Gathering of the transgender tribe set for Berkeley

In film, books, blogs and newspaper articles, transgender Jews have focused mainly on identity and inclusion — or barriers to it.

But at the upcoming Jewish Transgender Gathering in Berkeley, the goal will be to shine a light onto spirituality. Not only will the emphasis of the three-day gathering be on Torah, but “Torah that has never been talked about in this way,” Reconstructionist Rabbi David Bauer pointed out.

Noach Dzmura

Bauer is the West Coast director of Nehirim, which developed the Nov. 2-4 conference with several partner organizations. It will be held at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and it will coincide with the area’s first Muslim transgender gathering and the larger Transgender Religious Leadership Summit, now in its sixth year.

Nehirim is a national nonprofit that works on building community for LGBT Jews, partners and allies. It was founded in 2004 by writer Jay Michaelson, author of “God vs. Gay” and three other books.

The Jewish transgender conference will begin on Friday evening with a Shabbat service led by Rabbi Reuben Zellman and poet Joy Ladin, followed by a Shabbat dinner and what is billed as a “Heart Circle.” The circle and other events are closed sessions, for the transgender Jewish community only, but other sessions are open.

As far as organizers can tell, the Jewish transgender gathering is the first conference of its kind, said Noach Dzmura, executive assistant and director of educational technology at Starr King School of the Ministry.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Zellman, assistant rabbi and music director at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. “Before I went to rabbinical school over 10 years ago, nobody talked about these things.”

Joy Ladin

Dzmura, who is known for editing the book “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community,” will team up with Ladin to lead a session titled “Face Time with God: A New Look at the Psalms.” Ladin will also lead Torah study on Saturday morning.

Ladin is a widely published poet and a Yeshiva University professor — “probably the only openly transgender person at any Orthodox institution in the world,” she said.

Other sessions include “Being a Jewish Gender Outlaw” (led by Ariel Vegosen, a fair trade and media social justice activist who identifies as genderqueer); “Being Transgender Is Kosher: Beyond the Binary in Ancient Jewish Texts” (led by Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and one-time transgender law specialist Ben Lunine from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco); and “Does Judaism Love Your Body?” (led by Rabbi David Dunn, founder and coordinator of “The Jewish Queer Sexual Ethics Project” at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion).

“There is no question that Jewish vision provides ample paradigms for what it means to be open to transformation and change,” Zellman said. “Judaism itself is always changing and always will be. We are instructed every day to remember the Exodus. That the way we are now is not the way it always has to be.”

Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Added Bauer: “Torah is revealed over time through interpretation. For centuries, the only voices called to interpret were men’s — and within that group, hetero-identified men. Only in the second part of the 20th century did we begin to listen to women’s interpretation. And only in the past decade have we listened to [LGBT voices]. Each new individual interpretation reveals new magic.”

Other items on the schedule include “Torah Yoga,” a Havdallah service and a networking session. Highlights from the 2011 Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival will be shown as well.

The gathering is co-sponsored by Keshet, Starr King School for the Ministry, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion and Light In the Closet ministries.

Nehirim has issued an open invitation to people “who are questioning or exploring their gender, their queerness or their relationship to Judaism and Jewish community,” noting that they will be able to explore questions and answers “in a safe and confidential space.”

“Transgender” is an umbrella term that describes all gender-nonconforming people, including transsexuals (those who opt for surgery and/or hormone therapy). The gathering will welcome transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and all gender-nonconforming Jews — and their families and friends.

“Judaism flourishes when Jews bring our authentic selves to the table,” Zellman said.

The Jewish Transgender Gathering will take place Nov. 2-4 at the Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley. $40-$120., [email protected] or (212) 908-2515

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.