Converting to Judaism about a year ago, a transgender man in Washington, D.C., asked his rabbi a pointed question about the last step in the process, which calls for dunking naked in a ritual bath.
Could he locate a transgender man to serve as the required witness for this immersion?
Dozens of Jewish leaders in the region, including Rabbi Laurie Green, got the email asking if they could produce such a witness, who, according to Jewish law, would have to be Jewish.
“We were looking really hard to find someone,” said Green, who presides at Bet Mishpachah, a gay congregation in the nation’s capital. “It was a problem that we couldn’t meet this reasonable request.”
But it wasn’t just this man’s request. Rabbis across the nation have noted the trend. Green alone is helping three transgender people to become Jewish.
“There’s a particularly high percentage, it seems, of people who are transgender who are also converting to Judaism,” said Carrie Bornstein, the executive director of Mayyim Hayyim, a mikvah — or Jewish ritual bath — outside Boston.
In response, Jewish leaders for the past several years have been trying to welcome transgender people — those born Jewish and converts — into their Jewish communities. These efforts often focus on mikvah, where conversion is completed and gender is on full display.
It shouldn’t be too surprising, said Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael, a transgender man and the chaplaincy director at St. Louis’ Jewish Family & Children’s Services, that people transitioning in one part of their lives are often transitioning in another.
“Once you start to ask serious questions about whom you are in the world and how your core sense of self interacts in the world, it makes sense that everything is subject to question,” he said.
The mikvah — most commonly used by traditional Jewish women to mark the end of their menstrual periods — is where a transgender person may first discover how a Jewish community treats its transgender members.
“The body is an area of particular vulnerability for transgender people, because so much of our identities is inextricably intertwined with the nuances of our physical appearance,” said Emily Aviva Kapor, a transgender Seattle rabbi who has written about transgender issues and Jewish law.
As difficult as it may be for anyone to disrobe at mikvah, the transgender person may struggle with a far more intense anxiety, she said.
And while transitioning to a different gender raises a slew of questions in Judaism — what should be done, for example, about the rite of circumcision? — Kapor and Buck-Yael both note that rabbis have grappled with transgender issues before.
While most of traditional Judaism divides the Jewish people into one of two genders, ancient Jewish texts include passages that speak of people whose physical characteristics don’t match the gender they identify with.
“There was a very early recognition that there are individuals who do not fit into a simple, neat, cut and dried, binary definition of gender,” said Buck-Yael.
What is new is the awareness that the world has plenty of Jewish Caitlyn Jenners, and the willingness to help them feel at home in Jewish communities.
The director of the mikvah at Adas Israel Congregation, for example, where the Washington man had hoped to convert using a transgender witness, now keeps a list — five people long and growing — of transgender Jews willing to serve as witnesses.
Last year the largest American Jewish newspaper published an e-book of essays called “Transgender and Jewish.”
And Jewish religious scholars are gathering for conferences such as one held in Los Angeles in May called “In God’s Image: Transgender Folk in the Conversion Process.”
At Mayyim Hayyim, the mikvah outside Boston that has explored modern uses for the ancient Jewish ritual bath, about 20 transgender people have submerged in its waters. Many used the mikvah not only to mark their conversion to Judaism but also to mark various stages in their gender transition, said Lisa Berman, the facility’s education director.
And because those who use mikvah utter blessings after their immersions, most often in Hebrew, Mayyim Hayyim staff members are writing a new blessing for people who use it to celebrate a gender transition. The staff has partnered with Keshet, an organization of Jews that advocates for LGBTQ people, to make sure mikvah staff are sensitive to the particular concerns of transgender clients, including the pronouns they use to identify themselves.
We want to make sure that each of our mikvah witnesses is a supportive person, said Berman — someone who “isn’t going to flip out when they see a body that might look different from what they would have expected.”