“People who are challenging our understanding of gender norms and gender expression are under constant attack in schools, work environments, where they live, and just walking down the street,” says Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation.
That is part of why the board of directors at the 50-year-old Reconstructionist congregation voted to adopt a statement welcoming members of the larger Baltimore/Howard County community regardless of their gender identity or expression.
“Wherever individuals of any age identify on the spectrum of gender experiences, we are proud to have them and their families join us to celebrate their milestones, as well as our community observances and activities,” the statement says. “We as a community will advocate for the rights of all congregants to live freely and safely among us.”
David Glaser, Chair of CJC’s Gender Identity Committee, emphasized the need for religious organizations to be direct in their outreach to trans and non-binary community members. While support and acceptance of all groups is important, he said, transgender individuals trying to determine if an organization is truly supportive of them tend to look for something more detailed and explicit rather than a broad non-discrimination policy.
“Such an explicit statement of support was also sought by current CJC members who are transgender. We see gender identity as an issue of civil rights,” said Glaser.
The Board’s decision came after the committee conducted an 18-month educational campaign; but the groundwork for this initiative was laid about four years ago when CJC conducted an exploration of micro-aggressions. One topic the congregation discussed was how the community could be more welcoming to trans or non-binary individuals. Rabbi Starr then invited Rabbi Jacob Lieberman, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, to talk to the congregation about his experience as one of the few rabbis who are openly trans. After this event, CJC formed the Gender Identity Committee to more closely examine this particular micro-aggression.
“When we say that all Jews are welcome here, it is vital we make it unequivocally clear that includes those whose safety is not insured elsewhere,” Starr said. “Columbia Jewish Congregation celebrates all who walk in the door including those who are transgender or gender non-conforming, for we are stronger when all of God’s children are part of our sacred community.”
The synagogue held several events to orient congregants and engage their support for welcoming people of all gender identities. The programs included LGBTQ+ vocabulary, understanding obstacles to mental and physical wellbeing for transgender individuals and their loved ones, testimonials from transgender community members, the Jewish perspective on transgender issues, and how to be an ally.
Gemma Holgate, a CJC congregant, told her gender transition story at one of the events. “These programs offered different ways to understand, connect to, and empathize with the transgender community and gave me an opportunity to celebrate my Jewish identity and my gender identity in the same place,” she said. “The adoption of this statement reflects the welcoming nature of CJC and of the support I have received there.”