September 14, 2019

RBO: The Rabbi Who Eschews Conventional Gender Pronouns

Rabbi RBO Rachel Bat-Or. Courtesy of jewishwisdomandwellness.org

In a world that can be difficult for those seen as different, Rabbi “RBO” Rachel Bat-Or’s calling is helping those who have struggled with being LGBTQ+ find their footing.

Bat-Or, director of JQ International’s Helpline and Inclusion Services, has been a therapist, teacher and spiritual counselor for the past 35 years. Bat-Or is gender queer and doesn’t subscribe to any conventional gender distinctions, using the gender pronoun per, not her.

Last spring, JQ International, a nonprofit that works for greater inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews, honored Bat-Or with its inaugural RBO Lifetime Achievement Award. Bat-Or spoke with the Journal about per faith and what it means to guide those in need of comfort, support and love.

Jewish Journal: How did you come to consider yourself gender queer? 

Rachel Bat-Or: I was a woman seeing how many times I failed to live up to the vision of what a woman should be. When I transformed to be comfortable in my own way, my son said, “You must be so relieved.” I’m doing it exactly right for me. People don’t get it and I say to them, “How do you know what gender is?”

JJ: What did it mean to you to be honored with JQ’s Lifetime Achievement Award?

RBO: It never occurred to me I was building up a lifetime of achievement. I did what was needed, helped people who needed help, always had a mindset of working for the greater good. When I saw something that needed fixing, I thought about what I could do to make a difference. Having that acknowledged and honored in front of my peers, friends and colleagues was both a shock and an affirmation of my values. It was only after I was told I was receiving this award that I began to see my work as a whole and not as individual actions. It helped me be inspired by that work and want to do even more of it.

JJ: What are some of the most rewarding parts of working with JQ’s Helpline and Inclusion Services?

RBO: Talking with someone who called the JQ Helpline, hearing how upset, angry, confused, afraid they are. Helping them talk about what they need, what they feel. And then hearing the shift in their voice and knowing they have found an answer to their questions. Doing an inclusion training for an organization and have people ask questions they’ve been afraid to ask and get the answers they need to understand how to approach the unique issues of LGBTQ+ people. Shifting from not knowing to knowing.

JJ: How does being a rabbi inform your work with JQ?

RBO: We begin every team meeting with a question to help us know ourselves and each other better. We end each meeting with a prayer, thanking HaShem for the power, knowledge and resources to do our work with as much joy as possible. Bringing in my knowledge of Judaism, our texts, ethical teachings, new ways to look at ancient writings brings me great pleasure. This is the congregation I was meant to serve.

“I was a woman seeing how many times I failed to live up to the vision of what a woman should be. When I transformed to be comfortable in my own way, my son said, ‘You must be so relieved.’ ”

JJ: How would you like your work with the LGBTQ+ community to be remembered?

RBO: The most important thing to me when I am not here is that people say I helped them heal. The goal of my life is to help people go from being in pain to not being in pain.

JJ: You became a rabbi at 55. What made you decide to pursue the rabbinate?

RBO: The more I did in the Jewish community, the more I wanted to do. I realized I needed to become a rabbi to do what I loved. 

JJ: Before you were a rabbi, you were a kosher butcher at a food co-op in New Haven, Conn. What was that like? 

RBO: [The co-ops] were collectives. They were supposed to be leaderless, right? That’s never the case. There’s always a leader in life. There were two guys who were the leaders, and we were in the hood, not the [Jewish community] hood but the hood …where we all lived also. And we created a store that was member-run. People came in and took whatever shifts once a month and they were looking for two women to be the first butchers in the state of Connecticut. Like someone sent me an engraved invitation that said, “Will you please do this?” My grandfather had been a kosher butcher. It was the only job I ever had where I walked in, there was a certain thing you had to do and then I got to go home. 

JJ: As opposed to being a rabbi where the work never stops?

RBO: Being a rabbi, being a teacher, being a therapist, where nothing is ever finished. It’s like Rabbi Tarfon said, “You might not finish it, but you can’t not do it.” I loved it. I was able to lift up 200 pounds of hindquarter and put it from one hook to the other hook to be able to break it down into parts. I would take 70 pounds of front quarter to the band saw and cut steaks. The only thing I wouldn’t work with, I wouldn’t cut pork. I might have eaten bacon at the time but I wouldn’t [work with it].

JJ: Do you keep kosher now? 

RBO: (Shakes per head)

JJ: Do you eat meat?

RBO: Yeah, I do eat meat. I am a pseudo vegetarian. People think I’m a vegetarian, but I’m really not.