO production features mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond and baritone Lee Gregory, with the music conducted by LBO General and Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek.

Schweizer, who has a lengthy career working in both opera and live theater, calls “As One” “a very striking marriage of content and creative form.”

“Laura has done a remarkable job of both voicing the characters and sending out a musical message that also kind of transcends the situation,” Schweizer said. “There are very lyrical rapturous moments where the characters make certain discoveries along the way. There are very witty, eloquently scored exchanges where the character is undergoing awkward situations. The music for the piece has a flow and it feels like you can recognize her voice throughout.”

The daughter of a New York-raised father whose ancestry is Belarusian and a British mother, Kaminsky grew up in a liberal Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her diverse career includes multiple academic appointments, artistic directorships and a stint as the associate director of humanities at the 92nd Street Y, where she coordinated the film and lecture series.

Jewish audiences have embraced “As One,” according to Kaminsky, who recently saw excerpts of the work performed at the Jewish Theological Seminary along with selections of Gerald Cohen’s Holocaust-themed opera, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

“We performed it for the cantorial students and the general public,” Kaminsky said, “and entered into a conversation about spirit and meaning and a human message through music, all of the things that good art does.”

“As One” will be performed May 20 and 21 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater in Long Beach. For tickets and more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

“As One” singers Lee Gregory (Hannah Before) and Danielle Marcelle Bond (Hannah After). Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Two voices share transgender story in opera ‘As One’


Even the smallest of operas typically are not written for a single voice, much less for a bifurcated one. But there are quite a few elements of Laura Kaminsky’s new chamber opera, “As One,” that could be considered rule-defying.

Its subject, for a start. “As One,” produced by Long Beach Opera (LBO) in its Southern California premiere, focuses on the journey of a transgender person who transitions from man to woman. The two characters  — Hannah (Before) and Hannah (After) — are sung by a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano. Composer Kaminsky, whose body of work primarily is not for vocal performance, developed the concept and created the piece with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, a transgender filmmaker whose life “As One” partially is based on .

The resources and production values also are decidedly nontraditional. Instead of a full orchestra, the 75-minute “As One” utilizes a string quartet and film footage. Hence, the production’s director, David Schweizer, believes “As One” has found the right home for its Southern California debut.

“Opera theaters are becoming more adventurous about programming new work,” said Schweizer, who has worked extensively at LBO. “There are certain trends which Long Beach Opera has been doing for decades — the idea of doing opera in alternate spaces and new works on more of a chamber opera scale so they’re not quite so expensive to produce. These are more intimate works that open up new opportunities for storytelling.”

“It’s been a transformative piece for me,” added the New York-based Kaminsky, who traveled to Long Beach to attend the work’s opening performance on May 13. “Working with Mark and Kim to create Hannah, we have touched not just people in the trans and LGBTQ community but general audiences, who have had to think about what does it mean to be a fully realized person. This has been a joyful experience for me and it has led to other opportunities.”

In the spirit of unconventional journeys, Kaminsky’s arrival at “As One” came through a couple of separate “aha!” moments.

Having married her wife in Canada before same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States, Kaminsky tracked the issue in the news as state after state voted on whether to legalize same-sex marriage. As the New Jersey vote was approaching, a New York Times account of a New Jersey husband and wife with two teenage children caught Kaminsky’s attention. The father was transitioning to a woman and the family was planning to stay intact, even if the vote went the wrong way for them and the pair would no longer be considered a legal entity once his transition to being a woman was complete.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is an opera,’ ” Kaminsky said. “You’re asking the question, Who are you at your core? Who are you if you are about to change to become more than who you are, and what does that do to your relationship? What does society and its rules and expectations and demands do to that transformation of a person?”

Kaminsky filed the idea away on her creative to-do list. A year later, she received a fellowship to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek out Soviet-era music that previously had not been heard in the United States. Among the music she brought back was a series of Yiddish propaganda songs for Lenin and Stalin, some jazz tracks and some newly discovered operatic arias that Dmitri Shostakovich had written to sing to soldiers on the front lines during the siege of Leningrad.

Kaminsky invited the husband-and-wife singers Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke to perform the Shostakovich works. The experience was so fulfilling that Kaminsky returned to her idea for a transitioning-themed opera, envisioning the same character being played by a man and woman.

“That is not typically how operas happen,” she said. “There was a concept, but there was no story, no opera company, nothing. There was just this persistent idea that crystallized that they would be one person.”

After seeing “Portable Son,” Reed’s documentary about her return to her hometown as a transgender woman, Kaminsky knew she had found her collaborator. Reed and Campbell wrote the libretto and “As One” had its premiere in the fall of 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Cooke and Markgraf singing the roles of Hannah.

Schweizer interviewed to direct that production, but the assignment went to a director the two singers had worked with previously. Eight productions later, when Long Beach Opera decided to stage the work, Schweizer was delighted to be asked to direct it. The LBO production features mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond and baritone Lee Gregory, with the music conducted by LBO General and Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek.

Schweizer, who has a lengthy career working in both opera and live theater, calls “As One” “a very striking marriage of content and creative form.”

“Laura has done a remarkable job of both voicing the characters and sending out a musical message that also kind of transcends the situation,” Schweizer said. “There are very lyrical rapturous moments where the characters make certain discoveries along the way. There are very witty, eloquently scored exchanges where the character is undergoing awkward situations. The music for the piece has a flow and it feels like you can recognize her voice throughout.”

The daughter of a New York-raised father whose ancestry is Belarusian and a British mother, Kaminsky grew up in a liberal Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her diverse career includes multiple academic appointments, artistic directorships and a stint as the associate director of humanities at the 92nd Street Y, where she coordinated the film and lecture series.

Jewish audiences have embraced “As One,” according to Kaminsky, who recently saw excerpts of the work performed at the Jewish Theological Seminary along with selections of Gerald Cohen’s Holocaust-themed opera, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

“We performed it for the cantorial students and the general public,” Kaminsky said, “and entered into a conversation about spirit and meaning and a human message through music, all of the things that good art does.”

“As One” will be performed May 20 and 21 at 2:30 p.m. at the Beverly O’Neill  Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long  Beach. For tickets and information, call (562) 470-7464 or longbeachopera.org/tickets.

 

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers and installed gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago. Photo courtesy of Camp JCA Shalom.

Spirit of inclusion for transgender students prevails


Amid the national debate over transgender rights and the use of school bathrooms, a number of local Jewish summer camps quietly have been adjusting their policies to accommodate transgender students.

People who are transgender typically identify with the opposite gender to their birth sex, although some feel they are neither male nor female. Just under 1 percent of teenagers — almost 150,000 youths ages 13 to 17 nationwide — are estimated to identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The Jewish Journal spoke to four area camps about their approach to transgender campers. All the camps said they sought to be inclusive spaces for all types of campers, although some had more clearly defined policies toward transgender students than others.

Camp JCA Shalom, Malibu

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed people from all walks of life into their tent in the Bible, Camp JCA Shalom strives to accommodate campers and staff from a variety of backgrounds, according to camp director Joel Charnick. He calls it “Big Tent Judaism.”

“We like to find ways to be more inclusive and less exclusive,” he said. “We are welcoming of people with all different backgrounds, all different self-identities, and that includes kids and staff who are gender-questioning or transgender or gender-neutral.”

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers, located prominently at the center of the campus, Charnick said. The bathrooms and showers have been there for some time, but the director said the camp put up gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago to make it clear they can be used by anyone.

The camp also allows transgender campers — fewer than 10 have attended so far — to sleep in cabins that correspond to their gender identity rather than their birth sex, Charnick said. He said sometimes parents have questioned this philosophy while touring the camp, but he is not aware of any who have chosen to send their children elsewhere because of the issue.

In the spirit of inclusion, the camp added a 10th core value to its list of philosophical principles last summer. Kulanu, meaning “all of us” in Hebrew, is a concept discussed with campers and staff, Charnick said. Staff and campers are instructed to be respectful and welcoming to everybody and must sign an anti-bullying pledge.

“Camp relies on this concept of being a safe place for people,” Charnick said. “Once people feel safe, then they’re going to want to try new things and they’re going to grow in all sorts of different ways. But they have to feel safe first; that has to be the foundation.”

Camp Alonim, Simi Valley

Transgender campers are welcome at Camp Alonim, it’s as simple as that, said executive director Josh Levine. The camp, located on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, has had only one transgender student so far, he said, but the doors are open to more.

“They’re human beings like you and me, and if they want to come to camp, then of course they should be allowed to come to camp and be welcomed when they’re at camp, like any other kids,” Levine said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s all about respect and inclusion and equality.”

Levine said initially he was uncertain about how to best accommodate a transgender camper when presented with the request in 2015. He said he sought advice from other summer camps and from the national organization Keshet, which advocates for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.

The camp director said the student was allowed to use the cabin and bathrooms that corresponded with his gender identity. Levine said prior to camp, he also contacted parents of other children in that age group to inform them of the situation and to ask them to remind their kids that the camp is an inclusive place. He said he probably wouldn’t send that kind of notification again because it doesn’t seem necessary.

“Kids just want to make friends with other nice kids, and that’s what happened. That might sound surprising, but kids were just happy to get to know this really nice, creative, funny kid,” he said. “People coming to camp in 2017 should not be surprised to see kids of all different kinds of backgrounds at camp, including transgender campers.”

Camp Ramah in California, Ojai

Executive director Rabbi Joe Menashe declined to comment on whether Camp Ramah has a specific policy or approach when it comes to transgender campers. He said the topic had been discussed during staff training and the camp is “aspiring to be maximally inclusive.”

“It’s not about a topic, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s clearly something that, as we seek to honor the dignity of every individual, is on our minds but … I would prefer not to speak about individual people or specific policies because I think that gets complex in the public sphere.”

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, Big Bear Lake

Last summer, Camp Gilboa followed the lead of the national Habonim Dror youth movement by making changes to how Hebrew suffixes are used at camp, with the goal of making the language more inclusive. Instead of using the masculine suffix –im when referring to a group of people that includes males and females, the camp now uses –imot, a combination of -im and the feminine suffix –ot. For example, the age group known as Chotrim is now referred to as Chotrimot.

The camp also has incorporated a gender-neutral prefix for people who do not want to be referred to as a specific gender. For example, in addition to madrich for a male counselor, or madricha for a female counselor, a counselor also can be referred to as madrichol.

Executive director Dalit Shlapobersky said the campers adopted the changes immediately and without any problem.

“It’s a good educational opportunity to raise awareness about how language is used,” she said. “Not only with this [transgender] aspect of it, but just educating campers, making them more aware of gender roles … of how language enforces or makes gender roles more concrete in daily lives.”

Shlapobersky said the camp also has a gender-neutral bathroom in the dining room, the result of a decision made by campers many years ago. Currently, the camp does not have gender-neutral showers or locker rooms, she said, but that’s because it has never had a transgender camper at Camp Gilboa.

“We are prepared to deal with it when the need arises,” she said. “We are a totally, fully open community and everyone is welcome. So when someone is transgender … then we are ready to accept them and make sure that it works.”

Alexis Arquette, Jewish transgender actress and advocate, dies at 47


Transgender actress Alexis Arquette, who worked to raise awareness about the transgender community, has died.

Arquette, the sister of actors David, Rosanna, Richmond and Patricia Arquette, died Sunday. She was 47. A cause was not given in a statement put out by her siblings, but it said she died as her family serenaded her with David Bowie’s “Starman.”

Arquette gained fame after playing a transvestite sex worker in the 1989 film adaptation of the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”

She documented her gender transition and sex reassignment surgery in the 2007 film “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother.”

Arquette also had roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “Bride of Chucky” and “The Wedding Singer,” and performed in nightclubs and cabarets.

Her siblings praised Arquette’s commitment to raising awareness about transgender individuals.

“Despite the fact that there are few parts for trans actors, she refused to play roles that were demeaning or stereotypical,” their statement said. “She was a vanguard in the fight for understanding and acceptance for all trans people.”

The Los Angeles native was born to a Jewish mother, actress Brenda Denaut, and a Catholic father who later converted to Islam, actor Lewis Arquette. She launched her acting career early, starring in the music video for The Tubes’ rock hit “She’s a Beauty” as a 12-year-old.

Summer camps open bunks to transgender Jews


Bathrooms accessible for transgender children and staff are old news at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s summer camp in South Sterling, Pennsylvania. Five years ago the camp posted signs on bathroom doors stating “This bathroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.”

From its founding in 2002, Camp JRF set a similarly inclusive tone, according to director Isaac Saposnik. Among its accommodations, the overnight facility decided not to divide into a boys’ side and a girls’ side or to have boys’ activities and girls’ activities.

