Ramona Hernandez-Perez is a queer, female Black-Mexican rabbi with stories to tell.
Hernandez-Perez is in her 60s and is a third-generation Chicago native. She was transgender and is now female, explaining while there is nothing wrong with being transgender, to her it means from one person to the next. Her transition, as she described, has passed.
"I don't want to be a third gender," said Hernandez-Perez. "I want to be female, period. I'm me."
Mainly raised by her grandparents, Hernandez-Perez said her family was not religious when she was growing up.
"I always wrestled with what was being told; wrestled with knowledge and truth; wrestled with the social injustice," said Hernandez-Perez.
"When you begin to find that these things come natural to you or that you have a love for it, then it just happens," said Hernandez-Perez of finding a love for religion. "Baruch Hashem. Be a decent human being. Tikkun Olam [a Jewish concept, meaning to repair the world through acts of kindness]. Be that light, help to heal the world, whatever you are, whether you're a journalist, a musician, an entertainer, whatever you are, you can be who you want to be and still be decent."
Hernandez-Perez grew up in the civil-rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., living around the corner when he had an apartment on Chicago's West Side. She recalls getting involved by going to King's rallies in Chicago and participating with the urban aspect of Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC ). Through that, when she was in high school, she stood as one of the leaders of the Coalition of High School Students, boycotting for better conditions.
When it comes to taking action on her beliefs, Hernandez-Perez credits the spark of Tikkun Olam.
"I don't think I was ever not involved," she said. "It's just the right thing to do."
While Hernandez-Perez is retired now. She served four years in the Navy, stationed in New York and during that time, went to naval legal justice school in Newport, Rhode Island. For more than 15 years she worked at University of Illinois at Chicago as a monographic copy cataloger, while also a part of women's minyan at UIC's Hillel House, where she first came out. She left UIC for a six-month study in Jerusalem through a joint effort by the Leo Baeck Institue and Hebrew Union College. She holds certificates in Jewish spiritual healing, is a para-chaplain and was ordained by Universal Ministries. When she returned from Israel, she went on to work for about 12 years at Northwestern University as a bibliographic editor.
She has also held freelance jobs for Ebony, Jet, Windy City Times and Chicago Defender. After her time in college, where she won awards for photography, she secured a photography internship at the Detroit Free Press. Her photography experience also reaches to projects for various organizations she became connected with through the civil-rights movement, including the Chicago Urban League and PR firms.
Her work as a rabbi now is accomplished through a mission she started called Abyssinian Reform Hebrew Congregations.
"My whole thing is I'd like to make a difference in my [own] way," said Hernandez-Perez. She explained that she gauges a difference as being able to impress knowledge upon people when speaking in conversation. In turn, she values someone saying something that makes her want to think about being a better person, doing the right thing or helping someone else.
She also has a love of music, "anything from James Taylor to Sun Ra." She even played the congas in a band called The Four Dukes, along with playing for several other Jazz bands at various events in Chicago and Detroit.
"I'm not one of anything," said Hernandez-Perez. "I'm a bunch of all kinds of things."
"My mission is more toward non-Jews in the sense that I try to educate people about Judaism, about Torah," she added. "I don't prophesize anything."
Hernandez-Perez practices the type of Judaism known as flexidox. When asked what she likes about the Torah in particular, Hernandez-Perez brings up The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
"I tell people that the Torah is the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," she said. As far as knowledge and wisdom, she explained, all the teachings are right there in Torah.
Hernandez-Perez said she is from the same line of rabbis which goes back to Rabbi Arnold Ford and Rabbi Wentworth Matthew and many other rabbis of the African diaspora.
Hernandez-Perez made special mention of a prayer titled "Thy Brilliance" from Daily Word, a unity publication. Adopting the prayer, she said she continues to use it and it has helped her through some difficult times. She literally carries it around with her most of the time.
Columbia College's Doc Unit produced a new documentary of Hernandez-Perez and her story. Describing the video of her experiences and beliefs, she said she participated to maybe help somebody needing a spiritual word.
"I'm a very private person," said Hernandez-Perez. "I don't seek publicity and I'm at this point of being 66 years old where I need to get information out there and maybe I can help somebody whether they're a Jew or not, but help someone who's struggling."
To learn more about Hernandez-Perez, visit: vimeo.com/215247261.