Religion & Jewish Life

A Jewish group builds community for transgender and nonbinary teens

Moving Traditions' Tzelem group conducts its monthly meetings using video chat. (Lior Zaltzman)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Growing up, Devin Goldstein often felt alienated from Judaism. The 17-year-old recalls having to wear traditionally feminine outfits when the family attended synagogue. That was painful for Goldstein, who has since come out as transgender.

“It meant I had to get dressed in clothes I didn’t necessarily like, and I had to fulfill roles I didn’t necessarily feel connected to,” he said.

But joining a monthly discussion group for transgender Jewish teens helped Goldstein think differently about his Jewishness and community.

“Learning that being Jewish can be however I feel about it has really helped me want to connect to Judaism in a way that I didn’t feel before,” said Goldstein, who lives in New York and attends a boarding high school in Vermont.

Last year, Goldstein was one of 15 teens who participated in the first transgender discussion group by Moving Traditions, an organization that runs health and well-being programs for Jewish teens and young adults. Participants talk about topics such as mental health, sexuality and relationships as they relate to their lives and Jewish texts.

This year, Moving Traditions is continuing Goldstein’s group, and adding another for new participants.

Though Goldstein had attended Shabbat retreats with Keshet, an LGBTQ Jewish organization that also is co-sponsoring the discussion group, he appreciated being part of a workshop that met regularly and catered specifically to transgender teens.

Transgender and gender nonconforming people are gaining more acceptance in mainstream society, and some Jewish organizations are beginning to address their needs. The Union for Reform Judaism — the congregational arm of the largest Jewish movement in the United States — offers guidance to synagogues on how to tailor b’nei mitzvah ceremonies for transgender or nonbinary children. In 2016, the international association of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution expressing its support for and acceptance of transgender people.

But not enough organizations are doing outreach to such children, according to Essie Schachar-Hill, a Jewish LGBTQ activist who is leading one of the Moving Traditions workshops.

“More and more young people are feeling comfortable to be out as trans or to be out as questioning, which is amazing,” Schachar-Hill said. “But that means that more spaces need to be created to hold and to encourage that growth, and to be a safe and healthy space, especially for teens.”

Statistics about gender identity in young people are hard to come by. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that 0.7 percent of teens aged 13-17 in the United States identify as transgender, while a University of Minnesota study found that 2.7 percent of children in the state identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.

While the transgender community has made strides in recent years, many members are alarmed at policies being advanced by President Donald Trump that banned them from serving in the military and rolled back other protections under the Obama administration. Trump also is considering defining gender based on biological traits at birth — a move that would exclude the transgender population from civil rights law that bans gender discrimination, according to a report Monday in The New York Times.

When Rabbi Tamara Cohen started working four years ago as the chief of innovation at Moving Traditions, she was seeking ways to cater to transgender youths. The organization had been running discussion groups for Jewish girls since 2002 and boys since 2010. It launched the Tzelem group for transgender teens last year as an alternative to the Rosh Hodesh girls group and Shevet boys group.

Tzelem, meaning “image” in Hebrew, refers to the biblical notion that all humans are created in the image of God.

Like Moving Traditions’ other groups, Tzelem offers discussions that allows to articulate their deepest concerns in a safe and Jewish setting. But Cohen had to make a few tweaks. While the original groups meet monthly in person, there wasn’t enough demand for a Tzelem group in any one geographic location, so sessions are conducted over video chat.

Cohen said it also was important to ensure that the group leaders also identify as transgender.

“It can feel lonely, especially in an institution where you might be the only one,” said Cohen, adding that the Tzelem groups allow teens both to get to know others like them and “be with an adult who embodies that life can be good and meaningful and connected and Jewish.”

Last year’s group was run by Rafi Daugherty, who has spoken publicly about his experience as a transgender man and father in the Jewish community. Daugherty will continue running the group this year, while Schachar-Hill is heading the group for newcomers.

Daugherty said it is important for young transgender Jews to have a space where they can openly embrace both their religious and gender identity.

“In Jewish spaces, a lot of queer people broadly and trans people in specific have to mute that part of themselves or tone it down because it makes other people uncomfortable, or it’s just not about that,” he said.

Daugherty also said that Jews may not want to talk about their religious identities in nonreligious queer spaces.

In the Tzelem group, Daugherty wants to address both identities and how they intersect.

Forming a relationship with Daugherty had a deep impact on Amit, an 18-year-old from Illinois. Amit is nonbinary, identifying neither as male nor female, and asked not to have their last name used in this article. (Like many gender nonconforming people, Amit uses “they” as a singular pronoun.)

“You don’t see a whole lot of examples of grown-ups who are trans who are having real lives and have real families and all of that. Just on a really basic level, it was really nice to see him with his kids and just show that we can grow up,” Amit said, referring to Daugherty.

Amit said that being part of the group has helped assuage worries that they won’t always find a welcoming Jewish community.

“It’s given me a bigger view of what the Jewish community is like,” they said, “and the knowledge that if I find a Jewish community or temple that isn’t accepting, I can leave and find a different one that is.”