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Non-binary options – how Jewish organizations can be more inclusive of transgender people

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When Marc Gelmon was young, everything he knew about transgender people came from The Phil Donahue Show.

“We were called transsexuals back then,” says Gelmon, 51, a transgender man who lives in Richmond, B.C.

As a kid, his family had a tenuous connection to the Jewish community. Though Gelmon strongly identifies as Jewish, he’s had little to do with the community throughout his life.

“I always assumed the reaction … would be negative,” he admits, “so I didn’t go forward and try to find out. Mostly because I was ashamed and embarrassed about myself, I assumed the response from others would be the same.”

Still, Gelmon’s radar is highly attuned to “Jewish-y things” happening nearby, and over the years, he’s attended several events hosted by Chabad and a few that were affiliated with a progressive synagogue in Vancouver.

But he felt like he didn’t fit in at either place. The progressive synagogue “tends to be really far to the left and I’m probably just a bit left of middle politically,” he says. And at Chabad, the atmosphere felt “very straight-laced … not diverse.”

READ: REFLECTIONS ON MY TRANSGENDER GRANDDAUGHTER

“It’s not that people weren’t nice, but I felt like the expectations were old-fashioned,” he says. “I kept getting asked, ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ”

Gelmon, who is single and doesn’t have children, says the experience made him feel like an outsider.

“Other people might not actually care,” he notes, “but it makes me feel bad. To be frank, it’s really about me. I feel bad that I don’t have those things. When I was 18 or 19, in the mid-’80s, I said to myself, ‘Who’s going to marry or date someone … who has a body that doesn’t match (their identity)?’”

Gelmon knows society has changed and he’s been pleased to hear about local community initiatives, like a trans and gender non-conforming training workshop for leaders of Jewish community organizations that was held in October.

The event was sponsored by Vancouver’s Temple Sholom Synagogue, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.

“It’s hard for marginalized people to say, ‘We want to be a part of you.’ It’s more powerful for institutions to step up and say, ‘We want you with us,’” Gelmon says.

(Shutterstock)

Such initiatives are becoming increasingly widespread in Jewish communities across Canada. But activists and community leaders say there’s more work to be done to create a Jewish community that’s actively inclusive of people who are transgender, or who don’t conform to male or female gender roles.

Makom, a non-denominational synagogue and community centre in downtown Toronto, has worked to include trans people since it was founded in 2009. For years, it has held special Friday night services in honour of Pride Week.

Rabbi Aaron Levy, Makom’s founder and director, says trans people have always been involved in Makom’s prayer services and programs.

For the first eight years, davening at Makom included separate seating for men and women. Trans people who identified with a particular gender could affirm it by sitting in whichever section aligned with their gender identity.

But last summer, Makom held a meeting about seating arrangements. Some people argued that congregants who don’t identify as either male or female might be uncomfortable having to choose between the men and women’s sections. Makom has since added a third, non-gender specific section.

Rabbi Levy says that showing respect and welcoming everyone is “an instantiation of kevod a briyot,” a principle in rabbinic law that puts individual human dignity above all else. “This is so important, it can override other mitzvot, if needed,” Rabbi Levy, who studied at a modern Orthodox yeshiva, says. He adds that, “Generally speaking, there’s no need here to override other mitzvot, it’s just a matter of treating people respectfully.”

MNJCC staff members wore pink to celebrate diversity and stand up to bullying on International Day of Pink.

At Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC), staff recently consulted with community members to determine how its policies can be more inclusive of people across the gender-identity spectrum. The organization conducted a needs assessment study with a trans community member and a researcher at York University.

The centre subsequently changed its washroom and change room signs, to indicate that people are welcome to use whichever one accords with their gender identity. And the fitness centre’s family change room is now a “family plus all-gender change room,” that includes more private stalls.

The MNJCC also established an employee LGBTQ committee, made up of staff and allies who identify with the LGBTQ experience.

“We’ve been making sure our programming… includes an understanding of all families… and meets the needs of LGBTQ folks and families,” says Liviya Mendelsohn, the MNJCC’s director of accessibility and inclusion.

She cites Pride education at the centre’s nursery school and community Pride events that have been held at the centre.

Mendelsohn says the MNJCC welcomes feedback on how it can improve further.

A sign posted on the women’s change room at the MNJCC.

“I think now we’re doing a better job of not just saying, ‘We’re open to everyone,’ but understanding what that means. I would say we’re still at the beginning of that journey,” she says.

Andi Yumansky identifies as queer and trans, as well as a non-denominational, practicing Jew, and prefers to use the pronoun “they.” Yumansky is currently studying at the University of Toronto to become a multi-faith chaplain. For years, Yumansky has been trying to find Jewish spaces where they feel safe to “be my whole self as a queer and trans person,” as well as to have “a continuity of (Jewish) practice.”

About five years ago, Yumansky started a queer and trans Rosh Chodesh group and then launched a Havdalah meet-up.