“Boys and girls are always together,” Saposnik said. “We don’t have a lot of gendered programming. All the campers play sports together all day.”

 

As attention has shifted in recent years to the needs of transgender and gender-fluid kids, other Jewish camps have been catching up. Among the leaders in making such children (and staff) feel welcome are Camp Towanga in Northern California; Union of Reform Judaism Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, and Ramah in the Rockies in Sedalia, Colorado, where a transgender man — the director of camper care at its Ramah Outdoor Adventure — madeheadlines earlier this year when he gave birth to a daughter.

“These are issues that will confront everyone; it’s a new reality,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which serves as the umbrella organization for 300 day and overnight Jewish camps.

There is no reliable data on how many transgender kids attend Jewish camp, according to Daniel Bahner, national manager of education and training for Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ advocacy organization headquartered in Boston. But, he said, “It is becoming an increasingly visible conversation.”

Camp JRF’s first out transgender camper arrived “a few years ago,” according to Saposnik, and he estimated that about a dozen of the approximately 430 campers enrolled each summer have gender identity issues.

Earlier this year, 50 camps participated in a webinar on transgender issues arranged by FJC and provided by Keshet. FJC also provided a forum for camps to share best practices at its 2016 Leaders Assembly in March in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Such practices include offering changing areas that allow individual privacy, with curtains and shower stall doors; housing policies that allow transgender or “gender non-conforming youth” to bunk where they feel most comfortable, and banning hurtful language.

In 2014, Eisner Camp polled campers’ parents after a family asked if the camp could accommodate a 12-year-old transgender girl. Not one of the 65 families polled objected, and the girl was welcomed and placed in a bunk with the rest of the girls. The first year she used a counselor’s private bathroom to shower; the next year she used the girls’ restroom and showers.

Last year at Camp Towanga, which serves the San Francisco Jewish community, a 13-year-old camper came out as a transgender boy to female bunkmates. The girls decided to change their cabin label from G5 (Girls 5) to EG5 (Every Gender 5). Other cabins adopted the designation, according to J. Weekly.

At many Jewish summer camps that have decades of traditions, however, change can be difficult.

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in Wingdale, New York, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, director Rabbi Paul Resnick has spent the last year confronting what he called the “painful” reality that the Ramah culture he loved first as a camper and ultimately as a professional can be an “uncomfortable” space for some. In particular, he said, the binary gender culture of Camp Ramah, where activities are separate for boys (“banim”) or girls (banot”), is coming under fire.

“People have challenged the idea that we need to do” separate evening activities for boys and girls, he said.

A constant motivator for him is the recollection of the camper who left early in the summer of 2013 because “he felt uncomfortable because really, she was transgender,” Resnick said, switching pronouns mid-sentence to match the reality the camper felt. “I said to the mom, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘Just educate yourself.’”

Resnick accepted the challenge and has been delving into the subject and seeking solutions by reading literature, attending conferences and speaking with other camp directors as well as Ramah alumni.

This year, Resnick brought in Keshet to train his staff. And he’s making a conscious effort to change his language. He now uses “chevra” (group of friends) instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” Not only is the Hebrew phrase more appropriate for a Jewish camp, he said, but “it does not assume anything about anyone on the gender spectrum.”

Parents, it seems, know which camps are ahead of the curve. Saposnik said Camp JRF gets at least one call every month relating to approaches to gender identity issues at camp.

The family bathroom at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp in Sterling, Pennsylvania, was easily converted with a sign to make everyone feel comfortable. Photo from Camp JRF

Two years ago he sent a letter to Camp JRF families about diversity at the camp that included a specific discussion of transgender issues; an updated version went out last week. Following a definition of terms that distinguishes among sex (“the biology you were born with”), gender (“your emotional or intellectual identity”), sexual orientation (“who you are attracted to”) and gender expression (“how you present yourself in the world”), it includes a brief discussion of each and then provides basic guidelines for campers who may have questions.

Most of these fall into the “It’s never okay” category: “It’s never okay to ask another person about which body parts they have — that’s always private” or “It’s never okay to ask someone who identifies as transgender what their name ‘used to be.’”

On the other hand, “It’s always okay to ask someone what pronouns (‘he/him,’ ‘she/her,’ ‘they/them’) they prefer to use. If you aren’t sure and can’t ask, just use the person’s name.”

But even the camps that are proactive face challenges. For starters, some of the necessary changes to provide privacy for transgender and cisgender kids — those whose self-identity conforms with the biological gender they were at birth — can be expensive.

“Certain buildings will take more time, with more design issues and require more money,” Saposnik said.

But other changes are “not that hard”: offering a family restroom and adding stall doors to showers fall into this category.

“It’s not different from the changes a parent would ask us to make for almost any other issue, like a ramp on the cabin or plugging in a sleep machine,” he said. “When we say we’re serious, we mean it.”

As for parents who think it’s great as long as it’s “not their kids’ bunk,” Saposnik said, by the end of the summer, for most campers, it’s a non-issue, “just an interesting backstory.”

Sometimes Saposnik  encounters families for whom Camp JRF is too progressive. In that case, he said, he suggests a camp that might be a better fit.

“Our commitment is to send Jewish kids to Jewish camp,” he said. “We cannot serve everyone. No one can do that.”

Fingerman, of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said, “We’re hopeful that the broad tapestry of Jewish camp will have options for every Jewish kid and every Jewish family.” But, he pointed out, what they do “has got to fit within the culture of that camp.”

While Resnick would like to reach a point where embracing transgender campers is a non-issue, he knows his Camp Ramah isn’t there yet. He wants to be able to embrace as many kids from as many backgrounds as he can.

While the options “are not limitless,” Resnick said, “I want parents with a gay child or with a trans child to feel comfortable. I don’t want a reactive model. I want a proactive model.”

Israel’s first transgender army officer celebrates pride at embassy event


When Shachar was 2 years old, she asked her parents to keep her hair short. When she was 5, she asked them to throw out every skirt in her closet.

When Shachar was 16, he realized he was a boy, and when he was 19 he got the army, Israel’s most daunting bureaucracy, to add a pocket to his uniform shirt — a small but significant difference signifying maleness.

Shachar, now a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, spoke here Monday night at a gay pride month event at the Israeli Embassy, explaining in hesitant and nervous tones how he became its first transgender officer. (Active duty personnel in the IDF do not reveal last names.)

“This is the right of the whole world, to be free and to be whoever we want to be,” Shachar said, with an unmistakable nod to last week’s massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando carried out by a man who pledged fealty to the Islamic State.

The mass shooting, which killed 49 people, hung heavy over the event. Also speaking was Omar Sharif Jr., the grandson of the Egyptian actor, who said the previous week had been a “nightmare” for him both as an Arab and a gay man.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.,  said he had asked himself in the wake of the massacre whether he should add gays to his designation of Jews as the “canaries in the coal mine” whose vulnerability signals threats to civilization.

“You are not alone,” Dermer said, addressing the LGBT community. “Israel stands with you.”

But the inaugural pride event at the embassy, including Shachar’s participation, was planned long before the Orlando massacre. The event was celebrating the Israeli army’s evolution in its treatment of gay and transgender soldiers.

Since the 1960s, Israel’s military has been progressive by default: Excluding gays from service never made sense in a small country facing a perpetual threat. Transgender people are banned from the U.S. military, though Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last year enacted a de facto moratorium on dismissals and created a working group to study the issue.

For Israelis, it seemed baffling that exclusion was the norm in the United States and Britain until recent years. If you had the skills and the willingness to save lives while risking your own, the country’s leaders reasoned, it seemed odd in Israel’s reality to fret about whom you liked to date.

Still, that didn’t mean the army was a bastion of openness. Gay troops reported harassment and in some cases were denied sensitive security clearance. Partners were denied benefits.

In the early 1990s, the Knesset passed laws granting gays full equality in the military and in other sectors, and a 2013 Times of Israel analysis showed the brass embracing the openness. Some of that trickled down to troops, while in other sectors anti-gay bias persisted.

How Shachar came out as a transgender male illustrates how, in recent years, the army is committed not just to removing barriers but to changing attitudes.

Shachar, soon to turn 23, enlisted five years ago, and struggled whether to do so as a man or woman. In the end he chose the latter, but on the bus ride to his training base from Bakum, the massive sign-in base in central Israel, he chafed at having to wear a woman’s uniform, which is cut differently and with one pocket, not two.

“It was the first and only time I wore a woman’s uniform,” Shachar told JTA in an interview before his appearance at the embassy event. “I rode in women’s clothes.”

Policy was policy, and he was unable to get his superiors at the training base to allow him to wear the men’s uniform. One of his commanders, however, came up with a compromise: Shachar would be permitted to wear the looser-fitting work uniform even when the more formal uniform was required. The work uniform, designed to withstand grease and dirt, is unisex.

“He beat the system,” Shachar said with a smile, referring to his commander, using Hebrew slang for soldiers who are adept at bypassing outmoded regulations.

Still, Shachar was concerned enough about attitudes that although his superiors knew his secret, he kept his gender identity a secret from his peers. As a male he must serve four years, with an option to extend.

He performed well in the army’s behavior analysis unit, which advises the military on organizational and training issues, and his commanders recommended him for the officer’s course. While he was in the course, they advised him to come out to his peers.

“I realized this secret will be a problem if I want to have an open relationship with my soldiers,” Shachar said.

A week before graduating, he came out to his fellow cadets. When he graduated, he was listed as a male on his certificate.

Shachar has begun hormone therapy and will undergo surgery, subsidized by the army – a function of Israel’s health system, which mandates insurance for gender change as essential.

More recently, he has adopted a semi-official role counseling other transgender soldiers and has advised the IDF’s chief gender officer, Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, on transgender issues.

Among the changes he has recommended, and which have been implemented: In Hebrew, a language with greater gender-specificity than English, personnel now speak of soldiers according to their gender identification rather than their birth gender. Commanders take into account whether transgender soldiers would prefer to sleep on or off base.

Transgender males join religious males as a minority entitled to a beard exemption. For transgender men, “a beard is part of your personality,” Shachar said, stroking his own.

And then there’s the uniform: Upon request, recruits will be handed a uniform according to their gender identity. For Shachar, that has meant two shirt pockets since he graduated the officer’s course.

“For me,” he said, “the difference was like between heaven and earth.”

I’m a transgender Jewish man who had a baby — here’s why I went public with my story


Two weeks ago, I heard a podcast in which two Jewish women named Ronna and Beverly misgendered me repeatedly and made fun of my story. This was not the first time I thought to myself, “Why did I choose this?”

To be clear, I was not asking, “Why did I choose to be transgender?”

Rather, I wondered, “Why did I choose to be this visible?”

Let me start by saying that when JTA published an article about my life as a transgender Jewish dad who recently gave birth, I had no idea it would be as popular as it was. I didn’t know it would be shared on countless Facebook pages and groups, as well as by several other Jewish news outlets. The day the article came out, I read it first thing in the morning and thought to myself, “Well that’s not that interesting, although I’m sure some people will enjoy it.” It just seemed normal to me.

That’s because that’s what my life is today — normal. I know that’s hard for people to understand when they’ve been socialized through the media to believe that transgender lives are somehow totally sensational, radical and bizarre. The day the article was published, I did the same things any other parent would be doing: laundry, washing dishes, feeding and playing with my baby, and occasionally checking Facebook to keep up with what was going on.

So why did I agree to be featured in the article? Here is some background:

When I first came out as transgender and was figuring out what name I wanted to be called for the rest of my life, I thought about changing my last name to my mother’s very traditional Jewish maiden name. I thought it might be easier to blend in if I wanted to be a part of a traditional or Orthodox Jewish community. I would be forced to make up tales about where I went to high school, where I studied in Israel and who my friends were — but maybe, I thought, just maybe it would be worth it in order to blend in and just be a normal guy.

But after getting sober and slowly building a life based in spirituality and connectedness, I just couldn’t imagine living without absolute integrity about who I am, who I was and who I hoped to be. So I kept my unusual (for a Jew) last name and came out publicly to those who knew me. After less than a year on testosterone, no one on the street would guess that I once looked female.

When the article was published, I was really careful to avoid the “comments sections” on the news sites. I was sad to miss the kind and supportive comments — and I heard there were a lot of them — but I knew it wouldn’t be practicing self-care if I read comments that misgendered me at best or, at worst, claimed that being transgender and raising a baby is child abuse.

The few difficult comments I did see made me wonder, “Why are people so afraid of allowing the gender binary to bend or blend?” I don’t identify as genderqueer, which can be defined as someone who identifies as neither a man or woman, both, or someone who feels they are “in between.” I really do feel to the essence of my bones that I am a transgender man; I can’t really explain the sensation any better than that. Transitioning brought a peace and completion that I never dreamed possible.

