Guest Column

By Robbie Medwed

At its biennial convention this month in Orlando, the Union for Reform Judaism unanimously passed a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming people. Witnesses reported the startling sound of silence when the presiding officer asked for “nay” votes. (Seriously, when has a group of thousands of Jews ever been silent?)

The resolution signals a massive shift in transgender acceptance in mainstream Judaism. While the Reconstructionist movement has welcomed transgender Jews for some time, the Reform movement is the largest Jewish movement in the United States, and in many ways, its actions set the tone for American Jewry at large. The statement of inclusion is sure to ripple through many other Jewish institutions.

Still, questions remain. The resolution, while specific in many ways, leaves its implementation to individual synagogues, camps and schools.

Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed

My organization, SOJOURN, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, works with Jewish institutions across the Southeast to promote inclusion and acceptance of people across the entire spectrum of gender and sexual orientation.

Here are some of our best practices when it comes to ensuring that your synagogue is a safe place for transgender Jews:

  • Accept people as they are. Encourage your members to present themselves to you as they wish to be seen. That includes using their proper pronouns and names as they introduce themselves to you. Legal names may be necessary for certain internal paperwork, but allowing people to control their own identities is a must. Your job is to honor and celebrate that.
  • Designate a gender-neutral bathroom. While many transgender people feel comfortable and safe using public restrooms, many do not. Designating one restroom as gender-neutral ensures their safety and dignity. Many synagogues have at least one single-stall or small restroom, typically in a bridal room or near the offices. Labeling this restroom as gender-neutral is a small way to make a large statement.

My own synagogue, Shearith Israel, designated two of our smallest restrooms as “family restroom (with urinals)” and “family restroom (without urinals)” over the High Holidays. Not only did this allow any gender nonconforming or transgender individuals the safety to use the restroom, but it also allowed some of our older members to be escorted to the restroom by a different-gender caretaker and allowed parents to take their children to the restroom with ease.

  • Stop segregating children by body parts for school activities. Too often teachers assume that all of the boys will want to play sports while all of the girls will want to make crafts. Children can be separated into small groups by counting off by numbers, by the colors of the T-shirts they’re wearing, by their birthday months, and by so many other ways that don’t involve their genitalia. Recent studies have shown that children begin to understand their true gender as early as 3 years old. Insisting on separating children by genitalia tells them that their genitalia is the only characteristic that matters about them.
  • Stop saying things like “both genders,” “boys and girls,” and other binary phrases. Men and women are just two possibilities for gender in our world. Even the Talmud speaks at length of six genders. There are many people who don’t identify with what it means to be male or what it means to be female but instead are considered to be “nonbinary.” Many variations on nonbinary identities exist, but the underlying theme of them all is the understanding that phrases like “boys and girls” and “brothers and sisters” exclude them. Try simple words like “children,” “students” and “siblings” instead.

To be sure, there are many, many more ways to change policies and philosophies to be more inclusive and welcoming of transgender and gender nonconforming Jews. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

Most of all, though, the intention of being welcoming matters a great deal. The simple desire to become more welcoming is a great first step. And, of course, for any synagogue, camp or school that wants to become certified as a “Welcoming Community,” SOJOURN offers a yearlong program to evaluate and implement welcoming policies for individual institutions. Visit sojourngsd.org for more information.