Writing Our Own Torah: Talking Spirituality and Transgender Inclusion with Rabbi Becky Silverstein

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This article is featured in the June 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry profiles Rabbi Becky Silverstein, a genderqueer, trans rabbi currently working as the Education Director at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Since 2006, Becky has been facilitator for Keshet (an organization working for the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish Community); he recently joined their board. He uses his personal identity and experience to move Jewish communities towards embracing the full diversity of both their membership and those who might one day be among their members.

For many people, the onset of summer camp season is a reminder to arm your kids with bug spray, get that Sharpie out to write their names on the insides of their collars and acquire cherished care package fixings. For Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the Education Director at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center and the first transgender rabbi hired by a Conservative congregation, the season means something a little different: it’s represents an opportunity to keep chipping away at alienating binary gender distinctions in the Jewish community and beyond. These distinctions have broken down significantly in recent years, but sometimes rise to the fore during summer camp season, when application forms pose that age old, arguably irrelevant question: M or F.

“We live in a world that is more and more—a Transparent world, if you will,” said Silverstein on the phone from California. “People are talking about trans identity and people are working by and large to create spaces for trans-identified folks, so it presents tremendous opportunity to teach and have concrete changes—as simple as bathroom stuff—but also conversations, including how to ask for gender inclusiveness on forms and to ask, ‘why do we need to know peoples’ genders at all?’”

For Silverstein, this work is personal. Raised as a girl in a suburb of New York City, Silverstein, now 34 years old, came out as a lesbian as an undergraduate at Smith College in Western Massachusetts. In rabbinical school at Boston’s Hebrew College, he came out as genderqueer and though he goes by his given name, he uses male pronouns, which allows him to “hold that tension of what it means to be someone who doesn’t believe in gender binary,” he said.

Male pronouns “allow me to stay connected to who I am, the name my parents gave me and to who I feel myself to be, to stay connected to Becky as how I grew up, and to better express how I‘ve come to know myself,” he said.

In a sense, navigating that tension between who we are now and where we come from is what drives Silverstein in his work as a Jewish professional. In addition to his synagogue affiliation, he’s a facilitator and member of the board of directors at Keshet, an advocacy organization devoted to equality and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews. In that capacity, he leads Sabbath retreats—Shabbatonim—for LGBTQ teens and speaks with the staff and administration at synagogues, day schools and summer camps about how to create more embracing and supportive environments where people can experiment freely with their gender. While achievements like marriage equality are significant, in their aftermath there arises a kind of apathy, Silverstein said, which makes his commitment to creating openness all the more important.

“There’s some feeling of, ‘we have gay marriage, everything’s okay,’ and the fact is that’s not true,” he said, citing violence against trans women of color as an example of an ongoing problem. “The work that needs to be done to make trans people more welcome is to be more inclusive—and that means working on misogyny and racism. That takes more than ‘We have trans bathrooms and we have gay marriage.’”

Some of the work is easy, like suggesting paperwork for schools and camps—institutions already making great strides in terms of LGBTQ inclusion—amend application materials so they ask for information from Parent 1 and Parent 2, rather than from Mother and Father. Helping people progress to the point where they no longer presume the existence of a traditional Mother or Father is harder. That involves transforming cultural norms, a pursuit undertaken within communities on local and movement-wide levels.

“It takes a lot of time and it means offering people an opportunity to confront and make explicit their own assumptions around gender and race and class, and then challenging those assumptions, and giving people space around those feelings and a place to try on new perspectives,” he said.

It also means creating new traditions, like devising a new way to call people up to the Torah during religious services that doesn’t invoke gender, as has been customary for centuries. Or creating prayers that don’t rely on knowledge or inference of a person’s genitalia. Or asking teachers of Israeli dance—or any kind of dance, for that matter—not to ask participants to line up according to assumptions of who’s male and who’s female.

Silverstein is also guided by different injunctions—“Kol Yisrael arevim ze-ba-ze” (all of Israel are responsible for one another) and “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibor” (don’t exclude yourself from the community). These imperatives inform his sense of collective responsibility and his commitment to building vibrant, values-based community. They’re guidelines that he follows with a sense of “menschilikeith,” of kindness and patience.

“We can write our own Torah,” he explained. “We can write a set of rules from our perspective”—a perspective that doesn’t fall back on a hetero-normative status quo.

Indeed, for Silverstein, “a love of Torah is what most guides my work as a rabbi and as an educator. A love of this text and this narrative that has been handed down that we use to bring people together. For me, this is personal as a trans Jew and a trans rabbi.”

Education and change are “a process,” he said. “The thing I want to remember is our Jewish community is as rich and whole as the people in it. In making our spaces more inclusive—and as learning becomes deeper—everyone becomes more whole.” 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.