Where transgender meets Torah head on

By Sue Fishkoff, October 19, 2011

Rabbi Reuben Zellman is a soft-spoken young man with a ready smile who serves as the assistant rabbi at Reform congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.

He was also born a girl.

Rabbi Zellman, 32, is one of a growing number of transgender Jews in North America who are active in their Jewish communities and working as educators, activists and, increasingly, rabbis. He is the second openly transgender rabbi working in the San Francisco Bay area.

Many transgender Jews make their homes in this famously liberal region of northern California. They run blogs and websites, and organise their own minyans and Shabbat dining groups. But more and more often, they are simply showing up in mainstream congregations, religious schools and other Jewish institutions without hiding who they are.

Transgender individuals do not identify as the gender into which they were born. Some undergo sex reassignment surgery, 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 details. Still others, particularly the younger generation, do not identify as either male or female, refusing gender labels altogether.

Many transgender people have suffered tremendous exclusion

Rabbi Zellman

Forty-eight-year-old Noach Dzmura changed from female to male years ago, and now works as the communications director of Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley. He publishes widely on transgender Jews who are active in their Jewish communities, and is the editor of Balancing on the Mechitza, a collection of essays that won the 2011 Lambda Literary Prize for Non-Fiction.

"Transgender people have tended historically to 'go stealth' or opt out of Jewish communal life altogether," he wrote, explaining that only in very recent years have they begun claiming a place at the Jewish table.

And that presents a challenge for their communities. How do you call a transgendered Jew to the Torah? Which side of the mechitza should they sit on? Which mitzvot are incumbent upon them? On a more mundane level, do they use the men's or women's toilet?

Mr Dzmura describes the sensitivity needed to prepare the body of a transgender person for burial. "The tahara team is traditionally single-sex, so who would prepare my body?" he asks, adding that his preference would be a mixed-sex team whose members all identify as male. Clothing the corpse is another challenge, as the articles of clothing and the knots used to tie them differ for men and women.

"If you're tying a knot for a woman and it's on my body, that matters a lot," he says. "We need to come up with an approach that considers halachah and minhag, one that really honours 'kavod ha met,'" or respect for the dead.

Rabbi Zellman says hundreds of transgender Jews have contacted him for advice and information. He has personally worked with more than 150 who sought to change their Hebrew name to reflect
a new gender

"I've heard people combine 'ben' and 'bat' to get 'ban,'" he says. Increasingly, the transgender community is using the term "m'beit," meaning "from the house of," or "m'mishpachat," meaning "from the family of", to avoid the gender question entirely.

What flies in Berkeley, however, is not accepted everywhere. "Many trans gender people are not 'out,' especially those living in Orthodox or Chasidic communities where no one knows they're transgender," Zellman says.

"I work with many transgender people who have suffered tremendous exclusion from Jewish life."

Last updated: 12:00pm, October 19 2011