a row of small trans flags along a curb
Trans pride flags. (Photo/Flickr-Ted Eytan CC BY-SA 2.0)

Transitioning to my true self includes converting to Judaism. Can I?

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Dear Dawn: I have been depressed much of my life because I don’t fit the gender I was born with. I want to transition and I want to convert to Judaism. Some Jewish friends have told me I can convert and others have said I can’t. I know that I have to transition to my true gender in order to find life worth living. I also very much want to be Jewish. I have read a number of books and listened to teachings online. I think a Reform rabbi would accept me. Can you tell me if that is correct? I fear that I may be more tradition oriented than the Reform movement. I’m not saying I want to be Orthodox.  Do I have any other option? If it is permitted, how do I get started? — Big Changes

Dear Big: You are correct that you can convert to Judaism with a Reform or a Conservative rabbi no matter how you define your gender. Conservative Judaism may be the path for you given your interest in a more observant lifestyle. Orthodox streams of Judaism would be more challenged to accept you, so you seem to be positioned well for a middle path.

I will note that asking Jewish friends for help with questions about conversion is a common practice, and the non-Jewish person may be confused by the answers. You were wise to ask several people and to determine that none of them appeared to have the final answer, even though each spoke to a certain truth. I’m glad you reached out to me for assistance.

Reading on your own and learning online is a good start, especially during the pandemic. The next steps are these:

Determine whether Conservative Judaism is right for you. Explore the websites of Conservative shuls near you, attend their services online and check out the national headquarters, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Find a sponsoring rabbi. You’ll need a rabbi who is your teacher and guide as you learn about Judaism and prepare to lead a Jewish life. As you “attend” services, try to get a feel for the rabbi(s) at your local synagogues. Call the ones with whom you feel comfortable and talk to them about how they are handling the conversion process at this time. Tell them your concern about being accepted as a trans person so that they can reassure you. Be prepared for awkward exchanges about the human body, because conversion is different for males and females (as males are expected to be circumcised). Please be aware that these issues, while rather commonplace for rabbis, may not be for you. Just tell them if you feel uncomfortable so they can adjust their approach.

Study. You’ll need to learn a lot, and your sponsoring rabbi will guide you in this. They may also want you to attend a basic Judaism class. (There are a number online.) The advantage of a class is that you’ll meet a number of others who are also curious learners.

Experience the Jewish calendar. The vast majority of rabbis require that a student study with them for at least one year. This allows the student to become acquainted with each holiday.

Decide that Judaism is right for you. The second advantage of your study taking a year or more is that you have adequate time to determine whether you really do want to become Jewish. No rabbi expects you to commit to converting at the outset. Rather, rabbis want to study with you and wait to see if you decide this is really what you want.

Formally convert. When you and your rabbi believe you are ready, you will go before a beit din (rabbinic court) and, if they give you their approval, you will go to the mikvah (ritual bath). Since you, Big, may also be scheduling surgeries, you’ll need to determine with your doctor when it is safe for you to immerse in water.

I have a dear friend who transitioned to their true self — a different gender than how they were born, and a different religion, too! At times they were sad or impatient that things weren’t happening faster. I tell you what I told them: “Put one foot in front of the other. Take the steps that are necessary for both these changes. Time will pass and you will be your correct gender and a Jew.”

Make friends at the synagogue of your choice. Ask your rabbi to introduce you to others who have converted so you can exchange questions, answers and stories. If the shul has an LGBTQ group, ask if you can join it even before you are a Jew.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].