One question that came up multiple times, even by kind and well-intentioned people: How does someone who feels like a man choose to have a baby? Doesn’t that make him a woman? And the answer comes in the form of a story.

Back when I was living as an androgynous looking “lesbian” who secretly preferred men, I was a part of JQY-Jewish Queer Youth, a New York-based support group for LGBTQ teens and young adults from Orthodox or traditional Jewish backgrounds. One evening I attended a JQY event and was having a pleasant evening when my friend Y. came up to me in the kitchen.

“R.,” he said, using my former name, “I’m so jealous of you!”

I was shocked to my core. I don’t have the kind of life that people are generally jealous of.

“What?! Why?” I exclaimed.

“Because if you want to have a baby, you can just have a baby,” he explained.

I was confused by this and asked, “If you had the ability to have a baby, would you?”

“Absolutely,” he said, without any hesitation. There was my answer: Y. — who very much identifies as a cisgender male, a man who identifies with the sex he was assigned at birth — told me that if he had a uterus, he would absolutely utilize it to give birth to a child.

It was that very moment that cracked me open to the awareness that the desire to give birth to a child is not inherently gendered. Sexed, yes. The capacity to birth a child is most definitely sexed; those without the necessary organs cannot create life, regardless of their gender identity. I had met dozens of women who had little to no interest in giving birth, and it did not make them less womanly or feminine. That day I met a man who would absolutely give birth if he could. Was he less of a man for that?

I started asking other cisgender men if they would utilize a uterus if they had one. I was surprised by how many men said yes once they thought about it for a while; most had never even considered it.

After that, there was no going back — I could want to give birth and still be a man. After all, Y. was still a man. My transition to male began not long after that revelation.

My journey as a Jewish transgender man has not always been easy, but I am blessed to be surrounded by so many loving and wonderful people who can hold multiple truths, who can see me as a man and also know I still have sex organs that usually belong to females. The negative comments I did see in response to the article came mainly from people who do not (yet) have the ability to see the beauty in something that does not fit their expectations.

When I worked at Camp Ramah last summer, I was approached by a handful of cisgender men who told me they had feelings of jealousy that I could experience pregnancy and birth and they could not. One colleague said if he could have the babies, he and his wife would have more children than they do. These men had found a space to “admit” that they don’t fit this socially invented stereotype that men would never want to birth a child.

Rafi, before his transition. (Courtesy of Rafi Daugherty)
Rafi, before his transition.

So now, hopefully, it’s clear why I felt comfortable having a baby as a transgender man. But why did I come out so publicly to the world? I wanted to crack open that part of others. I wanted others to find an understanding of gender that wasn’t so rigid as to cast away a person who doesn’t fit the “norms.” I wanted to share my beautiful yet average life to help others see that transgender people can be beautifully average. I am blessed.

As a white transgender man who fits most of society’s expectations of what a “man” looks like, I know that I am enormously privileged. I want to use my voice of privilege to help others find acceptance in their families, their communities and out on the streets. The suicide attempt rate in the transgender community is 41 percent. The attempt rate in the U.S. overall is 4.6 percent. These statistics are proof that we are a long way from true acceptance and support for the transgender people in our communities.

Transgender people (especially transgender women of color) have some of the highest rates of unemployment, discrimination of all types, homelessness, poverty and violent deaths. If my story, face and voice can be a stepping-stone that leads to a wider acceptance of my transgender brothers, sisters and siblings, then going public with my experiences will have been worth every ignorant and ugly comment. If my story touched you, I ask that you find out how you can be an ally to transgender people in your own community. One quick and easy resource can be found at Keshet, an organization that works for equality and inclusion for LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life.

Because I know people will be wondering about the baby, Ettie Rose is thriving and happy. She started attending a local Montessori day care and everyone who meets her is enthralled by her — even by some who proclaim themselves “not baby people.”

At 5 months old, she is too young to know our family is different. She grins at me every day with a look of total love and adoration, and my heart bursts with joy. But I am excited to explain everything to Ettie when she is older. (The best book to educate small children about “where babies come from” is What Makes a Baby— all the information completely degendered.) She will grow up knowing her story and understanding that she was created with an enormous amount of intention and love.

Israel’s first transgender beauty pageant slated for May


Israel will be holding its first beauty pageant for transgender women.

Nearly 30 transgender Jews and Arabs auditioned Thursday at a Tel Aviv club for a place in the Miss Trans Israel pageant, according to The Associated Press.

“Definitely we are achieving, enlightening the people to accept and empower transsexuals,” Israela Stephanie Lev, the pageant’s organizer, told the AP.

Finalists will compete at a pageant in May, and the winner will represent Israel at the Miss Trans Star International pageant to be held in Spain in August.

Elian Nesiel, a 20-year-old contestant, said she believes that being transgender is “gradually accepted more and more.”

“Yes, it’s a process, like everything,” she said.

Israel is widely considered the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East, and gays openly serve in its military. According to the AP, at least one openly transgender soldier is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

However, in the halls of government, gay Israelis have long faced a firewall of religious parties that have blocked pro-LGBT legislation. Gay couples cannot marry, adopt children or have surrogate pregnancies in Israel, though the government does recognize adoptions and gay marriages performed abroad.

Jewish transgender man gives birth and embraces life as a single ‘abba’


When Rafi Daugherty went to the hospital for the birth of his first child, he posted a sign on the delivery room door.

“I am a single transgender man having my first baby,” it read. “I use he/him/his pronouns and will be called ‘Abba’ (Hebrew for father) by the baby. Papa, Dad, Daddy, Father … are also ok.”

Rafi, 33, wanted hospital staff to be prepared for what they were about to see: a man laboring in bed.

“I didn’t want them to assume that I identified as female because I was having a baby,” he said.

After eight hours of labor, Rafi was holding his 7-pound, 10-ounce daughter: Ettie Rose, named, in the Jewish tradition, for Rafi’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother.

Since bringing Ettie home from the hospital, Rafi’s days have been filled with frequent feedings — unable to nurse, he gives his daughter donor breast milk  — and diaper changes and stroller walks around his Denver neighborhood.

Nearly five months on, Ettie is a thriving infant with an impressive collection of plush seahorses.

“We got a lot of seahorse toys, for obvious reasons,” Rafi told JTA.

Obvious, that is, if you happen to know that male seahorses carry and birth their offspring.

Rafi holds his daughter, Ettie, at her simchat bat in October. Photo by Amy Ashford

Male pregnancy first made headlines in 2007, when Thomas Beatie, a transgender man, became pregnant — and went public with his story, posing for magazines and appearing on “Oprah.” Back then, there were virtually no resources for pregnant transmen. (“I had nothing to go by; the organizations I reached out to had nothing,” Beatie told JTA.)

That’s slowly changing thanks to nascent research, as well as the emergence of closed social media groups devoted to transmasculine birthing and infant-feeding.

Furthermore, transgender rights and inclusion are increasingly a part of public — and Jewish — discourse. That’s due in part to the recent transition of the Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star now known as Caitlyn Jenner, and the prominence of transgender characters on hit series such as “Transparent,” where the protagonist is a Jewish transwoman, and “Orange Is the New Black.”

In November, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution affirming its commitment to the full equality of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The flagship Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries welcome transgender students, and the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College have ordained transgender rabbis.

Rafi, who grew up Orthodox, said he’s been warmly welcomed by Colorado’s progressive Jewish community. One independent minyan organized a postpartum meal train for Rafi, and a large Conservative synagogue hosted Ettie’s simchat bat, or Jewish welcoming ceremony.

“I have dreamed of being a parent since I was just a small child,” he said at the ceremony in October. “It’s something that has been a part of me for as long as I can recall. I remember carrying my baby dolls around and dreaming of the day that they would be real and not just fabric and plastic.”

That day would have come sooner, he explained, but he felt he had to be “the most authentic and fulfilled human that I could be before trying to raise kids.” For Rafi, that involved transitioning from female to male — something that had long seemed out of the question, given his religious upbringing.

Rafi, before his transition. Photos ourtesy of Rafi Daugherty

Growing up, Rafi attended a haredi Orthodox Bais Yaakov school in St. Louis. (Like many in the transgender community, Rafi is guarded about his birth name and asked that it not be published.) On Purim, he sometimes dressed up as a boy, donning a kippah and tzizit ritual fringes.

At night, young Rafi would pray to God to turn him into a boy. But because he was brought up to believe that gender is immutable, he didn’t think he had any agency in the matter.

Rafi was 21, living in New York, and in recovery for alcohol and drug addictions when he first met a transgender person.

“My immediate thought was, ‘Wow, if I wasn’t Orthodox I would totally be transgender,’” Rafi recalled during a 2012 speech to Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado. “But I didn’t think God made mistakes and I always wanted to be a mommy, so I tried very hard to stay female.”

But in 2007, Rafi came out as a male. He had a renaming ceremony, becoming Rachamim Refael “Rafi” Yehoshua Ben Zechariah Leib, at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in Manhattan. Rafi turned 25 a few weeks later and began taking testosterone. His voice became lower and hair sprouted on his chin. He then underwent chest reconstruction surgery, but opted against other procedures, such as a hysterectomy.

“I was created with a body that could create life, and I didn’t want to damage that ability,” he said.

Living as a man, Rafi was finally comfortable in his own skin.

But his transition was met with resistance from his Orthodox mother and then-stepfather, and his haredi Orthodox brother. Rafi didn’t see his mother for three years after his transition, though they have since reconciled, and his older brother has refused contact since 2007. In an interview, Rafi’s mother described herself as a doting grandmother — she attended Ettie’s simchat bat — who is trying to respect the life choices of both her children. She acknowledged, though, that she holds out hope that the daughter she raised will go back to living as a woman. (She asked that her name not be published to protect her family’s privacy.)

After college and graduate school — Rafi has a master’s degree in crisis and trauma studies from Tel Aviv University — he settled in Denver. Rafi began working as a community organizer, then a regional manager, for the Jewish LGBT advocacy group Keshet. In 2014, he took a job at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a Jewish camp affiliated with the Conservative movement; he is now the director of camper care.

“We welcomed Rafi as a Jewish leader, and one that pushed us to live our value of being open and accepting,” said the camp’s executive director, Rabbi Eliav Bock.

Summer session 2015 at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, which serves children in grades 3–12, coincided with the third trimester of Rafi’s pregnancy. Rafi was met with a round of applause when he told the camp staff his news. But he asked his colleagues not to discuss his pregnancy with campers, who, Rafi said, “just thought I was a fat dude.” By the end of the summer, with Bock’s blessing, Rafi disclosed to the high school-age campers that he was pregnant.

Rafi became pregnant by artificial insemination. The sperm donor is a friend whom Rafi described as “a tall, dark and handsome gay man, who is half South Asian” and half white.

“He’s expressed gratitude to be part of this journey for us,” Rafi added, “and not have to deal with the diapers and the crying.”

In 2014, the journal Obstetrics and Gynecologypublished a groundbreaking study that drew on data from 41 people who had been pregnant and given birth following a female-to-male transition. The study showed use of the male hormone testosterone did not seem to prevent conception, though some respondents who conceived reported being turned away when they sought prenatal care and facing insensitive comments from health care providers.

Rafi did run up against records software that wouldn’t allow hospital staff to enter the name of a father without first entering the name of a mother. He was ultimately successful in changing the birth certificate to reflect what Rafi called “the truth of our family”: that Rafi is Ettie’s father.

In recent months, Rafi has become accustomed to the assumptions people make when he and his daughter are out and about: that Ettie is adopted, for example, or that Rafi has a spouse at home. (Rafi is single, but open to a relationship; he said he’s attracted to “androgynous to masculine” individuals.)

“I’m getting used to saying, ‘I’m transgender and I gave birth to her,’” Rafi said, “so that Ettie can be empowered to know her story and share her story, and not feel like it’s something embarrassing or weird.”

Why transgender inclusion is a Jewish imperative


Just when the LGBT community thinks it has taken another step toward full equality and inclusion, along come the Dennis Pragers of the world to remind us how far we still have to go.

In his most recent opinion pieces in the Journal (“The Torah and the Transgendered,” Dec. 4, and “The Hate Is All in One Direction,” Dec. 11), Mr. Prager portrays transgender people and trans inclusion as incompatible with the teachings of Torah, and calls into question the very Jewishness of those of us who reject his narrow and bigoted view in favor of basic human dignity.

Most deplorably, he attacks — yes, Mr. Prager, attacks — Keshet board member Rabbi Becky Silverstein for having the audacity to identify and present as male while retaining a conventionally female name. 

Mr. Prager’s message is not only wrong — it is wrongheaded.

