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Making our synagogue communities more audaciously hospitable is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. In fact, there are two critical parts to the work we do to make our communities feel open and inclusive to all: reaching out and looking in as well.
In reaching out, we build and strengthen bonds with people who may not think of a synagogue as a welcoming place for them, while doing our best to teach our communities how to be warmly inviting. The other half of the work, not to be overlooked, involves turning an eye inward, to the people who already count themselves among the community, but may not feel there is room to express their identity fully – out of fear, distrust, or uncertainty.
Sarah Kipp wishes to advance that inward-facing work, by raising awareness and prompting conversation about the inclusion and acceptance of transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming Jews in our communities. Her method? A video that will help people connect with transgender people, through themes to which everyone can relate: familial love, the support of our communities, and the stories of individuals yearning to be seen – authentically as their true, complete selves.
Sarah was inspired by a chance conversation she had with a fellow congregant. Within a short time of their meeting, the congregant explained that her son was transitioning to female. The congregant also shared that although they had already completed the required name change paperwork at the child’s secular school, the family did not intend to share the child’s transition with the synagogue community, uncertain about how understanding or supportive of the decision the community would be.
Wanting to help, Sarah suggested that the mother reach out to their rabbi, Rachel Gurevitz, an ally and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion and cultural sensitivity, and the founder of the Jewish LGBTQ group that Sarah co-facilitates. The mom did contact Rabbi Gurevitz and, over time, the teen did transition fully within the synagogue community as well.
The film, Sarah hopes, will help viewers bond with people sharing their stories. More than that, hearing these stories and connecting with the individuals telling them, she trusts, will be the first step in a longer process that both expands their knowledge and inspires them to prompt a shift within the larger culture. As Sarah says, “acceptance, love, and connection are matters of the heart – not the head.”
Sarah sees her time as a JewV’Nation Fellow as having been useful for many reasons. Among the most valuable is that she is now connected to a loyal group of likeminded people working together to promote something bigger than themselves. Although the Fellowship will end in December, she hopes that the bonds among the team’s members will continue to bear fruit beyond the boundaries of the formal program. This support network gives her the strength to use what she’s learned to continue her own work in this realm.
And, although her project will require time and resources beyond what’s offered by the Fellowship, Sarah is hopeful that within a few years, her film will inspire communities to action. Like others striving to break down borders and expand the tent to recognize all, she yearns for a time when this work has been internalized so thoroughly by individuals and communities that the topic of transgender inclusion is utterly familiar and mundane. Speaking about her film 10 years down the road Sarah says:
I hope it will sit in its case on a shelf collecting dust and, when people do take a moment to watch it, they will feel gratitude for those who were brave enough to tell their stories in this decade so that those in the next decade can just be who they are without any explanation at all.
This profile is part of an ongoing series highlighting projects from the inaugural cohort of the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. For more information about Sarah’s project and the JewV’Nation Fellowship, visit urj.org/jewvnation-fellowship.