After her freshman year at Indiana University in Bloomington, Jenna Comins-Addis of Marblehead sat down with David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El. During their conversation Jenna announced she was transgender.
“After I came out publicly … we sat down for half an hour and just talked,” said Comins-Addis. “He was somebody I had been with a long time – he did my baby naming, he was my rabbi when I was a kid. He was somebody I felt close enough to.”
Last Yom Kippur, Comins-Addis performed an aliyah. Whereas before she had been summoned as Moshe ben Yehoshu’a v’Yemima, Meyer called her to the bimah as Leah bat Yehoshu’a v’Yemima.
The same fall that Comins-Addis was called to the Torah under a new Hebrew name that reflects her true identity, Meyer gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon where he outlined his synagogue’s vision to “make the efforts assuring the full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions,” efforts he referred to as holy work – avodat kodesh.
In his sermon, Meyer asked his congregants to vote yes on Question 3, a ballot question asking Massachusetts’ voters whether or not they approved of existing discrimination protections for the transgender community (which as of 2016 numbered 29,900, or 0.57 percent of the state’s population.) Shortly thereafter, Meyer, along with rabbis from nine area synagogues drafted and signed a letter published in the Journal asking the community to vote yes on Question 3, stating: “The Jewish understanding of gender is neither binary nor even a grid into which every person must be forced to fit. Rather, we see gender diversity as a spectrum, truly a rainbow of possibilities for reflecting the Image of God.”
Interviews with transgender and genderqueer (an umbrella term referring to gender identities that are not strictly masculine or feminine) Jews from around Greater Boston affirmed that by and large, their Jewish communities, both chosen and given – from their family, to their Jewish friends, to their faith communities – have provided them with acceptance and strength throughout their journeys.
“I’ve become closer to my Jewish faith since coming out, and my faith has helped me,” said Comins-Addis, who was born a biological male, and came out after her freshman year of college at Indiana University, right before she sat down with Rabbi Meyer. Since then, Comins-Addis has become the first trans woman to pledge a sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, at her university.
In Comins-Addis’ post-confirmation class, there were two other trans and gender non-binary students, both of whom credit Meyer’s acceptance and the knowledge that their religion accepted them as important.
“He made me feel welcome in my religion,” said Ashton Rosen, a 21-year-old North Shore Community College student from Marblehead who was in the same confirmation class of Rabbi Meyer. In eighth grade, he first identified as a male, but then walked back on it and continued to identify as a female. Then, during his senior year at Marblehead High School, he came out as gender fluid, identifying as neither male nor female. Recently he realized that he is male. “If [Meyer] had said that somewhere in the Torah, it said that gender nonconformity was not allowed, it would’ve crushed me. So the fact that he immediately said, ‘Oh, you’re not a girl – let’s keep going with your Jewishness’ – it really helped,” said Rosen.
“Rabbi Meyer is one of the most important people in my life, and I remember one of the first big fears was what if this isn’t cool at temple, and I knew on some level that it was totally gonna be cool at temple, but I wasn’t exactly sure about how it’s all gonna go down,” said Kegan Jones, a 22-year-old student at Ringling College of Art and Design from Marblehead who identifies as gender non-binary and goes by the pronouns they/them, which are used by people who identify as both, neither, or a combination of masculine and feminine identities.
“Rabbi Meyer was so supportive from day one,” Jones continued. “I made a Facebook post when I was 17 to say, ‘Hey world, I’m changing my name, and I’m transgender, and the rabbi sent me a Facebook message and he was like, ‘Hey, I want to sit down and talk about this and know everything I need to know so I can keep the congregation as educated as possible so that you always feel safe here.’”
Educating congregations is important, because as they do with just about everything else, Jews tend to ask a lot of questions, say those interviewed for this article. Even though the questions are most well-intentioned, people interviewed said that the questions can sometimes border on intrusive, especially when they pertain to questions relating to name changes or surgeries.
This story does not list names given by parents at birth – which some in the trans community refer to as a “dead name” rather than a birth name – because doing so often triggers difficult memories, and can imply that a trans person’s chosen name is not their “true” name, according to Dubbs Weinblatt, the national training and education manager for Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ rights organization.
“The hugest question I get that I’m not comfortable answering is, ‘So what’s your real name?’” said Rosen. “I’m not comfortable with that question for two reasons: One, my real name is Ashton. If you are curious about a birth name, putting it that way – what is your birth name – is a better way to do it. Two, a lot of trans folk are not comfortable sharing their birth name. And [questions about the body] are about as uncomfortable as if I asked what’s in your pants. But it’s a curiosity thing – the human race is a very curious animal, so I don’t take it personally.”
