On the third day of Chanukah last December, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, an outreach rabbi at Columbia University, received a text message from a transgender student.
“At the moment, it’s taking everything I’ve got to get through finals,” the student wrote, referring to the immediate academic pressure piled atop his struggle to feel accepted in the Jewish community because of his gender identity. “I’m in a hard place at the moment.”
Before the rabbi could respond, the student sent another message: “I’m really appreciating your existence.”
“If just existing could put somebody in a better place, then society needs to exist in such a space.”
For Rabbi Moskowitz, the moment was a call to action. At the time, he was serving as the rabbi at the Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem, an Orthodox synagogue with a diverse membership. He was also working as a Columbia campus representative for Aish, a Jewish educational network known for professionalizing kiruv, or Orthodox outreach. The student, who had not publicly come out as transgender at the time, had studied Torah with Rabbi Moskowitz through Aish programming at Columbia and confided in him about his struggles.
“He’s not the only one,” the rabbi told The Jewish Week in a recent phone interview. “If just existing could put somebody in a better place, then society needs to exist in such a space.”
The student’s sentiment became the centerpiece of Rabbi Moskowitz’s emotional speech that night at the synagogue’s annual Chanukah party, one of its largest events of the year. Fighting to hold back tears, the rabbi asked his congregants to find compassion — and acceptance — for those like the transgender student who exist at the margins of the Orthodox community. Angry emails and Facebook posts followed, suggesting that he had gone too far for his Orthodox congregation, which, like most, adhere to strict gender roles in religious practice.
As transgender issues have emerged on the national stage, Rabbi Moskowitz has become an unlikely champion for Jewish trans youth and their families. Coming from the right-wing Orthodox yeshiva world, the rabbi, who until a few months ago sported a long beard, black frock and black hat, is not an obvious choice for an ally to trans people in the Jewish community.
In fact, it has cost him.
Rabbi Moskowitz was asked to resign from the pulpit at Old Broadway Synagogue earlier this year. Former members said he was essentially fired for his non-traditional approach to issues of gender and sexuality, not simply for the Chanukah sermon. Paul Radensky, president of the shul, said that the rabbi’s resignation was not a result of his Chanukah speech on trans inclusion. “The Old Broadway Synagogue and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz separated by mutual accord,” he told The Jewish Week via email.
Rabbi Moskowitz also lost his job with Aish around the same time as the Chanukah speech; Aish says the reasons were financial. And he is now something of an oddity in the charedi community of Lakewood, N.J., where he returned after his resignations —at once an insider and an outsider in the community where he used to study.
“These choices, because they’ve been deemed incompatible with Orthodoxy by the mainstream, have come at the price of a lot of friendships and relationships and it’s disappointing,” said Rabbi Moskowitz. “I was involved in Jewish outreach for a number of years, and I’m no longer welcome in those circles.”
Those in the LGBT community are sympathetic to Rabbi Moscowitz’s position.
Speaking about Rabbi Moscowitz’s job losses, Justin Smolen Rosen, national director of youth programs at Keshet, a support and advocacy group for LGBT Jews, told The Jewish Week, “That was obviously a really unnerving experience and it was definitely an example of how it can be dangerous to express unpopular opinions. I think it’s sort of freed him to be more outspoken and to be a bigger proponent of trans rights.”
Rabbi Moskowitz’s journey toward acceptance of gender fluidity began close to home. A few years ago, a child he knows well began saying “I’m a boy.” At first, the rabbi — probably reacting as most people would — thought nothing of it.
“I just thought the child was being silly,” he said. “Like ‘I’m not a kid, I’m an adult.’”
The child wasn’t being silly, saying it with facial expressions, like, ‘It can’t be that you actually think that your body has a voice in saying what gender you are,’” said Rabbi Moskowitz. “The child was coming from a place of sophistication” that was beyond his own, he said.
After about a year, the child asked to be called by a more gender-neutral name. Now 9 years old, the child is known to his classmates and friends by his new name.
Nothing in his past could have prepared Rabbi Moscowitz for the challenges he now faces as a trans advocate within the Orthodox community. Having grown up in Richmond, Va., in a secular Jewish household, he became religious in high school through Jewish youth groups like United Synagogue Youth and National Council of Synagogue Youth, the youth arms of the Conservative and Orthodox communities, respectively. He eventually studied at a right-wing yeshiva in Israel after graduation, and he spent four years at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. After his stint in Israel, Rabbi Moscowitz logged four years of study at the Bais Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, N.J., one of the most intensive right-wing houses of study in the country.
His years spent in right-wing Orthodox yeshivas give him unique access to that world. With his old black hat (which he brings out when necessary) in tow, he has approached revered rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Miller, the religious decisor for the Lakewood community, and Los Angeles Rabbi Avrohom Teichman regarding trans issues and Orthodox observance.
