Largest Jewish group in America sets rules to embrace transgender people

November 5, 2015

By Harriet Sherwood

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The biggest Jewish movement in North America has endorsed a policy to embrace transgender people and to campaign against discrimination in a move hailed as a historic step.

The biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, meeting in Orlando, Florida, overwhelmingly backed a motion on Thursday detailing specific steps to be taken by synagogues and congregations. They include the adoption of gender-neutral language and the provision of gender-neutral restrooms, as well as training and education.

“We’re very proud of taking this step and know it has great meaning for our congregations,” said Barbara Weinstein of the Washington-based Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “It’s both extremely significant and a natural evolution of who we are.”

The new policy was in keeping with the welcome Reform Judaism had offered to lesbian and gay congregants for decades, she added.

Catherine Bell of Keshet, a grassroots LGBT Jewish campaign group, said: “We applaud this historic resolution.” It was a far-reaching statement from the largest Jewish denomination in North America, she added.

Around 1.5 million Jews in North America are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. Unusually, delegates to the conference gave a standing ovation to the approval of the motion.

The motion said: “North American culture and society have, in general, become increasingly accepting of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual – yet too often transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are forced to live as second-class citizens.”

Transgender people face legal and cultural bigotry, hate crimes and harassment, and discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing, it said.

Reform Judaism congregations should advocate for the rights of transgender people, it said. But congregations should also create inclusive and welcoming communities by training staff, organising education programmes, delivering sermons on gender identity, reviewing use of language in prayers, forms and policies, and providing gender-neutral facilities.

The use of gendered titles and honorifics, such as “Mr”, “Mrs” and “Ms” should be avoided, and congregants should be asked in private for their preferred pronouns. Children should be grouped not according to gender, but by birth months or seasons. Synagogues should invite transgender speakers to address congregations.

The move was also welcomed by Jewish LGBT campaigners in the UK. “This is a step beyond what we’ve seen in UK Judaism, because it’s not only supportive but has concrete action points,” said Maxwell Zachs of Queer and Transgender Jews UK.

Reform Judaism in the UK was more conservative than its American counterpart and, although it was supportive of transgender people, “practical changes will be more difficult”, said Zachs.

In the US, Conservative Jewish movements were lagging behind Reform Judaism, said Bell. “Every denomination has its own pace and distinctive characteristics. My hope is that the conservative movement will follow on the heels of this, but it might not happen overnight. But they are moving on this trajectory.”

According to the US Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBT rights, other faiths and denominations have adopted transgender anti-discrimination policies, but none as far-reaching as the Union of Reform Judaism. They include the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.