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How to Create Synagogues That Welcome Our Truest, Most Authentic Selves

How to Create Synagogues That Welcome Our Truest, Most Authentic Selves

Gender neutral bathroom sign that says, "Who Cares?" with an image that is 1/2 man and 1/2 woman

With many Jewish life cycle events and milestones, our communities have time to plan and prepare for the celebration. We know months in advance that a new baby is expected, that kids are becoming b’nai mitzvah, or that a happy couple is planning to stand under the chuppah. We have time before the big event to consider how we want to support and honor these individuals in our community.

Although coming out as a member of the LGBTQ community might be one of the most pivotal events a person can experience in life, most people are not in a position to give others advance notice. Can you imagine the invitations folks would send? “Hey, in three months, I’m going to stand in my truth and tell you who I know myself to be! RSVP!”

More often, our moments of coming out are marked by a quiet conversation in the rabbi’s office or, in my case, tapping a friend on the shoulder in the temple’s coat room and asking to speak with her for a moment before heading to the Oneg Shabbat. That night, while singing in the choir during a particularly poignant Shabbat service, the desperate need I felt to bring all of me – even my gay identity – somehow into the sacred space of my temple community hit a tipping point, and I reached out. My friend received my outpouring with unconditional love and support. She helped me find the gifts in choosing truth over fear. She walked with me into the oneg later that night and has stood by my side as an advocate and ally ever since.

That was nearly a decade ago. When my teen came out as transgender a couple of years ago, there were a few more people ready to stand with our family in love and true understanding, including a few close friends and our rabbi.

Sharing our truest selves and the complexities of our journey can feel monumental. Our inner monologues can run rampant with fear, especially if there are not many others with similar journeys and identities already thriving in our community and environment. I think coming out – as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, etc. – is almost always a complex, multi-layered process. Feeling like we are the first one, or that we are early pioneers in a land full of potential misunderstandings, can make the experience feel that much riskier.

A community that has an unequivocal commitment to stand by loved ones through milestones and life events knows what to do with baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, and funerals. We know how to show up to offer our love and support, and we know how to communicate, both through ritual and through cultural conversations, that we are here for our loved ones. Our actions and our words say, “We see you. You can count on us.”

How do we, as individuals and as communities, express that same level of commitment to stand with loved ones through a momentous life event that may be less understood and likely shared in a quieter, more personal way? How do we celebrate someone being their most authentic, truest self if we have no idea when they will come out to us?

We throw the party in advance.

We decorate our synagogues and religious schools with bathroom signage that makes clear that there are all-gender facilities available and let folks who identify as trans and/or nonbinary know that they are welcome. We put up LGBTQ safe zone stickers in visible locations. We hold a Pride-themed Shabbat during the month of June. We host screenings of documentaries that feature the stories of people who embrace and adore being Jewish and LGBTQ. We invest in workshops and trainings for our religious school educators, board, and clergy before we are faced with scenarios to which we don’t know how to respond. We create Genders and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) in our religious schools. We communicate through our actions and our words, “We see you. You can count on us.”

We stand together when it matters most, dedicating our time and resources to protecting human rights and civil liberties. This year on erev Sukkot, our congregation will host an evening event to raise awareness about what is at stake on our ballot in Massachusetts this November and implore folks to work together to keep the transgender protections we currently have in place. As stated on the Freedom for All Massachusetts site, “The referendum on the ballot would repeal our state law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places, including restaurants, stores, and doctors’ offices.”

Our community understands that this is not a “transgender” issue. This is a human rights issue and we have an obligation, as Jews, to stand together in support of social justice, equality, and legal protection for every member of our community.

Sarah M. Kipp is a professional speaker, educator, and workshop facilitator. She is a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, and is the founder and executive producer of Whole Hearted: Trans. Jewish. Community., a place to hear the stories of transgender and gender-nonconforming Jews and explore resources for congregations and Jewish communities.

Sarah M. Kipp
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