Transgender Jews: Breaking Down One Wall, Praying At Another

December 2, 2011

By Idit Klein

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Last week, on a foggy night in northern Israel, I heard the news I was waiting to hear for six years — Massachusetts, my home state, had finally passed a Transgender Equal Rights Bill. This new law offers vital protections to transgender people in employment, housing and credit, and explicitly includes trans people in the state’s hate crimes law.

I was in Israel on a 10-day trip with a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender American Jews, hosted by three LGBT Jewish organizations –Keshet, Nehirim and A Wider Bridge. We celebrated this legislative victory together and, a few days later, commemorated Trans Day of Remembrance, a day of mourning for transgender people whose lives were cut short by violence. Though the whole group was excited by the victory, it was especially meaningful for those of us who would return home to a state with a new law on the books. I was proud to be part of a Jewish community that responded to Keshet’s repeated calls for action to host letter-writing campaigns, organize phone banking, testify at the State House and attend legislative hearings, and host educational workshops about the importance of this bill. At last count, more than 50 rabbis in Massachusetts publicly endorsed a statement of faith based support for the bill drafted by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, which Keshet helped found.

Israel is a country in which life is rigidly defined by gender. This is experienced most starkly at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. Traditionally, Jews all over the world pray in the direction of the Western Wall, the holiest Jewish religious site. The plaza in front of the massive stone wall is divided into two sections: the right side for women, the left for men, with a barrier in between that no one crosses. People pray at all hours of the day, sometimes weeping, at the Wall. The crevices between the wall’s stones are packed with countless tiny slips of paper, each with a handwritten prayer from a visitor. Even the greatest rationalists find themselves moved by the fierce trust and hope in prayer, the power of faith that is manifest in this space.

And yet, this is a space where women are still fighting for the right to read from the Torah and where transgender people, whose gender identities or presentation do not fall neatly into the two parts of the plaza, have no place at all. This year, while standing at the Wall in the women’s section, I contemplated the unselfconscious ease with which I chose that part of the prayer space; the full and accurate assumption that no one would stare at me uncomfortably or act in any way as if I didn’t belong there. I remembered a story that Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, then a rabbi at the largest Reform synagogue in New England, shared as part of her testimony at the Massachusetts State House in April 2009. She explained that she was leading a trip to Israel for young adults. When they got to the Wall, one of the participants started to cry. Rabbi Kolin described what happened next:

“He said, through his tears: ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And, gesturing to the right side of the Wall, he said: ‘I don’t belong over there,’ and gesturing to the left side, the men’s side, he said: ‘and no one wants me over there.’ And he cried some more and he told me that all he wanted to do was approach what was sacred to his people, to be part of his community, to be counted among the people.”

How painful it is that in this most sacred of places, many trans people must pretend to be other than who they truly are to take part in a ritual so central and so celebrated that the image of the Kotel graces every Israeli travel brochure I have ever seen. How ironic and sad it is that Jews all over the world pray in the direction of a place whose basic structure is exclusive.

Clearly, we have work to do in the realm of the sublime. And despite passage of the Transgender Rights Bill here in Massachusetts, plenty of work is ahead of us in the most mundane of spheres: restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, bathrooms and other spaces of “public accommodation” which lamentably were left out of the bill. This particular victory is a bittersweet one. “On the one hand, it feels great to know that Massachusetts has taken a stand that it’s not ok to discriminate against trans people; that we exist; that we’re human beings,” said Eli Latto, a trans member of Keshet who was on the Israel trip with me. “I think about a trans woman I used to work with who was always on the verge of being kicked out of her apartment. She’s protected now.” He continued, “But it’s a major disappointment that public accommodations weren’t included.

Trans people can still be kept out of basic institutions that all of us encounter on a daily basis, that all of us need access to — grocery stores, restaurants, public bathrooms. Every trans person I know feels afraid in these settings.

The recitation of names on Trans Day of Remembrance — giving voice to thousands of trans people who were murdered for simply being themselves — bears terrible witness to Eli’s words. In Jewish tradition, when we mention the names of those who have died, we say, “May their memories be a blessing.”

As we emerge from the shadow of Trans Day of Remembrance, may the memories of all those whose lives were violently cut short give us the blessing of a steadfast commitment to justice and equality. And next year, as we approach this day of mourning, I pray that not a single additional name is added to the long list of those we lost.

Idit Klein is the executive director of Keshet, a national organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life. Led and supported by LGBT Jews and straight allies, Keshet offers resources, trainings, and technical assistance to create inclusive Jewish communities nationwide.