How to Better Welcome Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Congregants

Inside Leadership

How to Better Welcome Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Congregants

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How would you respond if you saw a child you know and love tease a religious school classmate for being a “sissy”? Would you know what to say? Would you ignore it, unsure of how to speak to the child and their classmate about the teasing and their feelings?

Transgender and gender non-conforming youth are cherished members of our families, synagogues, schools, summer camps, and youth groups, but it is only during the past few years that the organized Jewish community has undertaken concerted, large-scale efforts to communicate our acceptance and love, and to let these children and their families know that they are fully welcome in our Jewish world.

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2015 Biennial Convention, passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People was a historic moment for the Reform Movement. This momentous occasion also begged the question: How can Reform congregations begin to take the necessary steps to become more inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in all aspects of synagogue life?

The importance of such work is certain, as it is in line with our Jewish values of inclusion, respect, and embracing the idea that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Trans inclusion work reflects our deep familiarity, as a people, with the experience of being an outsider, wondering whether we’ll be safe and accepted for who we are. Yet as clear as our mandate to take these steps may be, the direct path to affecting change may be less obvious.

 The Reform Movement is a leading voice on building inclusive communities. NFTY, the Reform Youth Movement, passed a resolution in 2015 to ensure teens could identify their preferred gender pronouns in event registration and on nametags. Reform Jewish teens were active partners in supporting the URJ’s resolution on affirming the rights of transgender people and after it passed, sought to put it into action in all 19 regions across North America.

Last summer, the Reform Movement began to address this question through a six-webinar series called the Transgender Inclusion Active Learning Network, co-produced by the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality team and the Religious Action Center (RAC), in partnership with Keshet and the Youth and Gender Media Project. The webinars covered topics that addressed the needs and concerns of a wide range of Jewish settings, from the pulpit to religious schools to summer camps to youth groups. They included educational presentations experts in the field, interspersed with experiential learning, online film screenings about trans issues, and question-and-answer sessions, all designed to provide participants with the training, tools, and language to help their communities elevate inclusivity around gender diversity.

Recordings of all six webinars are available for download in The Tent. Highlights from the series included discussions about:

  • The imperative to involve the entire community in inclusion work, especially centering the voices and leadership of transgender community members
  • The power of language, including the dos and don’ts of welcoming transgender individuals into our communities
  • The limitations of Hebrew as a gendered language, including ways to leverage this challenge as an opportunity rather than an obstacle
  • How to identify opportunities for spiritual collaboration within the Jewish world
  • Gender-based groups within our larger Jewish institutions – our men’s and women’s clubs, among others – and how transgender individuals might feel about the prospect of participating in such a group.
  • Ways to create a more meaningful and affirming Jewish experience for transgender and gender non-conforming Jews, both those who have found their way to us and those who will find us in the future

Though our work on this front is far from complete, we encourage you to take advantage of this powerful set of resources. Visit our Transgender Inclusion Active Learning Network resource page to view the recorded webinars.

Looking for additional ways your congregation can learn more about this critical topic? Consider the following options and resources:

Dr. Patrick Rock is the the director of education for the Youth and Gender Media Project. He is dedicated to raising awareness of transgender and gender-expansive youth in formal as well as informal educational contexts. Dr. Rock has also trained crisis counselors for LGBT youth at the Trevor Project, taught developmental, social, and educational psychology courses at UCLA and The American Jewish University, and published papers in major developmental psychology journals. Carly L. Goldberg, DSW, LCSW is the associate director for the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality initiative. Prior to her work at the URJ she maintained a private psychotherapy practice and was an adjunct lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, where she received her doctorate in social work. Carly lives in the greater Philadelphia area with her husband and son, a proud camper at URJ Camp Harlam.

This piece was created with guidance from the entire Active Learning Network team and representatives from Keshet, the Youth and Gender Media Project, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the URJ's Audacious Hospitality team.

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