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RA passes transgender resolution
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RA passes transgender resolution

Conservative rabbis affirm ‘full inclusion of all gender identities’

New inclusive signage on the bathrooms at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
New inclusive signage on the bathrooms at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

The international association of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution declaring its embrace of transgender people and called on Jewish institutions and government agencies to take steps to ensure full equality.

The Rabbinical Assembly passed at the end of May its Resolution Affirming the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People; it expresses “the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society.”

The resolution encourages Conservative synagogues, camps, schools, and communal and professional organizations “to create fully inclusive settings.” It follows a similar resolution passed by the Union for Reform Judaism in November.

The RA, which comprises 1,700 rabbis, encouraged institutions affiliated with the Conservative movement to assess policies, physical facilities, and language to become “safe spaces” for transgender and gender non-conforming people. It also urges employees of such institutions to educate themselves and their constituencies about the needs of transgender and gender non-conforming people, including, for example, the use of an individual’s preferred pronoun.

Local Conservative rabbis are applauding the move.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange said he was “thrilled” with the resolution. “Making sure everyone feels welcome is as integral to the sacred nature of our institutions as transcendent prayer spaces,” he said.

“When hateful legislation makes a case for discriminatory practices based on religion,” Olitzky added, “resolutions like the one the Rabbinical Assembly passed are important to declare that our Judaism is one of inclusion, acceptance, and love. We declare that those who discriminate based on religion don’t speak for us.” 

Long before the brouhaha that began in February in North Carolina with its legislature’s HB2 law — the “Charlotte bathroom bill” that prevents transgender people from using bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify — Beth El ensured gender-neutral and gender non-conforming bathrooms were available and changed the signage accordingly (see photo). 

Beyond the bathroom, Olitzky said he is taking steps to ensure that language used at Beth El and its general culture also create a comfortable environment. He said, “We already strive to be as inclusive as possible, being careful in the language we use, the pronouns we use, and building a culture that doesn’t make gender stereotypes.”

While other rabbis also addressed messaging and the bathroom issue, Rabbi George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains pointed out that ritual accommodation is ironically much simpler. He said, “There will be no ritual accommodations necessary because we are happy to call all Jews to the Torah regardless of gender, or in accord with the gender they affirm.”

Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford couched his response in terms of the role religion plays in advocating for human rights. “We must continue to fight for people who are ‘different.’ Too often, religion is used as an excuse to turn away the ‘stranger who dwells among us.’ We must continue to realize that the true practice of Judaism (or any religion) should open our hearts and minds, rather than close them off.”

In its resolution, the RA makes a legal case for its position, arguing that the spectrum of Jewish text “affirms the variety of non-binary gender expression throughout history.”

“Since Talmudic times, our people have recognized that the human condition is not just binary,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, the gay religious leader at Adas Israel in Washington, DC, in an interview with the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group. “I hope this resolution will go far in promoting this deep truth of our religion in our society and in the world.”

“That is always the first job of the religious community, the faith community: to bring our Jewish values to bear on our real-life situations and the real people around us,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA’s executive vice president, told The Washington Post.

In the days following announcement of the resolution, transgender Jews and Jewish LGBT organizations celebrated its passage. Schonfeld said she had not heard of any resistance to it.

“I don’t believe there was opposition to it at all,” she said. “I think it really comes out of a basic set of values, to see the infinite and equal worth in every human being. I think it speaks very directly to Jewish values. This is one of the examples of how the Torah’s fundamental values keep reasserting themselves as society grows and matures.”

The resolution comes in the wake of a tense national conversation on transgender rights. A backlash to the North Carolina law included the cancellation of performances in the state by Bruce Springsteen, Yitzhak Perlman, Pearl Jam, and Ringo Starr, among others. President Barack Obama responded in May with a directive instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice, igniting a nationwide debate.

This article includes reporting by NJJN staff writer Johanna Ginsberg.

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