Making a Jewish community more welcoming for transgender members or visitors was the topic of a talk given by Rabbi Cindy Enger June 26 at Ezra-Habonim, Niles Township Jewish Congregation ( EHNT ), 4500 W. Dempster St., in Skokie.
Enger, who is a part-time rabbi at Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago, gave an overview about medical and psychological issues that transgender individuals face then further discussed how congregations can be more proactive when opening their doors to transgender Jews.
She opened by discussing the concept of "transitioning," beginning to live as the gender within one identifies: "When a TG person has transitioned, and is living as their authentic gender, that's that person's truth," Enger said. "That person may or may not want other people to know. … It's going to be different for many people."
After further noting the diversity of categories that transgender individuals can fall under, Enger screened the short video "Ryland's Story," which was produced by a San Diego couple whose young daughter identified as a boy, and was hostile to the stereotypical trappings of being a girl. Ultimately the couple chose to allow the child to present himself as male, saying in the video that they hoped their choice might help spare Ryland the unhappiness that drives many transgender persons to attempt suicide.
Audience members were generally appreciative of the video's message, but some had questions about the medical and psychological aspects of the situation. One woman asked how the parents could be certain Ryland's situation was not a phase, while another man said he had difficulty with a statement that Ryland had the brain of a boy.
But Enger emphasized that the parents made their choice to present Ryland as a boy because they thought it would save his life. Ultimately, when it comes to acceptance, she added, "People's lives are at stake."
Among the suggestions Enger had for synagogues concerned with being welcoming to transgender Jews were: not making assumptions about a person's gender identity based on their appearance; emphasizing the "T" when mentioning that a congregation is "LGBT-welcoming"; being respectful of personal pronouns; being mindful of pronouns in religious texts and ceremonies; and providing gender-neutral bathrooms and spaces, when appropriate. Lastly, she advised, "If we hear lashon hara ["evil tongue," or, malicious gossip], speak up and don't let it pass by."
Enger was asked if census figures or any other data suggested how many transgender persons there are in the country. She said that it was difficult to know, and would only become more complex as growing numbers people become comfortable identifying as transgender. But she added that actual numbers, as far as Jewish communities are concerned, are moot: "We're commanded to welcome the stranger … It doesn't matter if the numbers are large or small."
Rabbi Carla Cenker, who was in the audience, added, "Judaism doesn't reject [transgender people], and as a community we need to understand that."
Enger agreed, and suggested there be "a follow-up with one or several people who are transgender," so the congregation could hear about more specific experiences.
According to Rabbi Jeffrey Weill of EHNT, Enger's talk was part of a series on marginalized voices in the Jewish community. A session on gay and lesbian issues had been discussed, but, because the congregation has gay members and is largely familiar with LGB issues already, they decided to focus on transgender individuals and the challenges they face.
"It's about knowing the heart of the stranger and being welcoming regardless," Weill said.