Wrong, because it demands that the Torah remain frozen in time, incapable of inspiring new generations of Jews seeking answers to contemporary challenges. Wrongheaded, because it appeals to the worst instincts of human nature.

Our Torah is a living, breathing document, whose words and teachings can be understood and interpreted anew to reflect humankind’s limitless ability to evolve, change and grow. Its beauty and wonder lie in its capacity to provoke and guide our community as much today as it did 5,000 years ago.

We claim a Torah that embraces complexity, mystery and inclusivity. Mr. Prager offers a Torah that is simplistic, static and divisive, one that not so successfully masks his contempt and fear of “the other.”

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that human gender is infinitely more diverse than the gender binary. Talmudic discourse over the generations identifies various categories of people who, according to their descriptions in the text, would today fall under the broad umbrella of “transgender.” These include the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the androgynos (a person with male and female sex organs), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).

To be sure, you won’t find a transgender liberation manifesto in the Talmud. But you will find thoughtful discussion of real people whom the rabbis clearly encountered in their lives, and an attempt to discern their roles in society. 

Like Mr. Prager, the rabbis concerned themselves with distinctions and differentiation. Unlike Mr. Prager, they well understood and acknowledged the magnificent diversity of human gender.

Mr. Prager’s decision to single out and scorn a specific rabbinic leader and Jewish institution is evidence that his voice does not belong in our discourse or any self-respecting Jewish publication. His words foment fear and hate, and serve to bully and intimidate. 

Our community must resolve to place understanding and inclusion at the forefront of our thinking and our actions. Mr. Prager’s recent comments notwithstanding, the news on that front is encouraging. 

In addition to the historic victory in the Supreme Court for marriage equality earlier this year, last month the Union for Reform Judaism publicly affirmed its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.

We challenge the Jewish community to build upon this momentum and use Mr. Prager’s words to spur us further, faster. It would be a terrible loss if even one Jewish organization thought twice about embracing or hiring a transgender individual for fear of being attacked in the Jewish media. Or worse yet, if even one transgender Jew decided to leave the Jewish community for fear of rejection.

We urge Jewish leaders of all denominations and movements to join with unflinching courage the fight for full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. 

Know that all of us at Keshet — and countless others — will always stand with you.

Idit Klein is executive director of Keshet, a national grass-roots organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman is director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, and a Keshet educator. B. Andrew Zelermyer is chair of the Keshet board of directors.

Dennis Prager has a point


What Dennis Prager says in his most recent column (“” target=”_blank”>his piece “Torah and the transgendered” with a lot of passion and rhetoric, even beauty, without addressing his central claim. That claim, to boil it down, is that we Jews who are accepting of transgender people care more about compassion than halakhah, than the law of the Torah. The counter-argument that compassion is halakhah, is Torah, doesn’t cut it, because that’s an argument about the meaning of halakhah, about how halakhah works, not a halakhic argument.

I am also ready to believe Prager when he says that he wasn’t speaking with hatred towards transgender people. Certainly, he gave a nod toward understanding when he wrote in his first column, “One has to have a callous heart not to feel compassion toward anyone who suffers from gender dysphoria. It is surely awful to go through life thinking one’s body is of the wrong sex.” Of course, he also speaks in both articles with the sure sense of someone who believes in his own superiority as a champion of the Torah. That’s annoying, and perhaps less than admirable, but it’s not hateful.

Since other have already addressed the ways in which Prager’s words could be harmful, what I’d like to do here is respond to his argument on his own terms. I see two avenues of response. The first is that we could rebut his claim that the Torah only affirms the binary of gender, of male and female. The tricky part about this is, you can’t answer that claim so easily from the Torah itself, which doesn’t have a figure like Tiresias, the Greek prophet who was explicitly male and female. Rather, you need rabbinic midrash and halakhah. Kabbalah doesn’t hurt either. I will return to those in a moment.

The second response is the more cutting one: transgender identity as we are constructing it today doesn’t undo the binary of gender at all.

Rather, it affirms the binary of gender. It’s only because we’re a society that is based on the existence of just two genders, and no more, that someone whose inner identity is male but is in a female body, or is female in a male body, needs to transition, instead of simply being what they are. Most “cis-gender” people (people who feel like the gender that they biologically conform to) aren’t comfortable with someone they meet, or work with, until they can affix to them the label of male or female, so most transgender people are forced to conform themselves, both before and after their transition, to one of their genders. If we had more than two genders, then it would be easy to affirm male-born-female and female-born-male, alongside male-born-male and female-born-female, as real genders in and of themselves.

Of course, if you know halakhah already, you know what I’m getting at. Rabbinic law does exactly this – it affirms seven – seven! – genders. Not just two. That’s because long before we developed our menu of sexual and gender identities, there have always been intersex people, people whose gender was biologically incomplete, ambiguous or multiple. The rabbis had to make space for them in Torah, even though the Torah never tells us about anyone who is intersex. So the rabbis have bequeathed us these genders: androginos, tumtum, saris adam, saris chamah, ailonit, zachar, n’keivah. (Those words mean: someone born with both male and female genital parts, someone born with indistinct parts, a male who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics because he was castrated, a male who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics for biological reasons, a female who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics, a male who does develop those characteristics, and a female who does develop those characteristics.)

Everyone who has thought about gender and Jewish law – so many wonderful scholars, and so many wonderful people who are transgender – knows this and writes about it. (See for example, ” target=”_blank”>Balancing on the Mechitza.) Why doesn’t Dennis Prager, the champion of Torah, know it?

The question then isn’t whether we can challenge the gender binary that appears to be part of Torah, since that has already been done, conclusively. There is no room to debate that, unless of course one wishes to leave rabbinic Judaism (which, of course, is Prager’s right if he so wishes). The question is, how do transgender identities today fit into these categories. Or, if they don’t fit into these categories, do we need to add more categories (which, of course, those of us interested in halakhah can do using halakhah)?

I'm proud to be raising my boy in Northampton MA, an epicenter for transgender rights. For him, transgender is part of what's normal. But I had to work hard to get what it all meant when my best friend transitioned years ago. So I’m not surprised that our newfound openness about transgender identity is confusing to Prager.

Our whole society is going through a transition, and it wouldn’t be such a surprising change, even to Prager, if not for the fact that in the modern age, medicine decided it could “fix” people who were intersex by cutting and remodeling their genitals, usually to make them look male. (This was also how doctors developed sexual reassignment surgery for transgender people.) Of course, this medical suppression of intersex genitalia started before people knew much about x and y chromosomes, and many people who were genetically male or genetically female were assigned the opposite gender. This was almost always hidden from the children who were operated on, and often even hidden from their parents. It’s an outrage, something the law today would never allow. But it’s a big part of why we know that gender is not just in the body, but “in the head”. We know that because so many people who were assigned a gender opposite their chromosomes never felt right in their bodies, always feeling like they were the opposite gender.

None of this changes the fact that neurologists have not found a clear distinction between female and male brains. None of this changes the fact that most people go through life comfortably being the gender everyone else already thought they were. But what a gift we have, to live in a world where, finally, our society is catching up to rabbinic law!

Compassion does have something to add to halakhah, though, and it is this: we can give halakhic standing to people’s self-understanding of who they are, instead of just to how their sexual characteristics develop in the womb or at puberty. This has been agreed upon by many halakhic authorities, the most well-known being the ” rel=”noreferrer” target=”_blank”>neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World (Cambridge 2015, 

Response to Dennis Prager


When earlier last month Mr. Prager assailed against non-orthodox Judaism as not going deep enough with Torah, I championed his cause. 

However, it seems that this month, it is Mr. Prager who

Letters to the Editor: Responses to Dennis Prager’s column on ‘the Torah and the transgendered’


The following letters are reponses to Dennis Prager's Dec. 4 column, “The Torah and the transgendered.”

Read Dennis Prager's Response

We are 235 members of the synagogue that Dennis Prager referred to but did not identify: Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC).

When PJTC needed an education director, it was clear from our first meeting with him that Rabbi Becky Silverstein was the best person for the job. Some of us anticipated that members of our community may have questions or concerns about the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender, and our leadership prepared to address any inquiries we received. Those anticipatory meetings, however, lasted far longer than any concerned conversations.

Rabbi Silverstein is an exemplary rabbi and teacher who communicates a message of love and community, and challenges us to empathize and to question in the talmudic tradition of our people. His passion for Torah is evident in his everyday conduct, as well as in his Shabbat sermons and when he teaches our children.

PJTC deeply values Judaism and Torah. We did not, as Prager suggests, hire Rabbi Silverstein out of “compassion,” nor do we embrace him now because we think he feels “awful.” Rather, we proudly call Rabbi Silverstein our teacher and friend because he epitomizes the best aspects of Torah and reminds us daily that we are all created in the image of the divine.

Geoff DeBoskey, Faith Segal, Franci Levine Grater, Joshua Levine Grater, Ruth Several, Amy Richardson, Hayley Karish, Roberta Tragarz, Sandy Hartford, Cantor Ruth Berman Harris and 225 other members, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center


 

“Do not judge your fellow person until you arrive in his place,” our sages say.  

We Jews have a long and painful history of being persecuted for the crime of not fitting in, of being different. For anyone who sees himself as a Jewish teacher or guide to do this, especially by using the considerable power of his pen against a vulnerable young person, [he] risks the danger of acting in a way that can only be defined by our collective memory as rish’us, plain old-fashioned wickedness.

Having said those things without reservation, let me make it equally clear that I do not speak from a position of moral relativism. If this or any rabbi were speaking up for promiscuous sexuality, for abuse of others, or even for irresponsibility in relationships, I would be on the other side. The very opposite happens to be true in this case. This is a young rabbi who truly loves our tradition, cares deeply about Judaism and has a great talent for teaching Torah.  He (I follow the rabbi’s choice of pronoun) also happens to be committed to faithful monogamy.  

We have plenty of places to direct our righteous anger right now. Let’s keep it away from one another. We all have better things to do and more important battles to fight.

Rabbi Arthur GreenIrving R. Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Hebrew College  


 

Once again, in a tired and predictable manner, Prager has chosen to take the entire Torah and say, “Only my interpretation is correct, only my reading is accurate.” In personally attacking both my synagogue, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, of which I served as the rabbi for nearly 13 years, and my colleague and friend, Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the stellar education director that our community hired over a year ago, Prager has trespassed on one of the very values of the precious Torah he claims to love and respect as his “guide in life.” 

Prager is entitled to his personal views on the binary nature of gender, and his interpretation of the Torah, but that doesn’t make him the final arbiter of anything. I find it sad that he doesn’t have the decency or respect for the dignity of another human being, Jewish leader and an entire community.  Maybe a little of his much-maligned “compassion” would serve him. However, he would do well to limit his public display of ignorance and willful misreading of Jewish texts, primarily the Torah, which much wiser and profoundly more knowledgeable sages than either of us, understood was anything but black and white.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center 


 

In response to your recent article, “Torah and the transgendered,” (Jewish Journal, 12/2/15).

I noticed that that you tried to shame an individual rabbi and the transgender community as a whole, in service of posing the question of the authority of the Torah in modern times.

Two weeks ago, we, at Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first LGBT founded Jewish community, memorialized the recorded hundreds of trans people murdered or taken by other forms of violence this year alone, during international Trans Day of Remembrance. Many fell to the hands of murderers incited by the very arguments you are expressing. Many took their own lives due to the type of spiritual violence that your view perpetuates by questioning a person's theological commitments, relationship to Torah and ultimately, God.

If you'd like to have a principled discussion on the role of the Torah in the modern world, great. Let's work it out.  It is an important conversation to have and it has been discussed since Jews were given the right to become citizens of modern nations. Let's continue the conversation l'shem shamayim- for the sake of heaven. But the type of shaming and verbal violence you inflict through the power of your pen and spoken word kills.

Thank God the Torah reminds us that God, in God's own image, created male and female. It is right there in the verse you quoted, just two words earlier: “In the image of God was he created, male and female.” Perhaps those who would otherwise be harmed by your words will find comfort to know that according to Torah, God is not confined to binary genders. May they draw the conclusion that it should not be applicable to God's human creations either.

Rabbi Heather Miller, Beth Chayim Chadashim


 

Dennis Prager is entitled to his anxieties about the breakdown of gender roles and identities throughout our society; we are all challenged to think differently today about the social order in light of the emergence of gender fluidity as a way of life, and it is reasonable to expect that confronting this new reality will be more challenging for some than others — especially for those predisposed to conservatism in other walks of life. 