In spite of his efforts, he has not convinced any of these rabbis to issue rulings, let alone make any public pronouncements, on questions of trans observance — such as where a trans person should sit in an Orthodox synagogue or whether a trans woman needs to continue putting on tefillin, phylacteries, every day.
Most people in Lakewood don’t know about Rabbi Moskowitz’s advocacy work on gender identity, and he does not speak openly about his work when he’s there.
“I see gender expressions and the language of it as paralleling my spiritual journey. I was assigned secular, identified as charedi and now am some version of it.”
“I’m part of the community here, I go to shul, I eat at people’s houses,” he said. He was recently asked to start giving a weekly sermon to women in the community. But in spite of his affinity for the Lakewood community, he has not shared the child’s story with those around him for fear of people’s reaction.
In many ways, Lakewood is a comfortable place for Rabbi Moskowitz, where he has friends with whom he can study Talmud and a tight-knit community. But he has found himself missing aspects of other communities, like the emphasis on social justice found in the more liberal streams of Judaism.
“There’s a part of me that loves being here. … There is something in the air here, a certain holiness and spirituality that I find to be tangible,” the rabbi said. “But that’s just a part of me; we all have parts that kind of want to be expressed at different times.”
In describing his own religious journey, Rabbi Moskowitz tends to slip into the lingo of the LGBT community, while pronouncing words like Torah and Shabbat in a typically yeshivish manner.
“I see gender expressions and the language of it as paralleling my spiritual journey. I was assigned secular, identified as charedi and now am some version of it,” he said. “I’m also in transition in trying to figure out the space that makes the most sense for me.”
Now the senior educator at Uri L’Tzedek, a liberal Orthodox social justice organization, the rabbi has placed trans issues at the center of his work both inside and outside the organization; he writes articles in the Jewish press and speaks about those issues at Jewish organizations and interfaith events, and even at a conference of Olami, an umbrella organization for Orthodox outreach rabbis.
Rabbi Moscowitz often receives two to three calls a day from trans individuals and their families who hear about him from friends or read his articles. Rabbis often call him for advice when they’re approached by a trans congregant, and he says he has spoken with over a dozen parents about what to do when a day school does not want to accommodate their trans child.
“He has been both a sincere advocate for trans visibility and inclusion in Judaism and particularly within Orthodox Judaism and has used his platform to speak about trans visibility, trans rights, trans inclusion and does so from a place of great empathy and care for human beings,” said Keshet’s Rosen. “And he’s also been a thought partner to me in terms of how can Keshet really reach an audience like him, reach an audience of straight cisgender people in the Orthodox community and sort of help them care about this issue as well.”
But as the liberal Jewish movements have begun to accept trans Jews, with the Reform movement passing a sweeping resolution in 2015 to make Reform institutions trans-friendly, Rabbi Moskowitz has yet to make much progress advancing trans inclusion in the Orthodox world. Many Orthodox rabbis, he said, view trans people as mentally ill or confused.
“There’s a greater societal need that motivates getting this right.”
With the suicide rate for the trans community much higher than the general population, the rabbi frames trans acceptance as an issue of pikuach nefesh, meaning life or death, which in Jewish law overrides all other commandments. According to a 2014 study, 45 percent of transgender people between the ages of 18-24 have attempted suicide. The study found that the rate climbed over 50 percent for those who were rejected by family, refused treatment by doctors, or were harassed or bullied at school.
“If a person is trans and finds themselves in a supportive space, with family and [a sense of] community, it drops down astronomically,” Rabbi Moskowitz said of the suicide rate. “There’s a greater societal need that motivates getting this right.”
Although none of the rabbis he has spoken with have issued public rulings on trans observance, they have shown compassion in private conversations.
“Compassion will never be enough to say that that which is forbidden is now permissible because we don’t want things to be difficult,” said Rabbi Moskowitz. “But if you’re missing that piece of compassion, then there’s no chance of ever getting traction because it won’t ever start.”
“We have a responsibility to God to take care of those people who are most marginalized.”
He sees empathy — and acknowledging that this is a real problem — as an important first step towards acceptance and inclusion, but he wonders if, at the same time, he might be “a little too naïve.”
“I wish there was so much more to show for the work.”
He still hopes, though, that Bais Medrash Gevoha, the yeshiva in Lakewood, will eventually be a place where trans Jews can learn Torah, too, although he doesn’t expect that to happen in time for the child he knows well to study there. But he believes he will see changes, even in Lakewood, in his lifetime.
“We’re still in the beginning stages of transition on a communal level,” he said. “Transitions are icky — it’s neither here nor there, it’s awkward, it’s adolescent, it’s all of that stuff in the space between.”
Still, the struggle is worth it.
“God doesn’t put extra people in the world,” said Rabbi Moskowitz. “We have a responsibility to God to take care of those people who are most marginalized.”