Jones had similar feelings. “Having to explain it all the time can get a little old, especially having to explain it to the same people over and over again, but at the same time I understand the extent to which it’s a paradigm shift for a lot of people,” said Jones. “If you are not trans, and don’t know anyone who’s trans, and you’ve never really given any thought to this, I get how you could be like, ‘what are you talking about?’ But when people are willing to listen, it doesn’t bother me so much.”
That can be the case for Jewish families. Those interviewed said that their families supported them – including extended families and older relatives – but that doesn’t mean their relatives always understand what’s going on. “Older relatives always have thousands of questions,” said Comins-Addis bluntly. “But the only way you can destigmatize something is to talk about it.”
“It took a while for my parents to wrap their heads around the fact that I’m male, because they had just gotten used to the fact that I’d defined myself as gender fluid,” said Rosen.
“I have sort of aggressively liberal parents, so it was pretty easy to be like, ‘Hey, mom, I’m kind of a boy,’ and she was like, ‘Alright, I don’t totally get it, but you do you, and I’ll be here,’” said Jones, who added that “You do you, but I don’t totally get it,” has been a fairly standard reaction from people that is communicated in different ways.
Julie Levinson of Marblehead admitted that she still has some difficulty understanding the experiences of her 17-year-old daughter, Jessie Ross. “On many occasions, I said I can’t fully understand it,” said Levinson. Said Ross, her daughter: “No one that hasn’t experienced it can fully understand it, because some people are so confident and so okay with their assigned birth gender because historically that’s how it goes, so it is a lot to dump on someone. And they’re like, this isn’t a norm for you, but not for me, but it’s kind of a new norm.”
Ross, who came out as trans in fourth grade and transitioned when she was 13, reiterated how much of a non-issue it’s become. “Friends tell me they forget – I’ve been doing it for such a long time,” said Ross. For example, when Ross told the administration at the Y2I trip that she was trans, they simply asked where she wanted to bunk, and then honored her wishes.
This is a far cry from Dubbs Weinblatt’s experiences just 20 years ago. Weinblatt, who goes by the pronouns “they/them,” grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio and was only vaguely familiar with the term “trans.” “I didn’t know trans people existed – I didn’t know that was something that was possible,” said Weinblatt, who came out as a lesbian at age 20 before identifying as trans at 29.
The dysphoria that Weinblatt experienced made milestones of Jewish life, like going to sleepaway camp or having a bat mitzvah, emotionally fraught.
“I really did not want to have a bat mitzvah – I didn’t have the language to express why,” said Weinblatt. “I thought it was because I didn’t want to wear a skirt – that was part of it – but what mattered was this notion of becoming a woman in a very official way in front of a lot of people really didn’t sit well with me.”
Now, thanks in part to nationwide training that Weinblatt does to teach Jewish organizations how to be inclusive of all gender identities, gender-neutral ceremonies are available, which have names like simchas mitzvah, “b” mitzvah, or brit mitzvah. Weinblatt pointed to organizations like the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, which seeks to provide gender-neutral language for all Jewish rituals.
This can be an uphill battle. Alex Myers, a teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy who transitioned from female to male in his teens, pointed out that Hebrew liturgy remains gendered, and it cannot – or perhaps should not – be changed. “I went to a couple of Reconstructionist services in the early 2000s where they had translated some parts of the prayer book to be gender neutral, but they hadn’t changed the Hebrew, and I remember having a conversation with them about what are you going to do with the text itself?” said Myers. “How do you, as people who don’t want to reinforce the gender binary, how do we handle having this very gendered text? To make up a translation is just not true.”
Yet ancient Jewish scripture is less binary that one might initially think. In Meyer’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, he pointed to scholarly theories that Jacob’s daughter Dinah had the soul of a man but the body of a woman, and that Kabbalah addresses transitioning from one gender to another. Meyer and many others have also pointed to the fact that the Talmud actually has six genders: There is a man, a woman, a gender called “androgynous” that has both male and female characteristics; “tumtum”, whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate; “ay’lonit”, a person who is female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty; and “saris” a person who is male at birth who develops female characteristics at puberty.
Although they had mixed opinions on the Jewish religion itself, again and again, trans Jews said that it was Jewish communities that helped them along in their journey. “I feel like I’ve always had youth group leaders and camp counselors and Hillel directors … Jewish adults and Jewish young adults in my life who have been really important to me,” said Jones. “Once I came out and I knew Judaism was still going to be a safe place, I felt more comfortable being more involved with Jewish life. Being queer can really teach a kid about the value of being part of a tight-knit community.”