As a child, Reuben Zellman found life anything but cut-and-dry. “I’ve always had a complicated gender identity,” he said. “As a kid, I liked both boys’ and girls’ clothes, and both boys’ and girls’ toys.”
At 20, Reuben — who grew up as Claire — made the decision to begin living life as a man. “That’s what was right for me,” he said simply, declining to elaborate on his personal history.
Several years later, he said, he found his calling: to become a rabbi. In 2003, Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and, for that matter, in the entire Jewish community.
On May 16, in a ceremony at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Zellman, now 31, will be one of 22 students to be ordained as a Reform rabbi. That he has reached this point is not just his own accomplishment, but also that of a much larger, oft-misunderstood group that is working its way along a path to acceptance — both within the Jewish community and the world at large.
“I chose to become a rabbi because I believe that Judaism has the power to transform people’s lives for the better,” Zellman said, “[and] to pursue a better and more just world.”
The notion of pursuing a “more just world” isn’t one that Zellman takes lightly. He said he has been welcomed with open arms at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, where he currently serves as a rabbinic intern. Nevertheless, the Jewish community as a whole is just beginning to understand and accept transgender individuals.
Zellman is aware that educating others about transgender inclusion is going to be a part of his calling.
“Basic steps of transgender inclusion do not mean pretending that everyone is comfortable or pretending that everything is fine the way it is,” he said. “It means looking at where the work needs to be done and taking action.”
“There is still a lot of confusion and ignorance about what it means when a person identifies as a transgender Jew,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, an openly lesbian rabbi who has long been an outspoken LGBT-rights activist. The issues facing transgender Jews are different, Eger said, than those facing lesbian and gay Jews. Conservative and reform synagogues alike are led by ordained lesbians and gays, and recently the Orthodox community has been taking a close look at their stance on sexual orientation.
But some members of the Jewish community and the community at large remain confused about transgender individuals. At the heart of what it means to be transgender, Eger said, is the feeling that the gender that one is on the inside does not match the physical manifestation of gender on the outside.
People who identify as transgender “want to align their physical reality and their emotional, psychological reality,” she said.
While there has been some forward motion in terms of acceptance, particularly in the Reform and progressive Jewish movements, other members of the Jewish community may not be there yet.
Temple Beth El recently held a forum in which community members could come and ask questions of transgender individuals to better understand their lives, their choices and the challenges that they face.
Through such events, awareness surrounding transgender Jews has grown over the past decade. As his name and story became known, Zellman received so many requests for information and services that, along with Rabbi Elliot Kukla, a staff rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco who is also transgender,
Zellman launched TransTorah.org a few years ago.
The site indicates that it offers “texts that speak to our experiences as trans- and gender-queer people,” as well as “support [for] existing Jewish communities in becoming welcoming sanctuaries for people of all genders.”
Taking steps to become more welcoming and inclusive, Zellman said, is part of our responsibility as Jews.
“The Torah reminds us 36 times that we must welcome and be kind to the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” he said. “We have a cultural memory, a cultural and religious understanding of what it means to be marginal.”
Moving toward acceptance of different manifestations of gender, he said, isn’t limited to transgender people. “One of the myths that we’re taught is that gender is a fixed thing, and I don’t think it works that way. ... It’s much more complicated than that.”
He cites men who want to stay home with their children, or women who want to take the position of breadwinner in the family as examples of people who don’t fit into traditional gender roles — and of whom he believes the Jewish community could be more accepting and supportive.
After his ordination, Zellman will continue his work at Beth El as the assistant rabbi and music director. His journey, Eger said, has and will continue to cause ripples throughout the Jewish community that will bring important conversations to bear.
“Reuben being in rabbinical school has opened up a very necessary conversation in the Jewish community about the issue of gender identity and, in particular, transgender folks in the Jewish community,” she said.
To hear Zellman explain it, though, many of the issues he has faced are no different than what any of us face — being honest about who we are, being faithful to the calling of our own souls and being brave in the face of adversity. And if we continue to challenge ourselves to be more open-minded, he said, we’re on the right path.
“Judaism teaches me to look at every single person as made in the image of God, even if that person’s experience is new or unfamiliar to me,” he said. “That’s a large part of what should teach us to be more welcoming to transgender people and many other people as well.”