But Prager overreaches in his casting as the liberal ethos the value of compassion over and against the normative/conservative ethos of Torah in two dangerous and problematic ways:

First, Prager adduces but one source from the Torah for his argument, from the creation of humankind in Genesis 1. This choice of prooftext is ironic, to say the least: The Torah’s vexing terminology suggests the first creation is multigendered and not binary. Moreover, Prager speaks of Torah as a Karaite, ignoring the history of interpretation in rabbinic text that played with, stretched and made spectral the idea of gender in ways that dramatically transcend the clean black-white divide that Prager imagines in “Torah,” as in other arenas in his moral universe. 

Second, the casting of Torah against compassion also misunderstands the deep interrelationship between the two. Compassion is one of Torah’s most central defining values, the widow and the orphan the central social objects of Jewish moral and religious obligation. Jews who struggle at the margins of the social order, or those who live at the threshold of ordered identities, do not demand of us that we jettison compassion for the brutality of “Torah”; they remind us of the obligations of chesed, of compassionate embrace and loving kindness, that were meant to be the inheritance of Torah all along. 

Yehuda Kurtzer, President, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America 


 

I am absolutely ashamed of the Jewish Journal for allowing the publication of Dennis Prager’s attack on a rabbinic colleague and his synagogue. Sadly, the Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis. His hurtful words belie his bigotry, which used to be reserved for gay and lesbian rabbis and now continues to expand to transgender rabbis. Haven’t we enough bullying? It is precisely this kind of immoral attack that Prager is known for. Words like his have been responsible for pain and suffering. 

The Torah has many interpretations. In my reading of Talmud and Torah, our sages recognized that we don’t live in a binary world. How sad that Prager picks up the radicalized right-wing old bathroom arguments used in the city of Houston by Christian extremists to defeat an equal-rights amendment. Are we to fear transgender people because they are predators? Is that what he is implying? Trans men and women have the most to fear. Statistics show they are the ones who are victims of violence and murder, often at the hands of white men like Prager. 

Liberal Jews use Torah as it was intended as our covenant and document of our relationship with the Divine One. And as our sages recognized, Torah is a living document interpreted in every generation in different ways. That’s why we have so many volumes of commentary.  

Perhaps Prager ought to reread our tradition’s take on character assassination because he isn’t living by the words of our Torah. In Pirke Avot 4:11, Rabbi Eliezer says that when a person embarrasses another in public, he loses his share in the world to come. He emphasizes that even though the perpetrator might be a fully observant Jew and a kind and generous person, if he is abusive, offends or embarrasses someone else publicly, he loses his part in the next world.

Perhaps it is time for a public apology from the Jewish Journal for engaging in such abusive behavior, and most especially from Prager for this and so many times he has bullied others through twisting of Torah. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami


 

My thoughts are not with Prager at this time. My thoughts are with you — the trans teen or adult who may have read Prager’s piece or heard hurtful things in the Jewish community, including my friend and colleague attacked in Prager’s article, Rabbi Becky Silverstein. 

To you: Ner adonai nishmant adam — the candle of God is the soul of a person. Bless you for the meaningful work you have done to connect with your soul; your precious and holy neshama. Your courage and willingness to take risks is more than inspiring. It models for us all the deepest values of our tradition. And it deepens our communities in ways they are longing to grow. It creates new possibilities for everyone to discover our own souls. This community is filled with teachers and colleagues and leaders who welcome you and your voice and your Torah. Bring your light.

Rabbi Susan GoldbergWilshire Boulevard Temple 


 

I commend Dennis Prager on the accuracy of his title, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” and suggest that his readers be mindful of the title and its limitations.

Judaism is a biblical religion but not only a biblical religion and not just a biblical religion. Oral law interpreted biblical law and not infrequently transformed and muted biblical law by the very process of interpretation.

The Talmud has extensive discussions of the transgendered male. It seems that the rabbis knew far more about transgendered persons than they did, for example, about lesbians, and their approach is far more nuanced than the biblical statement. Naturally, they vigorously debate its implications and its religious policy implications.

Because the Torah was given by God, I presume Prager would also concede that according to the Torah, a fetus is not a person, and abortion — whether permitted or not, deliberate or not — is not murder. Exodus 21:22-23, states: “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Rabbinic interpretations explained that the other misfortune was the life of the mother, not of the fetus.

Michael BerenbaumDirector, Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, American Jewish University


 

I wonder if Dennis Prager knew before writing his screed that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in the course of their lifetimes. Too many transgender teens and adults, after being ostracized, rejected, shamed, fired, raped and misunderstood, determine they simply do not belong in the world. Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy — but I desperately want to believe that if he knew this (widely available) fact, he would have paused for a moment before posting. Otherwise, to publicly mock a threatened minority and to single out for public shame and rebuke one transgender person in particular — a dedicated educator and rabbi in our community — is not only reckless but also cruel. Prager’s column has gotten a lot of traction, but it does nothing to advance the greatly needed conversation around the legitimacy and centrality of Torah in the lives of contemporary Jews, the topic he purports to address. Instead, it only belies its author the legitimacy to engage that conversation at all, as anyone who has learned Torah knows that public humiliation, considered the equivalent of death (BM 58b), is an offense far more egregious than a man trotting out in high heels.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR


 

Dennis Prager claims to use Torah as his guide, yet he probably wouldn’t condone death for a woman who commits adultery, nor would he propose that as the standard for determining social policy. 

We also claim Torah as our guide. For us, the fundamental principle of Torah comes right at the beginning: God created the human being in the image of God, male and female God created them.  That means Judaism requires that we work to create a world where all human beings can live as if they really were created in God’s image. In our view, that is a world where transgendered people are fully accepted. We have worked hard at our temple to create a safe space for all of the members of our community. That includes bathrooms for people of all gender expressions and programs in our religious school to teach our children about diversity and respect. We are proud of the Reform movement’s recent decision affirming this commitment to full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and expressions. To us, this is good social policy as well as authentic Judaism.

Rabbis Laura Geller, Jonathan Aaron and Sarah Bassin, Cantor Lizzie Weiss, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


 

I like to pick up a free copy of the Jewish Journal every week to keep informed of diverse activities and thinking in Jewish Los Angeles, so I felt appropriately challenged and motivated by David Suissa’s column in the Nov. 27 issue, inviting people like me to contribute toward the Journal’s support. Then I read Dennis Prager’s ugly and mean-spirited column in the Dec. 4 issue and decided to make a contribution to an LGBT organization instead.

Claire Gorfinkel, Altadena


 

When earlier last month Mr. Prager assailed against non-orthodox Judaism as not going deep enough with Torah, I championed his cause.  However, it seems that this month, it is Mr. Prager who has lost his way.  Torah has always been a dynamic; indeed, the rabbis prompt us to “Turn it, turn it, for everything is inside.”  And indeed, it is this directive that connected Maimonides to Aristotle; Saadia HaGaon to Islamic Kalam; and where would S.J. Hirsch be without Descartes, Wissenshaft without Marburg, Kaplan without the social sciences; and most importantly, where would Torah be? Torah is a dynamic; an involvement of the highest integration of human faculties.  Indeed, this is why it is still authoritative.  And in an age where our world is turning with insights from emerging Jewish thinkers outside of the yeshiva like Judith Butler and gender performativity, queer theory, gender studies, women’s studies — all sitting on our bookshelves next to our Sefat Emet, Rambam and Bavli, is there no other logical next turning of Torah than to refract it through our world of contemporary thought until we find new visions?  In the words of Susan Sontag:  “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”  Torah is an art of the highest aesthetic.  It reflects the greatest of our potential as thinkers, rhetoricians and lovers.  Mr. Prager, why not use all of our faculties when turning Her?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple


 

Though I disagree with the content of Dennis Prager's latest column, it is not actually the content or his conclusion that angers me enough to contact you.

Prager says that compassion is a beautiful personal trait, though insufficient for public policy.  In dragging Rabbi Silverstein personally into the article, he undermines his own argument by making it personal.  To my knowledge, the two have never interacted.  Bringing the story of another human being into his argument makes the musings emotional rather than his purported goal of a detached, intellectual approach.  Which torah allows for public shaming of an individual who poses no danger and has done no harm? 

I suggest that– like anyone who looks up from our multifaceted tradition with a clear answer and no qualms– Prager must have begun his article by assuming the worst of transgender folks in general, and Rabbi Silverstein in particular.  I would invite him to meet some trans people, do some reading about what claims are and are not being made about the torah, and then to come back to the table with a more balanced view.  After all, the torah has seventy faces and Prager's is only one.

Emily Fishman, Brookline, Mass.


 

Dennis Prager's recent article “The Torah and the Transgendered” should be read as an example of the dangers of being ignorant of 'Torah' and of Jewish tradition.  Prager begins by asking: “Is the Torah really the best guide?”  Based on the ensuing paragraphs, it seams that by “the Torah” Prager is referring to the most simplistic possible reading of various biblical verses.  If so, than the Jewish answer to his question is “No, the best guide is Torah.”  Torah is a more general term that includes all of Biblical and Rabbinic literature – laws, stories, ethics, philosophy, theology, and culture.

Prager stakes his claim “for the Torah, the distinction between men and women is fundamental” on Deut 22:5.  In the Talmud, this verse prohibits cross-dressing only when used as a disguise to invade someone else's space (bt Nazir 59a).  For Rashi, when used for the purpose of adultery (Rashi on Deut 22:5).  For Rambam, when used for the purpose of arousing desire and/or idol worship (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39)  Etc.  Moreover, the Talmud is well aware that not all people fit into male and female and therefore discusses in several places: androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit, and saris.  While none of those sources are socially liberal by modern standards, I would argue that for Torah, the distinction between men and women is not so fundamental.

On the other hand, “compassion”, which Prager so easily dismisses, is most certainty a fundamental Torah value.

Prager is correct that compassion is not itself sufficient to create policy.  Often social policy generates unintended consequences.

Therefore, compassion must be tempered by wisdom and reconciled with pragmatism.  Wisdom is built by experience and the rabbinic tradition has thousands of years of experience.  We should not ignore that advantage and trust a simplistic reading of The Torah. Instead, we can embrace our tradition by trusting a more nuanced, mature, wise, and compassionate Torah.

The Talmud (bt Shabbat 31a) relates that a potential convert asked Hillel and Shammai: “How many Torahs do you have?”  Each answered “Two, one written one oral.”  When asked if he could be converted with only the written Torah, Shammai refused but Hillel was able to teach the man to accept oral Torah.  Immediately afterwards, the Talmud (same page) relates that another potential convert asked Hillel (and Shammai) to summarize all of Torah on one foot.  Hillel famously says: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah.  The rest is the commentary, go and learn.”  In that spirit, I would like to invite Mr. Prager to study Oral Torah and not stop until he discovers its compassion.

Stevie Green, Los Angeles


 

Mr. Prager’s piece this week, “Torah and Transgender” crossed the line and didn't belong in the Jewish Journal. Beside the absurd claim that any community that hires a trans-person views Torah as “essentially useless” (I wonder what that makes Yeshiva University, following its appointment of Dr. Joy Ladin) the fact that he specifically and personally attacks a rabbi in the Los Angeles community for “insisting” on his gender identity was completely inappropriate. 

The Jewish Journal should be a place of robust debate about issues and values, and I appreciate the diversity of viewpoints you publish, but it is the editor's responsibility to ensure that debate doesn't devolve into personal attack. This article did not match the values of the Jewish Journal and serious consideration should be taken as to whether you continue to publish Mr. Prager’s writings. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program


 

I recently read Mr. Prager's above referenced article and felt strongly that you should know this: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from the religion with which I was raised, the religion of my parents and Bubbe and Zaide. The rabbi he criticized, whom I know personally, is what brings me back. I was appalled at the personal attack and misrepresentations made in that article.

The views espoused by Mr. Prager are antiquated and discriminatory, but to the Jewish community, they are deadly. If our religion was dominated by people like Mr. Prager, I could no longer partake of it – though I am not transgendered, I would still not be welcome, and I can't say that I would want to join in. However, when I speak about Judaism with the aforementioned rabbi or attend services where everyone is welcomed without judgment simply because we are all united by the bond of being Jewish, I am brought back – I want to be here, present, connected.

I'll say it again: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from my faith. The rabbi he mentioned is who brings me back.

Emily Farquharson, Esq.


 

I have often speculated that the reason Jesus and his teachings of Love took root is because the Israelites had forgotten that God's Love is what enlivens Creation.  After reading Mr. Prager's opinion piece, I'm sure of it.

Evelyn Baran


 

Your article by Dennis Prager, “Torah and the Transgendered,” is shockingly filled with hate, bias, and misunderstanding. I don't live in SoCal, so I know nothing about your newspaper and its editorial policy. It is astonishing that such an article would be published anywhere. Really horrible. I know that you can do better. The GLBTQ community needs support, not disdain and condemnation.

