Transgender and Jewish in Philly

Author: Samantha Melamed,
Source: Philly.com
Published: March 14, 2017

And over the last year, more synagogues have been asking for trans sensitivity trainings for staff and members, said Phoenix Schneider, program director of the nonprofit Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ LGBTQ initiative.

In the last few years, the battle over transgender rights has roiled school districts, courtrooms, statehouses, and he national political stage, most recently via a Trump administration directive rolling back protections for transgender students in schools.

But in the Orthodox Jewish community, where gender roles are starkly defined and synagogues seat men and women separately, trans rights are advancing much more quietly, often through discreet conversations with people like Saundra Epstein of Elkins Park.

Epstein, an Orthodox Jew and advocate for LGBTQ acceptance, noticed some rabbis were open to accepting transgender congregants — but not to publicizing it. So, if a trans person is seeking a synagogue, Epstein acts as matchmaker and finds a rabbi willing to take the person in.

“I personally do not want our children or community members to feel like there is no place for them in the Orthodox community,” Epstein said. “That said, it’s not so simple when Moshe becomes Marsha. For the community, it’s very, very challenging.”

It’s something, though, that more Jewish communities than ever are grappling with, publicly and privately. Some have taken stands for transgender rights: the Union for Reform Judaism adopted a broad inclusion policy in 2015, and local synagogues have united to form J.Proud, a consortium of groups committed to advancing LGBTQ inclusion. Last year, the West Philadelphia congregation Kol Tzedek became perhaps the first in the region to hire a transgender rabbi, Ari Lev Fornari.

And over the last year, more synagogues have been asking for trans sensitivity trainings for staff and members, said Phoenix Schneider, program director of the nonprofit Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ LGBTQ initiative.

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