Over time, trans and gender-nonconforming Jews have created rituals and spaces for understanding, community and connection, from Rabbi Elliot Kukla’s TransTorah to brin solomon’s inclusive siddur project to Svara, “a traditionally radical yeshiva,” that is releasing the first ever collection of Jewish legal opinions written by and for trans Jews.
Now, two Jewish ritual artists, Rabbi Kerry Chaplin and Kalil Cohen, founder of Rituals for Resilience, have launched trans(formations), a project for this year’s Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV) that invites trans Jews to share photos and descriptions of Jewish practices and rituals that have helped them stay rooted in their identities and community, whether that be immersing in a mikveh, praying among a community of belonging, wearing tzitzit or “something you’ve woven together that our spiritual ancestors couldn’t even have imagined.”
With trans people being attacked in statehouses, school board meetings and storytime events across the country, Chaplin reached out to Cohen about wanting to do something for TDOV. “It’s extremely painful to just sit here in California and watch this kind of hate run rampant, and watch trans folks and our families lose a sense of hope in the world and a sense of belonging that we’ve fought so hard to even hope for,” Chaplin told Hey Alma. “I wanted to plant seeds and water seeds of belonging, as trans Jewish folks.”
Chaplin hopes the project lives in people’s imaginations and serves as a reminder that there’s a place for them in the world. “So often in justice spaces, we talk about creating the world we aspire to live in, and I’m all for that. We also have to live in the world as it is, and that’s really hard,” she says. “That’s hard as a trans Jewish person to imagine how am I going to live in this world, and how can I find people who I can go on this journey with because I can’t do it alone. There [are] really big questions that we ask ourselves, in a particular way, and I hope this project really helps trans Jewish folks imagine how we can really live in this world, not just survive.”
Much of Cohen’s personal practice has centered around the trans Jewish community, honoring being able to be both trans and Jewish when for many trans people, living as one’s full self means losing access to other communities that are important to them. “The reason I was able to stay so rooted in Jewish practice and community is because I was able to be both [trans and Jewish],” ze says. “It feels really important to me to create spaces where it’s possible to be both and have both be celebrated and appreciated.”
For Chaplin, one of those transformational moments happened recently, when she got to teach a text related to the Purim story to students and faculty at the school where she became a rabbi. The midrash tells of Mordechai nursing Esther when there were no wet nurses who could care for her. “I love this text because it reminds me how resourceful queer folks are,” Chaplin says. “I cannot live as a trans person or even live as a Jewish person without imagination. I have to imagine what I can be, imagine what change is possible before I can take a first step to that change.”
Cohen came out 20 years ago and says the world has changed in unfathomable ways since then. Coming up in the DIY punk scene, ze found inspiration in early resources like zines and workshops that honored the ability of a person to be fully trans and Jewish, and later found Rabbi Kukla’s TransTorah, which includes resources for rituals and texts that speak to the trans experience, including listing the seven different genders in classical Jewish text. “Seeing that I have always existed in a Jewish context allowed me to not have a conflict between those two experiences,” Cohen says, explaining the importance of “helping other people who were coming out and transitioning, who were Jewish, to also see their belonging and create community.”
“It’s not just about us having our own little safe space, but how we exist in the larger Jewish world,” Cohen says.
For Cohen, one of the most powerful Jewish spiritual technologies is the way we use ritual in our daily lives and for so many small, everyday moments, and getting to learn from other people in how they use those practices. One example ze cites from trans(formations) is someone discussing the prayer they use every time they do their hormone injection, helping create a sense of presence with each moment of being trans and Jewish in the world.
“What makes Jewish practice strong is that it’s a living tradition, and getting to contribute to that living tradition by crowdsourcing is one of my greatest honors in this lifetime,” Cohen says. “Picking up the baton and being part of passing on to the next generation things that are useful and relevant to their lives will help us survive and thrive in a world that is demonizing us.”
In addition to the blessings for HRT, submissions that have resonated with Chaplin and Cohen include blessings for name changes, a blessing for chest binding, someone who visited a mikveh on the anniversary of receiving top surgery, and a trans person from Texas who went with a group of Jewish leaders to their state house for an advocacy moment.
Cohen explains that sometimes we hold on very tightly to tradition because “it feels like it’s slipping through our fingers,” but as Jews, we have endured by updating and changing our traditions. Ze uses the example of someone changing a Hebrew text to be gender neutral, and advises considering that as a contribution to Jewish tradition rather than something that takes away from it. “Understand that it’s not about making space for this person, it’s that this person changing the text is making sure our tradition will remain relevant and can be passed onto our children,” ze says.
Rabbi Chaplin encourages tapping into our tradition of perpetual learning, making space for curiosity and questions rather than pigeonholing trans folks, and asking what transness can teach us about Jewish practice and Jewish ritual. “Rather than seeing it exclusively as a political fight or an identity box in my head, what can I learn from these folks?” she says. “What is this person teaching me about how to live better? It’s not that person’s responsibility to do that, of course, but one way I can welcome them in is to say, ‘Wow, I’m learning a lot from this person in how they show up.’”