Rabbi Dr. Elyse Seidner-Joseph, Makom Kadosh


 

As a current rabbinical student and someone who hopes to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah and Jewish values of human dignity, justice and compassion, I was saddened to see Dennis Prager's piece, “The Torah and the Transgendered”  printed in the Jewish Journal.

I was not only disturbed by the way in which Prager misrepresents Torah, but also by the way in which he appropriates religious texts in order to shame individuals.  Prager's argument rests on the assumption that Torah is a religious text which outlines one clear and inherently “right” way of living in the world.  This position is inconsistent with Jewish tradition and undermines the true diversity and multivalent expression of Torah.  For example, the Torah teaches in Leviticus 20:10 that adulterers shall be stoned to death, and in Exodus 34:14 that anyone who violates Shabbat shall be put to death.  I can't imagine that Prager, or anyone else for that matter, would advocate implementing such a practice today, and yet it is stated quite clearly in our Torah.  And I don't think  that anyone who chooses to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah would argue that our choice not to follow these practices is leading us towards a doomed future in which we will be forced to admit that straying from these principles has harmed us fundamentally.  

Prager also fails to mention the instances in Torah which not only affirm gender diversity and the possibility of an individual experiencing themselves and expressing themselves outside of a gender binary, but also discuss how such individuals may participate in Jewish communal practice.  For instance, Bikkurim 4:1 discusses the androgynus–someone who expresses themselves like a man and like a woman. Clearly this text takes no issue with the fact that some people do not fit within a gender binary and instead focuses on possible avenues of self-expression and religious practice for such community members.

The erroneous claim that Torah stands against non-binary expression implies that those individuals who do not express themselves within a gender binary are violating Torah.  This is not only a misappropriation of Jewish text, but a violation of the very Torah which Prager claims to represent.  It is taught in Bava Metzia (58b), one who publically shames his neighbor, it is as if he has shed blood.  And in Sotah (10b) we learn that a person should rather throw themselves into the fire then shame someone else.

This week there was a massive shooting in California.  Worldwide there are millions of displaced people, refugees who are fleeing for their lives.  In this country, people are struggling to be seen, fighting to have their lives recognized and protected appropriately.  There is rampant injustice and suffering in the world. With so many important conversations on the table, so many problems that need to be solved in order to protect life and human dignity, Prager's misappropriation of religious texts in order to problematize gender expression in this moment represents skewed priorities.

I agree with Prager that Torah is valuable and that we should lead lives guided by righteousness and morality.  But, it makes me sad to see him misrepresenting the Torah I love and using it to shame individuals who express themselves outside of a gender binary.  It makes me sadder still to see a mainstream Jewish publication printing such words.   Prager's article, in its attempts to use religion to undermine and invalidate self-expression and to claim that non-binary gender expression is outside of Torah, contributes to the rhetoric of hatred which enables and motivates violence.  This, in the name of Judaism, is unconscionable.

Each day, we bless our God who long ago peered into the Torah and spoke the words which created the world.  We, as beings created in God's image, have an obligation to continue this holy work.  It is our duty to look deeply into Torah and to see its potential to create worlds of goodness.  Mr. Prager, I hope you will join me in this work.  I hope you will join me in seeking to understand all those whom we encounter in the world as beings created and expressing themselves in the Divine image.  May we all be blessed to use our words and our Torah learning to promote human dignity.

Aliza Berger


 

In his most recent column in your paper, Dennis Prager asks, “Is the Torah really the best guide?” He posits that non-Orthodox Jews see the Torah as “essentially useless as a guide to living,” using as proof the acceptance of transgender Jews by many congregations and institutions. In doing so, Prager ignores the import of Oral Torah, Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought and the value Judaism places on interpretation of Torah and a discourse of ideas.

Prager’s assertion that Rabbi Becky Silverstein, anonymously referenced in the column, believes that, “the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant,” is akin to slander. In fact, Rabbi Silverstein has written and taught extensively on gender in the Torah, Jewish thought and Jewish law. Moreover, having had the honor and pleasure of learning Torah from Rabbi Silverstein, a truly talented teacher, I can assure you that few are more guided by Torah than he.  If Prager had actually asked Rabbi Silverstein, his synagogue, or indeed any of the individuals or institutions maligned in the column about the role of Torah in their lives, he may have avoided breaking the Torah’s command, “you shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17),” which Rashi interprets as a warning against provoking fellow Jews with words. It seems this column ignores this mitzvah and several others in the Torah. I guess he must be consulting some other guide.

Stephanie Berkowitz


 

I am offended the Jewish Journal published the transphobic commentary titled, ‘The Torah and the Transgendered’ [sic] by Dennis Prager. Why would you would include such bigotry and ignorance in your publication?

The article is ignorant (“transgendered” implies something has been done to someone, rather than acknowledging how someone self-identifies), white supremacist (the whole bit about affirmative action), and displays a lack of compassion (it’s well documented transgender people are high risk for attempted suicide because of society’s treatment of them, including in articles just like this).
As a cisgender, straight, white woman, I stand with transgender individuals and affirm their right to dignity and respect.
 
I hope you will too, in the future.

Wendy Volkmann

Member of prominent Chasidic family comes out as transgender


A 24-year-old Brooklyn descendant of one of Chasidic Judaism’s founders has come out as transgender.

Raised Charedi Orthodox in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Abby — originally Srully — Stein told the New York Post, and announced on a personal blog called The Second Transition that she recently began transitioning into a woman.

Stein is a descendant of Hasidic Judaism founder Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, and the grandchild of Rabbi Mordechai Stein. She said being a member of a prominent family in the Hasidic world made her early struggle with her transgender identity more challenging.

“My family had more restrictions than most families even in Williamsburg,” she told the Post. “Like men were expected to work only in Jewish scholarly jobs, not drive, and I was constantly told that we ought to be role models.”

In a blog post, Stein wrote that for as long as she could remember, she “wanted to wake up one day as a girl.”

“I was very far from the typical ‘masculine’ boy, even in a community where masculinity is not a discussion topic, so to speak. I was never interested in typical boy stuff, and I was always told that I act, and talk with the manners of a girl. … Yet, until I was 19, I did not know that there is even something like that — someone assigned boy at birth who is actually a girl, in mind and spirit.”

Stein said her father has not spoken to her since she shared the news.

“I think right now it’s shock more than anything,” she told The Post. “He doesn’t know what to do.”

Stein said she hopes the Orthodox community becomes more accepting of transgender people and that her story will inspire transgender Orthodox teens.

“My main goal is to get people to talk about it,” she said, adding, “Since I’ve gone public, 17 people have reached out to me who still live within the community and struggle with similar things. Most of them didn’t know there’s help.”

 

Before leaving the Charedi Orthodox community, Stein married a woman and had a son. Four years ago, she divorced and left the community. Now Stein is a student at Columbia University, where she is involved in campus Jewish life and a transgender support group.

Thousands celebrate gay pride in Tel Aviv


Tens of thousands of people participated in Tel Aviv’s annual gay pride parade, whose theme this year was the transgender community.

Friday’s parade, Tel Aviv’s 17th, featured an appearance by Conchita, the transgender Austrian performer who last year won the Eurovision song festival, Army Radio reported.

Some participants in the procession from Meir Garden’s Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center to the city’s beach painted rainbow colors on zebra stripes of road crossings across the city, according to the report.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated members of Israel’s gay and lesbian community ahead of the parade.

“As Pride Week unfurls, I would like to send my congratulations to the LGBT community,” Netanyahu wrotein Hebrew on Twitter. “The fight for recognition for every person as equal before the law is a long one and there is plenty of progress to be made. I am proud of how Israel is one of the world’s most open-minded countries in its treatment of the proud community and that its discourse is becoming each year more respectful and accepting.”

Israeli media devoted considerable attention to the initial refusal of Bar Ilan University, which has many religious students and a leading Bible studies department, to allow a gay pride event. Following the critical coverage, the university has allowed gay students to hold an event Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces also noted marked Pride Week on its official website with an article featuring an interview with a transgender lieutenant who was a woman when enlisting in the IDF.

The lieutenant, identified only by his first name, Shachar, recalled how he received special permission to wear a men’s uniform while serving in the IDF as a woman, after he explained his gender identity issues to his commanding officers. He was asked about this choice of clothing during the final stages of his training as an officer, Lieutenant Shachar recalled.

“I decided to answer the question to the whole group, and that was the first time that I had done so before a large forum. I said I wear men’s uniform because that’s how I feel, how I’ve always felt,” Lieutenant Shachar said,

Caitlyn Jenner asked to be guest of honor for Tel Aviv Gay Pride Week


The City of Tel Aviv invited Caitlyn Jenner to be a guest of honor at its Gay Pride Week celebration.

Jenner, 65, the former reality show star and Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete, has not responded to the invitation announced Thursday. She has garnered the media spotlight with her recent transition to become a woman.

Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride week, which begins on Sunday, draws thousands of participants each year. This year, the celebration will emphasize the transgender community.

“The fact that you provided us an opportunity to smile and revealed the personal and complex process you went through, the difficulties that stood in your way, made you a source of inspiration for us in Tel Aviv,” Yaniv Weizman, a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council, wrote Jenner in the invitation, according to Yediot Acharonot.

Before transitioning to a woman, Jenner was married to Kris Jenner and appeared for many years on the TV reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” The two divorced earlier this year, shortly before Jenner publicly announced plans to become a woman.

After the Olympic victory in 1976, Bruce Jenner, as he was known at the time, starred in several films and television specials.

Letters to the Editor: Cornel West, Transgender Community and Pamela Geller


A Million Ways to Think About West 

As someone privileged to study with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the 1960s, and hear Cornel West’s presentation on Heschel through the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, I take strong exception to the criticizing letters to the editor about the program written by my distinguished colleagues at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (“On Western Dogma,” May 8). Their personal opinions about West’s presentation, to which they are most entitled, do not reflect the philosophy, mission or practices upon which the academy was founded, and under which it operates today.

West’s presentation of Heschel’s “life, thought and legacy” was extremely knowledgeable, brilliant, inspirational, moving and filled with wisdom. In short, it was sensational. West’s presentation showed his deep love of and admiration and respect for Heschel. And most important, he showed how Heschel’s personal and religious life, beliefs and actions were integrated, congruent and “of one piece.” He left a lasting legacy of living for respect, truth, justice and peace, a legacy we need to revitalize today. Heschel was indeed a prophet.

I am proud of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and the other Jewish organizations and departments for inviting West to speak on Heschel and for standing by him in the face of calls by some in the Jewish community to disinvite him.

Rabbi Stan Levy, The Academy for Jewish Religion, California


 

Transgender Community: Out of the Closet and Over the Rainbow

I want to thank the Journal for “Beyond the Rainbow” (May 1). I saw it online and read every word, watched every video and read every connected story. I truly feel that not only did it raise awareness about the transgender community, but the sensitive stories also widened the tent for all Jews. The fact that it showcased people living their truth really encourages all of us to live our authentic selves, which I believe is what God intended. I am proud to be a member of the Los Angeles Jewish community, which is working to create a loving and accepting place for all. I actually was moved to tears.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, The Jewish Mindfulness Network

 

Congratulations to the Journal for taking on, with all due dimensionality, transgender acceptance in the Jewish community. Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s story touched me directly, as dean of Hebrew Union College (HUC) and a parent at Weizmann Day School, both featured in “Beyond the Rainbow.”

The story attributes both “lingering blind spots” and admirable leadership to HUC in terms of LGBT acceptance. In fact, we see the challenge of the former as an expression of the latter. That is, we willingly confront our blind spots and choose to expose them to the light of day, because our leadership in pursuit of transgender equality is a pioneering one, hence open to new and difficult lessons.

Joshua Holo, Dean of Hebew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles

 

Thank you for the well-researched, balanced, important article about being transgendered in the Jewish community. From my standpoint here in Texas, the progress in the L.A. Jewish community regarding transgendered members blew me away. 

I have long felt that, although the group label LGBT has been useful as a tool to heighten awareness, the transgendered experience is so distinct from the others, it doesn’t seem fair to throw them into the same basket. Gay people, like most people, are happy when they can celebrate their bodies as essential to who they are, while the utterly surreal sense of waking every day trapped in the wrong body is absolutely distinct to the transgendered experience. How brave and beautiful your interview subjects! I think it desperately important to let our transgendered brethren step into the limelight so that we can, through understanding, better love them and embrace them into the Jewish fold. 

