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The Intersection of Transgender Identities and Judaism

By Michele Zipkin, Philadelphia Gay News

The Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia wants to highlight trans acceptance in Jewish communities with the event Transgender and Jewish: Conversations for a Changing Community. The event will take place on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

(Laurie Frankel Photo by Natalia Dotto)

The Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia wants to highlight trans acceptance in Jewish communities with the event Transgender and Jewish: Conversations for a Changing Community. The event will take place on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

The night’s keynote speaker is Laurie Frankel, author of the best-selling novel “This Is How It Always Is,” a story of a Jewish family raising a transgender child. A panel of Jewish LGBT advocates and trans people will also be speaking, including Koach Baruch Frazier, a Black transgender rabbinical student, musician and healer; Moriah Levin, a transgender woman and active member of the organization Eshel, which provides a support system for LGBT Orthodox Jews; and Jessica Tayler, local LGBT rights advocate and board member of Philadelphia Family Pride.

One misconception surrounding transgender identities and religion that the event organizers and panel speakers want to dispel is that the two identities cannot exist harmoniously.

“They’re not mutually exclusive — they’re not at odds at all,” said Galia Godel, Manager of LGBTQ Initiatives at JFCS. “All of the Jewish communities that I have been a part of and that I’ve worked with in my position at JFCS have been so excited to be trans-affirming and to support the members of their community.”

The speakers approach the intersection of transgender identities and Judaism in different ways. By way of her novel, Laurie Frankel will discuss being a Jewish parent with a child who is transitioning.

In “This Is How It Always Is” Frankel illustrates, through deeply emotional writing and a rich storyline, that having a transgender child is not a radically life-altering thing, but one of many possible periods of growth and development in a child’s path to discovering who they are.

“Much of the political dialogue seems dishonest to me,” Frankel said. “I think that people have the idea that trans people are so anomalous and so unusual, and that these kids, in particular, are so strange. Not only do I think that this is not vanishingly rare — this is childhood, this is parenthood, this is having a kid. You want what’s best for your kid, and you don’t know quite how to make that happen.”

Though Frankel wrote her novel based on her own experiences as the mother of a transgender daughter, she will be speaking only about the book at this event to maintain her child’s privacy. In terms of the overlap of being transgender and Jewish, Frankel emphasized that a Jewish community, like any community, is yet another space of support and guidance for principal life installments.

“Anyone facing challenges of any kind needs support and love from their community,” Frankel said. She described a Jewish congregation as “that kind of community, a place where you get guidance both in some kind of large moral sense, but also in how you find the strength to get up and deal with ‘the stuff.’ One of the best things about religion is the extent to which it preaches love, and a path through the challenging times.”

Conversations surrounding the intersection of trans identities and Judaism are paramount, said panelist Jessica Tayler, because transgender people exist across all religions.

“There are trans Catholic people, there are trans monks, there are trans every type of people, and sometimes that gets forgotten,” she said. “I think some parts of the Jewish community have done a really good job acknowledging that, and other parts still have a lot of work to do.”

Moriah Levin is a transgender Jewish woman living in Philadelphia. Her community at Mekor Habracha, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Center City, has been very welcoming toward her. Orthodox services are divided by gender — the men sit on one side of the sanctuary, the women on the other. Levin felt especially affirmed as a transgender woman sitting on the women’s side of the service.

“My experience with Center City Jewish Orthodox communities has been positive,” she said. “The rabbis have been supportive; they’ve been caring, welcoming, and, for the most part, so has the community.”

Levin also pointed out that people tend to think of Orthodox Judaism as a monolithic denomination, when instead, it is comprised of diverse congregations and approaches to Judaism. Some of the more conservative Orthodox communities are only just starting to talk openly about what it means to be transgender.

“I think there are a lot of folks who just don’t know how to be supportive,” Levin said. “People are still trying to understand what trans is.”

While trans folks in some Orthodox congregations still have to explain that being transgender is not a choice, Levin said, some Orthodox Jews are open to making a concerted effort to understand trans identities.

“I reached out to one rabbi from a local organization, and he said, ‘You’re the first trans person I’ve really met that we’ve had to work with. If you’ll go slow and work with me and help me understand, I’ll work with you,’” Levin said. “I very much appreciated his intellectual honesty.”

Koach Baruch Frazier, a transgender rabbinical student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, also finds that some Jewish spaces embrace trans and LGBT people more readily.

“What stands out for me are the ways in which trans and queer people have created spaces for and by us so that we can breathe, pray and love on each other without the discrimination, hostility and sadness that can happen in the wider Jewish community,” Frazier said in an email.

He pointed out spaces including the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, SVARA, Keshet and Eshel, as well as “the ways in which we show up for each other and create ritual with each other to sustain and uplift us,” he said.

The collection of speakers at Transgender and Jewish will be discussing these issues and more. The event is open to anyone for a minimum $18 contribution in advance and $20 at the door.

“I hope that [attendees] will learn that to be transgender and Jewish isn’t some bomb that’s being dropped or some huge, life-changing force in their own lives,” Godel said. “It’s a really natural part of every community to have trans people in it. There are loving and compassionate steps that cisgender Jewish people can take to make their communities better places for their transgender community members.”