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Missouri Jewish leaders advocate for trans rights at state legislature

As Republicans press bills about sports and health care, rabbis are on the front lines

(JTA) — “Hi, my name is Dan. I’m 11 years old and I like doing magic and circus skills, especially unicycling. I’m here today to testify against House Bill 170, 183, and 337,” a young voice said into the microphone.

“I really like to play sports with my friends, although honestly I’m not very good at it,” he added. “I’d really like the chance to play.”

Dan — a transgender boy whose parents asked that his last name not be used — was the youngest person to testify at the Missouri State House last week in opposition to eight bills heard in the chamber that would restrict trans children from participating in sports that align with their gender identity and limit their access to specialized medical care.

He was also part of a delegation of Missouri’s Jewish community members, alongside a few Christian clergy, that has been consistently appearing at the state Capitol to advocate for trans rights in response to a slew of bills that activists say violate their religious freedoms and cause significant harm to the LGBTQ community.

Daniel Bogard, the rabbi at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis and the parent of a trans child, was at the State House Jan. 24 and again on Feb. 1 to support those testifying against the bills and to lobby lawmakers against them. He is a frequent visitor to Jefferson City as a trans rights activist, saying the possibility of restrictions on medical care are what scare him the most. One piece of legislation would bar physicians and health care professionals from providing gender affirmation procedures to anyone under 18. It would also deny access to medication like puberty blockers, which are administered to delay the onset of puberty.

“What we want to do is we want to protect kids from unnecessary and harmful surgeries and medications,” said Brad Hudson, a Republican representative and one of the sponsors of the bill. “I say harmful because giving kids puberty blockers cross-sex hormones and even transgender surgery violates the first duty of medicine, do no harm.” (The Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and other providers say they are generally considered safe to use.)

Hudson also identified himself in his testimony that he is a Christian pastor, and said that his worldview is one in which human beings are created “in the image and likeness of their Creator.”

“Those are the bills that criminalize treating your child as every medical and psychological mainstream organization recommends,” Bogard countered. “And that means parents are left with a choice of not giving these kids the sorts of treatment and care that are best practice according to everything that we know, or fleeing the state, or staying and risking some sort of criminal charge. The one that terrifies me is the idea of DSS [Department of Social Services] agents showing up to my door to take my kid away.”

Bogard, who has been going to the state Capitol for five years now, says the experience of being back at the State Legislature has been simultaneously “awful and affirming.”

With only 25 hours of advance notice, the group going to testify in Jefferson City had to leave St. Louis at 5:30 am in order to make it on time. (Courtesy of Daniel Bogard)
With only 25 hours of advance notice, the group going to testify in Jefferson City had to leave St. Louis at 5:30 am in order to make it on time. (Courtesy of Daniel Bogard) Image by

“What’s remarkable is you go in and two-thirds of the people who are sponsoring these bills or testifying in favor of these bills are using overtly Christian theological language when they’re talking about the why,” he explained. “And then you look around and the people who are showing up to protect trans kids are Jews.”

“I’m just so proud of our Jewish community, the way we have shown up around this issue here in Missouri,” Bogard said, remarking on the decades-long history of Jewish-led LGBTQ advocacy in the state. (The founder of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO, which is not itself a Jewish group, was founded by Rabbi Susan Talve, one of the founding members of Bogard’s synagogue. Shira Berkowitz, a Jewish summer camp friend of Bogard’s, is the senior director of public policy and advocacy at the organization, and last year, Bogard and Berkowitz launched a summer camp for trans kids.)

The new principal of Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, Raquel Scharf-Anderson, made the two-hour drive early on Jan. 24 to testify on behalf of her students.

“I make all of my decisions in the best interest of children,” Scharf-Anderson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Anything that would impact the students in my school, I want them to see me standing with them.”

The sports bills in particular, she said, would impact trans students at private schools, like Mirowitz.

Over the course of the Jan. 24 hearing, Rachel Aguirre, a special education teacher who ran unsuccessfully for State Senate in the Republican primary in 2022, argued that the government was “founded upon the word of God,” and therefore athletes should only play on teams whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Nancy Delcour, another witness testifying in favor of the bill, also cited the biblical principle that humankind was created in God’s image, and an attempt to change that is the work of Satan.

Before the nine-hour long hearing was over, another interpretation of the principle of “the image of God” was explored on the hearing room floor.

“As a Jew, this is something that speaks to me quite a bit. We call it ‘b’tzelem Elokim’ — ‘created in the image of God,’ literally,” said Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator and technologist and the parent of a trans child. “But the way we understand this is that God bestows a special honor onto humans that requires that we need to be treated with dignity and we need to treat others with dignity.”

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, a rabbi, and the wife of Russel Neiss, also testified against the bills and in support of their child.

“Sitting here for the past two hours has been one of the most painful things that I’ve ever had to do as a mother and we’ve been doing this for four years,” she said. Picker-Neiss stayed home from the Jan. 31 Senate hearing for the first time in four years — but was back at the Capitol fighting for her child’s rights by the next day.

Next week, as another bill limiting what can be said about trans identity in schools makes its way through the Missouri chambers, Scharf-Anderson says school leadership will return to the state Capitol.

“We know that children imitate what we do, and we want to make sure that we’re being good role models for them,” she said. “And we will continue to stand by the children that we need to support who are part of our school and in our broader community.”

This article originally appeared on JTA.org.

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