Leah Lax via email


 

Patronizing Pamela

As publisher and editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman should defend Pamela Geller’s right to sponsor and promote a Muhammad drawing exhibition as protected free speech (“Pamela Geller, You’re No Charlie Hebdo,” May 8). Instead, he engages in ad hominem sexist attacks on Geller, describing her as “bigotry’s pinup girl,” while injecting that Geller is a “housewife” and “middle-aged Jewish woman from Long Island.” Eshman’s acknowledgement that the support for his opinion is chauvinistic but “pre-feminist” does not make it kosher. Furthermore, his effort to distinguish Geller’s thought process from that of late religion-hater Charlie Hebdo mischaracterizes each of their motives. More importantly, he ignores the purpose of free speech, which is protected irrespective of intelligence or intellect. We will “pay the price” if we fail to defend free speech, regardless of whether it involves unpopular or loathsome forms of expressive activity.

Mark Herskovitz, Los Angeles

Philly day school bathroom seen as symbol of transgender inclusion


At most Jewish day schools, naming honors tend to be attached to grand spaces — auditoriums, prayer spaces, gymnasiums and the like. But at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic day school in suburban Philadelphia, Patrick Rock’s name will forever be associated with what might seem to be a rather ordinary space: a bathroom.

For Rock, a 2005 alumnus who came out as transgender in his senior year, the gender-neutral bathroom dedicated on March 12 has a significance far beyond its modest dimensions. Though functionally no different from any other single-user bathroom, its designation as a gender-neutral facility is intended to signal to all students — particularly to transgender students — that Barrack is a safe and welcoming place.

“For me, this bathroom is very much Jewish in that it very much gets at the values that they are teaching in this school,” Rock, 27, now a doctoral student in social psychology at UCLA, told JTA. “It’s an expression of respect for one another, an expression of including people in the community, an expression of welcoming folks who have been oppressed.”

The opening of the gender-neutral bathroom at Barrack comes at a time when the struggles of transgender people are gaining renewed attention — in the Jewish world and beyond. Several transgender rabbis have been ordained in recent years, and a number of congregations and movements have created Jewish rituals to sanctify the process of gender transition. Last Friday, a 13-year-old student at the Tehiyah Jewish community day school in  El Cerrito, Calif., a San Francisco-area town, came out as transgender in a ceremony attended by the entire middle school, the j. weekly reported.

“I think it’s hugely significant and very much reflective of the specific current moment that we’re living in,” said Idit Klein, the executive director of Keshet, a non-profit that encourages greater LGBT inclusiveness among Jewish organizations. “I can’t emphasize enough that just in the past two years we’ve seen movement in Jewish youth-serving institutions as a whole on issues of gender identity. For years and years there was tremendous resistance in Jewish world, and the broader world, to engaging with issues of gender identity and to talking about transgender people.”

Klein said the restroom at Barrack is, to her knowledge, the first gender-neutral restroom at a Jewish day school, although other schools have accommodated transgender students in other ways, sometimes by designating a particular bathroom for the student to use.

But bathrooms are far from the only concern for such students.

Rabbi Marc Baker, head of school at the Gann Hebrew Academy in Waltham, Mass., said that when an openly transgender student attended the school, the challenges ranged from whether the student should sleep in the boys’ or the girls’ section during school sleepovers to being more sensitive about the way people at school spoke about gender categories and norms.

Another complication is the role of traditional Jewish attitudes that often make no allowance for homosexuality, gender non-conformity or other deviations from classic gender and sexual identity categories.

Rock recalls that when he and other students at Barrack, then known as Akiba, were establishing a gay-straight alliance, they were told by an administrator that the group’s name could not include the word “gay” because being gay contravened Jewish law. Rock had come out as a lesbian in the 10th grade, and as transgender a year later to family and close friends, but he kept his gender identity private at school until the end of senior year over fears of bad grades or not receiving letters of recommendation to college.

“Even though a lot of the teachers were incredibly supportive, even some of the administrators were incredibly supportive, there was still a substantial enough portion that I worried about,” Rock said. “That usually came because they were Orthodox.”

Since Rock graduated, attitudes at the school have evolved as social attitudes have changed. Rock’s mother, Andrea, a teacher at Barrack for some 30 years, also notes that personnel less supportive of LGBT inclusiveness have since left the school. Barrack’s 12th-grade Jewish studies curriculum now includes an examination of homosexuality through the study both of ancient biblical and rabbinic texts and modern sources, including the documentary films “Hineni” and “Trembling Before God,” which examine LGBT issues in the Jewish community.

The impetus for the gender-neutral bathroom came when Rock returned to Barrack 2 1/2 years ago to give a talk to the gay-straight alliance about transgender issues and mentioned that much of the victimization of transgender students takes place in bathrooms. That, in turn, led the students and the alliance’s faculty advisers to request that one of the school’s bathrooms be designated as gender neutral — a request to which the school administration readily assented.

The physical changes to the bathroom have been minimal — students designed a plaque for the bathroom and a decorative rainbow tile, and adorned the inside with inspirational quotes. Still, Sharon Levin, Barrack’s head of school, said the symbolism is an important expression of the school’s ethical commitment to make everyone feel welcome, respected and safe. She added that the response by Barrack parents, students, faculty and administrators from across the denominational spectrum has been enthusiastic and overwhelmingly positive.

“This whole bathroom idea comes out of who we are as a school,” Levin said. “It just seemed like a natural outgrowth of what our values are here, what our mission is here, the fact that we’re a pluralistic school.”

And while a single restroom is certainly not the endpoint of evolution on LGBT issues in the Jewish world, or even at Barrack itself, Keshet’s Klein argues that it represents an important marker in Jewish perspectives on these matters. While Jewish organizations have at times grudgingly accommodated LGBT individuals to ward off negative consequences like bullying and suicides, Barrack is actively embracing inclusivity as a positive embodiment of Judaism’s core tenets.

“It once was the case that institutional leaders would be moved to act for fear of harm coming,” Klein said. “This is a positive step not just because it’s good for the handful of people who want to use that bathroom, but because it’s seen as reflective of the school’s values.”

Transgender Israeli mother recognized as ‘father’


Israel’s Interior Ministry has for the first time recognized two biological fathers of the same baby.

The baby was born to Yuval Topper-Erez, the first Israeli transgender man to get pregnant, and Matan Topper-Erez. Yuval Topper-Erez in December 2011. After Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, Miri Regev, intervened on behalf of the couple, the ministry recognized both men as the child’s biological parents.

Previously, the ministry had refused to recognize Matan as the baby’s biological father, saying it would not register two male biological parents. At a hearing a year after the baby was born, the ministry said it wanted to register Yuval as a female.

To effect the registration, Yuval was first identified as female in order to register the child with his spouse, and then his registration was changed to male.

In the past, one of the parents of a same-sex couple was required to adopt the child for the couple to be listed as the parents.

California: the left’s laboratory


Our state of California has become a laboratory. The progressive party, the Democrats, holds every statewide office, from governor on down, and they hold super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Even if every Republican legislator in Sacramento votes against a bill, the bill will pass. Therefore the left has a state in which it can do anything it wants. 

In light of that, here are three laws recently passed by progressives in California. 

The first law makes California, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “the first state to require that school textbooks and history lessons include the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Throughout American and Western history, there has been one overriding purpose to history textbooks: to relate as truthfully as possible what has occurred in the past.

For progressives, however, that is not the overriding purpose of history textbooks. Rather, it is to enable students of various racial, national, ethnic, sexual and gender groups to feel good about themselves. California Democrats have therefore passed laws dictating that textbooks include the contributions of, among others, women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans and American Indians. 

With regard to social policies, conservatives are more concerned with standards, liberals are more concerned with feelings. The standard here is historical truth. But historical truth matters less to those who are more concerned with feelings.

The historical truth, of course, is that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) males were overwhelmingly the most active participants in founding America. Of course women, Catholics, Jews, Latinos, blacks, Asians, atheists and gays made contributions, and when they merited mention in history texts, they were mentioned. 

Imagine if we applied the California law to musical history. German/Austrian males — such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner — were disproportionately the greatest composers of classical music. What would progressives say about a law that demanded that histories of classical music must include composers of a dozen nationalities and not devote most of their discussions to those of German/Austrian lineage?

Actually, we have an answer. A few years ago the chief New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, a progressive, published his list of the top 10 composers. He didn’t include Haydn, who, among other achievements, was the father of both the symphony and the string quartet. Why? Because, he wrote, he wanted a diverse list. Diversity, too, is a greater progressive value than historical truth. So Debussy (French), Bartok (Hungarian) and Stravinsky (Russian) made the list, but not Haydn or Handel. 

With this California law we have truly entered a Twilight Zone of the absurd. Have transgendered Americans who have made significant contributions to American history been heretofore left out of history textbooks? Have American Indians? Or bisexuals? Can you name one who has been deliberately omitted because of ethnicity or sexuality?

A second example took place this month when the California State Assembly passed a new bill. 

As described by the progressive Huffington Post: “A bill that would provide transgender students equal access to facilities and programs based on their gender identity cleared California’s state assembly. … The bill would explicitly allow students to use public restrooms and join sports teams that correspond with how they identify, regardless of their biological gender.”

In other words, if this bill passes the California State Senate — as it presumably will, given the progressive majority — students — even first-graders — will choose the restroom (or sports team) not according to their sex, but according to how they feel about their gender. No longer will a student’s biological sex determine whether he/she enters a men’s or women’s bathroom or joins a men’s or women’s team. 

And third, California has already passed laws prohibiting any business in the state from refusing to hire or firing an employee based on how one expresses his/her gender identity. That means that if one of your salesmen decides to wear a dress to work — as a man, not as a transsexual woman — no employer may demand that he show up at work in men’s clothing.

I have described only three of California’s progressive laws — those regarding sexuality. There are equally radical laws in all other realms of our lives. To cite but one, the California legislature is now considering passing what it calls the Homeless Bill of Rights. This bill, introduced by Tom Ammiano, the same San Francisco assemblyman who introduced the Transgender Bill of Rights, will allow anyone to sit, sleep, eat and otherwise live in any public place, including in front of stores and homes. It includes “the right to panhandle, the right to occupy public spaces, the right to fish through trash receptacles in search of recyclables … and the right to taxpayer-funded legal counsel if a municipality issues a citation to a homeless person for any of the protected activities.” 

This is what happens when the left does what it can. 

Welcome to California. Once the Golden State, now the Left’s Laboratory.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Making it easier for LGBT Jewish kids to be open, honest


Someday, maybe every gay Jewish youth will have as easy a time coming out as Elias Rubin did.

“I came out a few days after I figured it out myself,” said the 11th-grader from Valley Village. “Everybody was totally supportive and accepting.”

That was when he was in eighth grade. Rubin, now 17, didn’t see the point in keeping it a secret, whether at home or at school.

“Everybody knows, everybody’s OK with it, and we just go on with our daily lives,” he said.

Not all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are so lucky. Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, and more than one-third have attempted suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org), a collection of video testimonials in support of LGBT youths and in response to harassment and bullying.

A number of Jewish schools and youth organizations in the area are doing their part not only to provide resources for students struggling with their sexuality, but also to ensure inclusive environments where they can thrive.

At New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, about 15 students attend weekly meetings of the B’tselem Elohim / Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The Hebrew refers to the idea that humans are created in God’s own image. Members of the group, now in its second year, have discussed articles from current events and watched videos from the It Gets Better Project.

“The mission is to raise awareness about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues today, all the while encouraging acceptance in our community today,” said Sivan Lipman, the NCJHS group’s faculty adviser.

Milken Community High School in Bel Air has a GSA as well. Members are organizing a Day of Silence on Nov. 18, modeled after a national day of action in which students take some form of a vow of silence to call attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools, according to Stephanie Monteleone, Milken’s group adviser.

“The students who started the GSA felt there was a need for increased awareness about homophobia and how that impacts our community as well as establishing a support network for students who identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an e-mail.

Milken’s middle school also includes a unit on diversity during which the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” is shown.

Simply providing access to information is one easy way to help LGBT students, said Joel L. Kushner, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. Based in Los Angeles, it has a massive online collection of resources at huc.edu/ijso.

“It’s really important for Jewish settings … to have the information so that a child can … know that ‘oh, I can be Jewish and not an abomination — you know, from the Leviticus 18:22 verse — and my community will still accept me,’ ” he said.

He said he has seen progress when it comes to openness and awareness in schools and camps, but it needs to be taken to the next level. That means doing education for teachers and not waiting until high school to talk to kids about LGBT issues, he said.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has taken that to heart. Its middle school offers a human development class that starts by teaching sixth-graders about bullying, teasing and how people get targeted for their differences. By the eighth grade, students are sharing their personal stories and smashing stereotypes, from racism to LGBT issues, said counselor Inez Tiger, who teaches the class.

“We just want to create an open, inclusive dialogue,” Tiger said.