For years, Yumansky davened at Makom, but found it difficult to get their queer and trans friends to come. Yumansky has long felt the strain of navigating the tension between having a spiritual practice with people “who are less in the queer and trans community,” and building community with their Jewish queer and trans friends, who “are more interested in political stuff and less interested in tradition.”

One Yom Kippur at Makom, someone said Yumansky was sitting in the wrong section. “I felt like … if I’m so anxious about whether or not this is a comfortable or safe space, I’m not going to be able to connect spiritually. Safety feels like the most important thing,” says Yumansky.

While Yumansky was part of the push to establish a gender non-conforming seating section at Makom, Yumansky was often the only person sitting in the section. This felt “painful, uncomfortable and lonely,” they say. “I experienced it as reinforcing the binary system of gender represented by the mechitzah.”

As Yumansky’s Jewish practice has been in flux, so too has their relationship with gender. For awhile, Yumansky used male pronouns and considered going on testosterone, in order to “pass as male.” At that time, sitting in the men’s section of a synagogue felt somewhat comfortable. But over time, Yumansky realized that wasn’t the right way to go.

“I’m not a person who passes as male,” says Yumansky. “Going to a synagogue that has a gender division and ingrained gender roles isn’t really an option for me. So where do I go to have a traditional service and feel safe?”

Sheri Krell is the executive director of Kulanu Toronto, the city’s main Jewish LGBTQ group.

Andi Yumansky

Kulanu tries to ensure its events are always held in “safe spaces.” Sometimes, that means putting up “washrooms for all” signs at venues.

“We basically adapt to the environment we’re in,” explains Krell.

She advises Jewish community organizations that, “If you say you serve the trans community, there needs to be appropriate bathrooms set up so people feel comfortable. I attended a Jewish community meeting on how better to serve the (LGBTQ) community and there wasn’t a non-binary bathroom available. It sends mixed messages.”

It would also be good if Jewish groups participated in Pride’s annual trans march, and if Jewish organizations hosted more events that raise awareness for trans and non-binary gender issues, says Krell.

Language is also important. In promoting programs, organizations should be mindful of avoiding certain phrases and making certain assumptions. For example, Krell says that the common “women’s challah bake” event can reinforce gender stereotypes.

“The same way we look at accessibility for mobility issues, we should be creating accessibility for everyone, including trans people,” she stresses. “It may be blue sky thinking, but it’d be great to break down the gender binary to include trans people.”

Although many progressive Jewish organizations and synagogues are making conscious efforts to do a better job of including trans people, many feel less welcome in Orthodox institutions.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of the Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Toronto, says the Torah prohibits a man from wearing “women’s clothing.” He notes that, “We don’t know what social realities (the prohibition) was referring to at that time. Does it refer to someone trying to pretend to be a woman, or their dressing as a woman in order to do something that’s sinful?”

Regardless, almost all prohibitions can be violated if one’s life is in danger, Rabbi Strauchler says. He acknowledges that people’s mental health, and possibly their lives, could be endangered if they cannot express their gender identities.

A sign posted in front of the family change room at the MNJCC.

This said, he expresses a desire to “depoliticize the issue,” in favour of focusing on “the health and psychological needs of (transgender) individuals.” He points to the “tremendous gap between the particular situation of a person and the politics of social boundary breaking that often are of great concern (to the Orthodox community).”

He says his synagogue tries to be welcoming to transgender people and that they “do all we can to stigmatize the personal challenges of our community members,” but that does not necessarily mean encouraging such behaviour.

“We should try our best to acknowledge that even if things aren’t ideal, and not as we would envision for ourselves or for our children, (being transgender) is still a part of who (people) are and we should do our utmost to bring them in and not exclude them.”

Since November, Yumansky has been a facilitator at the newly launched Toronto chapter of Eshel, an American non-profit whose mission is to create inclusive Orthodox communities for LGBTQ Jews and their families.

Eshel essentially functions as a drop-in support group, which meets monthly.

Yumansky acknowledges that fostering trans and gender non-conforming inclusion in the Orthodox world is complex, as notions of gender are so embedded in the belief system.

Still, Yumansky stresses that this isn’t just an issue of inclusivity, but of “life and death.”

Trans people who come from an Orthodox background tend to feel like their identity is inherently in opposition to their community’s values. The shame that often accompanies that can lead to really serious mental health problems, including potentially suicide, Yumansky says.

“Young trans people need to feel loved, supported and even celebrated for who they are. If this cannot happen within the confines of Orthodoxy, one needs to question what is more important – saving lives or continuing to enforce rigid gender norms based on dogmatic and outdated ideals.”

Sociology Professor Aaron Devor, the chair of transgender studies at the University of Victoria, says that community support is integral to ensuring everyone’s mental and physical health, regardless of whether they are transgender.

However, Devor emphasizes that trans “people differ from many others in the levels of minority stress and health challenges they face. Being part of supportive communities … increases one’s resilience and the likelihood of successfully navigating adverse circumstances.”