There are several reasons why the rights of transgender individuals is a Jewish issue, according to Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.
The first reason is simple.
“Because there are transgender Jews,” he said.
His colleagues agree. Last month the Wyncote-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, to which Dobb belongs, unanimously approved a resolution affirming the full equality of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals.
The vote follows similar resolutions passed by rabbinic bodies of the Reform and Conservative movements.
“What is interesting is how the non-Orthodox [community] seems to be speaking with one voice, or many voices in unanimity, on this issue,” said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
The resolution, voted on by nearly 100 Reconstructionist rabbis, commits the association to work for full inclusion and acceptance “of people of all gender identities in Jewish life and in society at large.”
The document also “strongly advocates for the full equality of transgender, non-binary and gender non-confirming people and for equal protections for people of all gender identities under the law” in North America and Israel.
Non-binary individuals do not identify as either male or female. Gender non-conforming individuals do not follow “society’s expectations of gender expression based on the gender binary,” according to the University of California at Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement.
Dobb, who attended the meeting in Portland, Ore., where the resolution was passed, called the recognition of transgender individuals “an overdue moment.”
“Judaism has always been keenly aware of prevailing trends” in the broader world, he said. “Raising the profile of transgender folks in light of the broader society is an authentically Jewish response to [those] important prevailing trends.”
Those trends include the rise in advocacy by the transgender community as well as legislative successes such as North Carolina’s H.B. 2, otherwise known as the “bathroom bill,” that he said are attacks on the transgender community.
The attacks on the transgender community go beyond politics.
In 2016, at least 25 transgender people were killed by violent means in the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Two of those individuals were killed in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
The resolution affirms the values Dobb said Adat Shalom has followed for years. Dobb said he worked as a pastoral consultant for a wedding involving a transgender individual. He also knows several young adults at Adat Shalom who are either transgender or gender-fluid, meaning they do not identify as a fixed gender.
The congregation’s ethos is to let “others be fully who they are,” Dobb said. “Our [congregation] is a uniquely sensitive and welcoming community, even as we continue to work on it further — inclusion is in our mission statement, on our new banner, woven into worship, preached and practiced.”
Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash in Fort Washington said transgender issues weren’t an issue at his congregation, but the resolution’s passage was important to both the congregation and Reconstructionists in general.
“It’s simply a reflection of our values,” he said, noting that a student who identifies as transgender attends the synagogue. “This is something we actively want to do.”
Waxman said he didn’t even mention the resolution’s passage to his congregation, which likely expected something to that effect was already in place.
“It felt, in some ways, this was an issue that was settled in our congregation,” he said, noting that religion is evolving. “If Judaism hadn’t changed … it wouldn’t speak to people.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia noted that not all branches of Judaism would embrace the same philosophy, which is to be expected — and respected.
“I’d rather lead by example rather than be rhetoric,” he said.
And Zevit said while the Jewish transgender population was relatively small, that was not the point.
“It’s not a numbers game. It’s more about justice, fairness and inclusivity,” he said, referencing a line from a song he once wrote about the 10 Plagues that said, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”
Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md., who also attended the Portland meeting, said society has advanced in terms of understanding the needs of transgender individuals.
“It’s important for the Jewish community to be a safe haven for all people who want to be part of our community,” she said. “This [resolution] is one way of doing that.”
A study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality found that suicidal thoughts and attempts are significantly higher among transgender adults compared to the general population.
A separate study by New York University’s Arnold Grossman and Pennsylvania State University’s Anthony D’Augelli found 50 percent of transgender youth have seriously thought about suicide, and 25 percent have attempted suicide.
Starr said the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association has a moral obligation to make its voice heard.
“Part of what we’re doing by saying we accept them is we’re saying they don’t have to kill themselves to find a place in our community,” she said.
The resolution was approved after an 18-month process, during which time representatives from Reconstructionist congregations, as well as the board of governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, approved similar resolutions.
Rabbi Gilah Langner, of Kol Ami the Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community, was not present at the Portland meeting, but said she supports the resolution and hopes her congregation approves a similar resolution in the future. Clergy of other congregations interviewed for this story expressed similar sentiments.
Stuart Berlin, president of Columbia Jewish Congregation, said the resolution only affirms what congregations such as his had already been practicing.
He said: “There is nobody that has ever come to me, publically or privately, and pointed the finger about why we are [accepting] these people.”
Justin Katz is a reporter for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent. Jewish Exponent Managing Editor Andy Gotlieb contributed to this report.