Students watch “Straightlaced,” a documentary that examines gender biases, and there are gay speakers who are part of panel discussions. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, also discusses the biblical issues surrounding homosexuality.

Much has changed since Tiger first offered the class.

“I would say it has transformed from when it started 10 years ago, when some parents wouldn’t let their kids come to this section of the class, to now, when they don’t even opt out at all,” she said.

One of the next challenges is turning tolerant spaces into inclusive ones, according to Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides programs and services for the LGBT Jewish community.

“Understanding that LGBT community members can come and participate and won’t be discriminated against is ‘tolerant.’ Being inclusive is offering LGBT-specific services. They have particular needs,” Gellis said. “Do you have a welcoming page on your Web page? Do you have LGBT role models? Are you offering support for parents of LGBT kids? It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Southern California regional programs manager for the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), understands this. While part of the group’s response has been simple — “We have an intolerance for intolerance,” she said — leaders realize there’s more to consider.

“For example, we’re looking at doing one event, possibly this year, that is gender-segregated. The regional board is already talking about what happens with the teens who may want to be with a different gender than they are biologically,” Lipmen said, referring to transgender identity. “It’s something that we’re keenly aware of.”

JQ’s Gellis said he has worked with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, NFTY and Pressman Academy on LGBT issues. Overall, he’s pleased to see how far things have come in the last 25 years.

“The changes are quite dramatic,” he said. “It went from a period of growing up in the ’80s and having no queer Jewish role models — it was a subject that was never discussed — to a conversation that is happening at Shabbat dinner tables, happening on the pulpit and happening in the classroom.”

Pregnant Israeli man to be a mom


An Israeli man is pregnant and soon will give birth.

The man, 24, was a female who underwent a sex-change operation. He is married to another man and is entering his eighth month of pregnancy, Yediot Achronot reported. He wears a goatee and looks like a man, according to the newspaper.

While the man had his breasts removed three years ago, his reproductive organs remained intact. He is the first Israeli transgender to ever achieve pregnancy.

The pregnancy is progressing normally, according to the report.

From shul to the mikvah, transgender Jews seek place in Jewish life


Noach Dzmura has a master’s degree in Jewish studies, publishes widely on Jewish topics and is the communications director at his synagogue. In 2006, he received an award from the San Francisco Jewish Federation that funded a year’s study in Israel.

He also was born a female.

Dzmura, 48, is one of a growing number of transgender Jews who are open about their status, taking leadership roles in the synagogue and trying to carve out a place in the Jewish community for those who fall outside the standard definitions of male and female.

It’s not easy, he acknowledges.

“Transgender people have tended historically to ‘go stealth’ [blend in as a nontransgender person] or opt out of Jewish communal life altogether,” he wrote in “Balancing on the Mechitza,” a collection of essays about transgender Jews in the Jewish community that Dzmura edited in 2009. It won this year’s Lambda Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Transgender individuals do not identify with the gender into which they were born. Some undergo sex reassignment surgery so their external genitalia correspond to their inner sense of who they are, but most do not. Some take hormones to encourage secondary sexual characteristics. Others simply live as the opposite sex, changing their dress, hairstyle and other outward details. Still others do not identify as male or female.

There are no hard statistics on the number of transgender Jews.

Rabbi Reuben Zellman, 32, who transitioned from female to male before his acceptance to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and who is now the assistant rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, says hundreds of transgender Jews from all over the country have contacted him for advice.

Zellman, who graduated from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, says he has worked with more than 150 people who wanted to change their Hebrew names to reflect a different gender status.

“I’ve heard people combine ‘ben’ and ‘bat’ to get ‘ban,’ ” he said, referring to the custom of calling Jews the “son of” or “daughter of” their parents. Other variations are “mibet,” meaning “from the house of,” or “mimishpachat,” meaning “from the family of.”

Zellman changed his Hebrew name from Hannah Yoninah to the masculine Hananya Yona when he began living as a man 22 years ago. But he is still “bat Herschel v’Gitel.” There are no set rules, he says; the business of living openly as a transgender Jew is still too new.

Jewish tradition does not look kindly upon those who cross accepted gender boundaries. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud discuss the legal status of individuals who are not fully male or female — hermaphrodites, eunuchs and others with questionable gender identities — the observant community does not accept transgenderism as distinguished from intersex individuals, those born with indistinct sexual status.

“Halachically and theologically, from the perspective of the Jewish religious tradition, a person’s sexual identity is dependent on the sex he or she is born as, assuming that the person’s genitals are unambiguous,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said.

The Conservative movement also regards genitals as the final determinant. Although the movement has not said whether sex reassignment surgery is allowed, a 2003 responsum by its committee on law and standards holds that individuals who complete surgery and whose new gender is accepted by state authorities should be so recognized by Jewish law.

There are a variety of Reform responsa on the topic.

Dzmura, Zellman and their colleagues in the trans-Jewish activist community want to encourage the next generation of transgender Jews to join the Jewish community instead of avoiding it.

The goals they have set range from the mundane to issues of ritual and worship. They want to get Jewish institutions to provide nongendered bathrooms, which a few now do. They also want to be able to determine for themselves which side of the mechitzah to choose in an Orthodox shul and how to marry or convert in more liberal congregations.

“Liberal Judaism says come on in, but when it comes to changing our schools, how we bless our children, our rites of passage to adulthood, how we bury people, we really stick to a gender binary,” Dzmura said.

As more transgender Jews come forward looking for inclusion in Jewish life, there are a growing number of trans-friendly Jewish resource and advocacy organizations nationwide. At least two are in the San Francisco area: jewishtraditions.org,  run by Dzmura, and transtorah.org, run by a collective of local rabbis and scholars, including Zellman.

These resources can be accessed anonymously, which is particularly important for the more observant users, they say.

“Many trans people are not ‘out,’ especially those living in Orthodox or Chasidic communities where no one knows they’re transgender,” said Zellman.

“I work with trans people who have suffered tremendous exclusion from Jewish life,” he said. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed or intimated by the idea of expanding Jewish rituals. But it’s really not that hard.”

BCC Looks to Future With New Home, Programs


Drivers at a red light looked on with curiosity as hundreds of congregants and supporters of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) poured out of the doors of a synagogue, forming a parade on the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard. Their destination: BCC’s new location, at 6090 W. Pico Blvd.

This parade, held in April, marked the move of the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue to a new site and a larger building that will better accommodate the congregation’s growing membership and programming. BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards said that the move represents the culmination of several years of effort, including a unique and lengthy fundraising campaign and a collaborative renovation of the new site.

For some, including 90-year-old Harriet Perl, who joined BCC in the early 1970s, the new synagogue already feels like home.

“When I came into this building, I burst into tears,” Perl said. “I’m so overwhelmed by what we have done, by how wonderful this congregation is and how far we have come in one lifetime.”

The undertaking cost nearly $3.5 million — an estimated $2.3 million for the building and another $1.2 million for the renovation. Approximately 75 percent of the synagogue’s congregation contributed, with contributions ranging from $100 to $1 million. Approximately $20,000 came from nonmembers.

The ark in BCC’s new building is solar powered and covered in copper strips engraved with the personal messages of congregants. Photo by Kenna Love

“We just exuded confidence that this was going to work and [that] we were going to move into a great new space,” said Brett Trueman, former president of BCC, who contributed $280,000 in addition to running the fundraising campaign, which started in 2006.

A professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Trueman and his husband initially intended to donate $50,000 to the campaign. Then a fundraising consultant told them their donation would send a message to the rest of the BCC community, and encouraged them to offer more.

“The next few people we reached out to” — a group that included Edwards and her wife — “I think in total committed $1.5 million,” Trueman said.

Trueman attributes people’s willingness to donate to the increase in the synagogue’s membership among Jews in their 20s and 30s, “a coveted group” he said, adding that “when you see their vibrancy, it makes people want to give a lot more.” He also credits the synagogue’s unique outreach and its influential role in the course of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

Now a congregation of 185 families, or 250 individuals, BCC started out with just a handful of gay and lesbian Jews meeting in a downtown Los Angeles church in the early 1970s. The congregation joined the Reform movement in 1974, and in 1977 purchased 6000 W. Pico Boulevard, which was the congregation’s home until the purchase of this new space.

BCC bought the new building in 2009, closing escrow in December 2009 with the previous owner, Max Webb, a Holocaust survivor and founder of Shapell and Webb, a real estate investment and property management firm.

The new site’s proximity to the old one — they’re just two blocks from one another — was appealing to the congregation’s building committee. 

The new, approximately 6,500-square-foot home — its previous building was 3,500 square feet — was originally built in 1929 and had been a church and, later, an auto parts dealer before standing empty for years. BCC’s renovation focused on aesthetics and eco-consciousness.

A close-up of a copper strip on BCC’s ark. Photo by Kenna Love

But how to make what is still a relatively small space feel like a large one? Enter the husband-and-wife architectural team of Marc Schoeplein and Toni Lewis, of Lewis/Schoeplein Architects, who were hired to design the new BCC.

One solution was to make the new lobby feed into every area of the synagogue — the sanctuary, a classroom and library, the kitchen, the clergy’s and administrative offices, and a hallway leading to the restrooms.

The kitchen demonstrates the architects’ creative use of space. A remote-control garage-door-style wall made of light hardwood comes down, with the click of a button, into the middle of the kitchen, so that part of the space can also be used as a classroom.

This commitment to multipurpose use isn’t limited to the interior. Outside is a small parking lot, the synagogue’s only on-site parking (BCC rents two parking lots nearby for use during popular services), and it also serves as a space for outdoor events.

The architecture blends an innovative use of space and an emphasis on the efficient and practical with artistic flourishes, like a wall in Edwards’ study, painted a pinkish color called Razzle Dazzle. It was supposed to be used for the synagogue’s outside wall, but when the design committee was testing samples, one of the neighbors came by and said, “ ‘Any color but that one, please!’ ” Edwards recalled.

Throughout the building, colors, including those in the stained glass windows alongside one of the sanctuary walls, further brighten the naturally lit space, which is filled with light hardwood and glass.

Even the ark isn’t just a place to house the Torahs — it’s a communal art project, made of dozens of wooden blocks, with long, narrow strips of copper running across the length of the blocks, crisscrossing each other. Each piece of copper is imprinted with a congregant’s anonymous personal story, an experience with BCC or of being an LGBT Jew — “whatever people wanted,” Edward said.

“This is where I came out … where I stood under a chuppah and where I came home,” one strip reads.

The architects built solar panels into the ceilings of the sanctuary, which power the light in the ark; torn denim serves as the insulation in the walls; and the parking lot has an electric car-charging station. Other eco-friendly elements include reclaimed wood, salvaged doors and carpeting made from recycled tires.

“We talked a lot about what values we wanted to convey with the building, and sustainability and having a low impact on Earth was on the top of the list of values we wanted to bring to this project,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, executive director of BCC.

BCC’s greening efforts added an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 to construction costs, but the synagogue will be “saving in energy costs down the road,” Park-Rogers said.

Along with the new site come new goals. BCC hopes to attract more non-LGBT, straight members and increase their outreach through programming. For instance, upon their move to the new location, they held a lecture series on Muslims with Rabbi Reuven Firestone.

But how to promote inclusivity while still maintaining its identity as an LGBT synagogue? And does the Jewish community’s growing acceptance of LGBT Jews deem specialized synagogues irrelevant?

“That certainly has made it harder for LGBT synagogues to attract members,” Trueman said, “because we’re not the only place we can go to make [LGBT Jews] comfortable.”

But, he added, “I think a lot of us would agree that while other synagogues are accepting, there’s a difference between being accepting and [being] thought of as part of the mainstream of the synagogue.”

Regardless of what’s in store for BCC, for members like Perl, the synagogue’s value is obvious. “This temple has meant so much to me, I can’t begin to tell you in words,” she said. “It’s the place where my Jewish heart is.”

Jewish groups to be vetted for LGBT workplace policies


A national initiative is underway to examine gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workplace policies at Jewish non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which advocates for LGBT equality, announced this week an extension of its workplace equality project in the Jewish non-profit sector. Organizations will be examined for their workplace policies regarding LGBT employees, and areas that need education will be highlighted.

The HRC notes that employees can be fired for their sexual orientation in 29 states, and for their gender identity or expression in 38 states. Information on current practices at nonprofits is largely unavailable. This project will serve as a pilot to expand workplace equality into other non-profits and small employers.

“The continued marginalization of LGBT Jews in some quarters is especially disheartening for those of us who believe in the power of a fully inclusive Jewish community that embraces every person as having equal and infinite merit,” said Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which provided the lead grant for the project.

Supporting grants come from Morning Star Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor.

An initial report is expected to be released in 2012.