By Cantor Sheri Allen
Passover is about our journey from oppression to freedom. Each year, we sing, “Avadeem hayeenu, Aatah b’nai chorin: We were slaves but now we are free.” But this year, I’m not as comfortable rejoicing when so many living in this country are experiencing heightened oppression resulting from a wave of xenophobia (fear or hatred of strangers or of anything that is strange or foreign) and homophobia that has swept over the country over the last few years.
Coincidentally, the first day of Pesach, March 31, is also International Transgender Day of Visibility. It was instituted as an annual holiday in 2009, “dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide” (Wikipedia). And why is bringing awareness of this particular group of individuals so important? Because, there are over 1.4 million adults — approximately 0.6 percent — who identify as transgender in America (NPR), and their needs and challenges are often overlooked, or even deliberately ignored.
In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the United States, with 27,715 respondents from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. military bases overseas.
The results are disturbing and sobering, and go far beyond having a bakery reject a gay couple’s request for a wedding cake. According to the survey, “Respondents reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment and violence in every aspect of life.” Ten percent were met with violence within their own families when they came out, or even kicked out of their homes. In school, a majority of respondents experienced verbal or physical harassment or assaults, and 17 percent were no longer able to continue attending as a result of these attacks.
Thirty percent reported being harassed, assaulted, fired or denied promotions at work because of their gender identity. One-third were living in poverty and/or had trouble communicating with or receiving service from their health care provider and/or were harassed in public spaces.
Many respondents were not comfortable using public restrooms for fear of further harassment or worse and even went so far as to control the amount they ate or drank in order to avoid them. And to make the problem even worse, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced that it won’t hear complaints about, or take action against, schools that do not allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
It’s shameful. And it’s against everything that the lessons of Passover teach us: namely, to treat the stranger with respect and dignity, because we know what it’s like to be the “other” — we were slaves in Egypt.
It’s an integral part of our story as well as our identity. Advocating for human and civil rights, promoting social justice. It’s what we Jews do.
So what can we do, specifically, to fight against this blatant discrimination? Ask your congregation if it is listed in Keshet’s equality guide. Keshet is a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights in the Jewish world, and its equality guide lists congregations and Jewish organizations across the country that are LGBTQ-welcoming.
Another suggestion from Keshet: Call your local school board. Ask it what its bathroom policy is and find out what proactive action it is taking to protect its transgender students from discrimination and harassment. Keshet also does training for Jewish professionals and volunteers on how to make their synagogues and institutions LGBTQ-friendly and inclusive.
I also urge you to check out Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s website: rac.org. Based in Washington D.C., it is a strong social justice and equal rights organization representing the Jewish community. There are many suggested ways to become involved in advocacy for a variety of different issues, ranging from LGBTQ equality to economic justice, the environment, immigration, women’s rights, hate crimes, civil liberties and interfaith affairs, just to name a few.
We can also lend our voices in support of the Equality Act. Current civil rights laws extend legal protection to people on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion. But not on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Equality Act would extend those same anti-discrimination measures to the LGBTQ community. It was introduced in the House of Representatives almost a year ago, with 241 original co-sponsors. According to the Human Rights Campaign, it had “the most congressional support that any piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation has received upon introduction.”
As Jews, we are mandated to uphold and honor the dignity, the inherent holiness of every human being, as we are all made b’zelem Elokeem, in God’s image. Calling our members of Congress and asking them to co-sponsor the Equality Act is the least we can all do to help fulfill this directive.
The word Mitzrayim (translation: Egypt) literally means “narrow straits.” We all sometimes find ourselves held captive in our own personal mitzrayim. Fear, obsession, work, debt and illness can lead us into the depths of despair and disconnection, causing us to land in a constricted space — a closet, so to speak — of our own making. Hopefully, it is a temporary dwelling place, and we find our way back out of that closet and into the light, free from whatever has kept us imprisoned, physically, mentally or emotionally.
Sadly, that is not always the case for many in the transgender community. I can’t imagine what it must be like for transgender individuals to feel trapped in a body that doesn’t belong to them, unable to express their authentic selves for fear that they will be harmed, and unsupported or even rejected by their families, their community, their country. No wonder they have a suicide rate that’s nine times higher than the rate for the overall U.S. population.
I hope and pray that in the not-so-distant future, equality for the LGBTQ community in all areas of life will be a non-issue.
In talking to my students, most don’t even understand what the issue is. I’m also encouraged by the fact that, 2½ years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a number of recommendations that they hoped their member congregations would follow, including, “making bathrooms gender neutral, training staffers on LGBT issues, eliminating gender-specific pronouns on name tags and sorting Hebrew-school classes by birthdays rather than gender.”
We are observing a holiday that celebrates freedom from oppression. What better time to think about those who are still oppressed in our communities and in our country, and let them know that they are seen and heard, and we stand beside them. Our tradition teaches us that none of us are free until all of us are free. May the holiday of Passover inspire us to renew our efforts to fight for that freedom so that next year, we can say with all sincerity, “we were slaves, but now we are — all of us — free.”
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.