Rabbi, transgender ally speaks at Hillel about trans rights

Mike Moskowitz, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and advocate for transgender rights, speaks at an event in the Granoff Family Hillel Center on Oct. 22. Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, a transgender rights advocate whose outspoken views on gender identity prompted his ouster from an Orthodox congregation in Harlem, N.Y., spoke Monday at the Granoff Family Hillel Center about his advocacy, Question 3 on this year’s Massachusetts ballot and interpreting religious texts to find support for transgender people in the Jewish community.

Moskowitz is an ordained ultra-Orthodox rabbi and a member of Keshet, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in Jewish communities. He is now a scholar-in-residence for trans and queer Jewish studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a progressive, LGBTQ-inclusive synagogue in New York City. His talk was sponsored by Jewish Queer Students at Tufts (JQUEST) and organized with the help of Tufts’ Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Dr. Naftali Brawer, and Keshet, according to JQUEST Chair Eli Rosmarin.

At the event, Moskowitz recounted his start in transgender advocacy. Moskowitz said he began speaking in favor of transgender issues after receiving a series of texts from a struggling transgender teen. The exchange left him emotional and motivated him to advocate for inclusivity.

“Faith is a call to action,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz’s outspoken advocacy soon led to his being asked to resign from the Orthodox Old Broadway Synagogue, where he was Rabbi. Since then, he has been writing letters to transgender people, counseling parents whose children are gender non-conforming and helping people navigate religious spaces according to their gender identity.

Moskowitz said he recently began advocating for Yes on 3, a campaign to approve Massachusetts ballot Question 3, which concerns a transgender anti-discrimination law passed by the state in 2016.

Moskowitz advised voters at the event to vote yes on Question 3, noting that the wording of the question is “tricky” because an affirmative vote would keep the law rather than repeal it. He said that a ‘no’ vote could have wide-reaching consequences.

“If [the anti-discrimination law] gets repealed, then navigating society and life will become harder for transgender people,” Moskowitz said.

The importance of the ballot question, according to Moskowitz, is to protect transgender persons from discrimination in public spaces. Adding to the importance of the measure, Moskowitz said he believes that if transgender protections can be repealed in Massachusetts, then opponents of trans equality will be motivated to pursue similar campaigns in other states.

Moskowitz explained that he is satisfied knowing that pro-LGBTQ activism from him and others means that people can embrace multiple identities.

“People felt they had to choose between their queer identity and their religious identity because religious spaces often exclude people from a relationship with God,” Moskowitz said.

He added that after speaking engagements, he often receives encouraging emails from rabbis and others in attendance.

Moskowitz was asked if he uses religious texts to support transgender identity. He referred to articles he had written about clothing, identity and gender roles in Judaism throughout the talk.

Senior Ashley Smith said that Moskowitz’s religious interpretations were a key takeaway from the event.

“It was very enlightening to hear very concrete ways that [being transgender] fits into Judaism,” Smith said.  “They were powerful and necessary for advocacy within Orthodox Jewish communities because transgender people exist there, too.”

Moskowitz cited the need for more inclusive spaces, considering the discrimination that the transgender community often faces from religious organizations.

“Religion, as a whole, has kind of been viewed as very traditional in [terms of] values,” Rosmarin said. “When you look at the texts, it is not as earth-shattering to allow spaces for [transgender] people.”  

To Smith and Rosmarin, Moskowitz’s textual interpretations offer compatibility between religion and supporting LGBTQ individuals while also providing a hopeful attitude for improving inclusivity in Jewish communities.

Rosmarin felt the event was important because of the current political climate regarding transgender issues. As Moskowitz comes from an Orthodox Jewish background, Rosmarin believes that he is a strong example of an ally for the transgender community.

Citing Question 3 and a leaked memo indicating that the Trump administration is seeking to restrict the definition of gender to biological sex, Rosmarin noted that the event was especially timely, not just for LGBTQ individuals but for all potential allies.

“The textual studies he’s done relate to the Torah and how queerness and being trans fit within it,” Rosmarin said. “These progressive interpretations allow for a lot more inclusivity within Jewish spaces.”


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