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For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together

New Jewish Man: Duncan McCullough, a transgender man, converted to Judaism at his synagogue in Jackson, Miss. Image by tate k. nations

Growing up female and Methodist in the Midwest, Kadin Henningsen was inexplicably drawn to Judaism, empathizing with characters in Holocaust documentaries on TV.

Then in junior high, Henningsen had a revelation while reading Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”: “I remember thinking I was supposed to grow up to be a Jewish man.”

Less than two decades later, the premonition came true. At 30, Henningsen transitioned genders and converted to Judaism, all within the span of a single summer. “It was a circular process,” he said. “The more entrenched I became in Jewish knowledge, the more comfortable I started to feel with my masculine identity.”

Henningsen’s conversion certificates were the first documents that referred to him with male pronouns. Today, at 35, he is an active member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles that bills itself as the world’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender synagogue.

Henningsen is not alone in his trajectory. Transgender converts constitute a vocal — and some say growing — minority within the small community of LGBT Jews. For some trans converts, or, as many call themselves, “Jews by choice,” conversion was intrinsically linked to gender transition; the process of soul-searching unearthed one truth after another. For others, Judaism was a lifeline during a time of immense vulnerability and isolation. When friends and family members grew distant, transgender individuals found community at the Hillel House or at the local synagogue.

Some trans converts came from strong faith backgrounds and wanted to supplant their childhood religion with one that would be more accepting of their gender identity. Others came to Judaism from a nonreligious background.

“In one way it is a search for personal authenticity,” said Rabbi Jane Litman, a congregational consultant with the Reconstructionist movement who has converted close to two dozen trans Jews. “People who are transitioning in terms of gender are looking for a way to feel most authentically themselves.”

Jesse Krikorian, a 24-year-old engineer, began exploring Judaism as a senior at Swarthmore College, shortly after he began his gender transition. Unhappy with his decision to take hormones, his parents threatened to withdraw their financial support, he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty,” he recounted. “I found that I really needed community and ritual and all those good things.”

Though he was raised Methodist, Krikorian was always interested in the Old Testament. A visit to the campus Hillel confirmed that Judaism might provide him with the community he was seeking: The Hillel director at the time, Jacob Lieberman, was also a transgender man. “I didn’t have any questions of whether I could be trans and Jewish,” he said. “It was really clear that the combination could work.”

Krikorian attended Friday night services at Hillel each week and began to recite a prayer about transformation each time he bound his chest to appear more masculine. After graduating from college, he moved to Philadelphia. There he joined Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue. He converted in June, and hopes to go to rabbinical school.

“Being trans, I had to look really deeply into myself and be courageously honest about what I saw and what I wanted, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy path,” he said. “Once you start making those decisions, you want to keep making those decisions.”

Duncan McCullough, 31, has a similar story of finding community in a time of deficit. In his case, it wasn’t Friday nights at the Hillel House that led him to convert, but Saturday morning services at the lone synagogue in Jackson, Miss. As a senior in college, McCullough came to Beth Israel by way of a course on Judaism, taught by the synagogue’s rabbi, Valerie Cohen. Two years earlier, he told his parents in a letter that he identified as male, not female; the admission left him feeling unmoored. “I felt I needed something to ground me,” he said.

Saturday mornings at Beth Israel were full of rigorous debate. “There were free bagels, and discussion, which I was good at,” he said. Soon enough, McCullough — who at that time had not yet transitioned — was a fixture at services. But then, an emotional breakdown spurred him to seek out therapy; he chose a counselor far from home, in New Orleans, and moved out of his parents’ house.

When he returned to Jackson, he was living as a man. Hormones had deepened his voice; he grew hair on his face and developed acne. Even though he knew that Cohen would understand about his transition, he worried about the rest of Beth Israel. “I didn’t want to create problems in such a small community,” he said. “I just wanted to be able to go to synagogue.”

On his first morning back at Beth Israel, Sheila Rubin, a 63-year-old member of the congregation, took him aside. “She just looked up at me and said: ‘Look, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I need to know if you need me to call you by another name or another pronoun. I don’t want to call you by your old name if that is going to hurt you.’”

“Once Sheila said that, I knew that I would feel safe,” McCullough said. A year and a half later, he converted to Judaism. [To listen to McCullough and Rubin’s story, click the audio file at the top of the article.]

For other trans converts, realizing that they were Jewish prompted them to seek out a community in which to convert, a parallel experience to their gender transition. This was the case for Leiah Moser, a 31-year-old student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in Wyncote, Pa. Last August she opined on her blog, Dag Gadol (“big fish”), on why “being trans is an awful lot like being a convert to Judaism.”

“Many people who convert to Judaism do so out of a sense that they were born with a Jewish soul and that only now they are finally coming home,” she wrote. “Being trans is also all about that uncomfortable separation between your truest soul and the outward circumstances of your birth.”

Moser, who grew up in a secular home, traces her interest in Judaism to reading “Yearnings” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. She read the book with her wife, who was raised Catholic, while the couple was living in Japan before Moser’s gender transition.

The book describes Judaism as a faith that embraces rigorous skepticism and questioning, a tenet that resonates with many trans folks.

When the couple returned to the United States, they moved to Tulsa, Okla., and sought out a Conservative synagogue where they could begin the process of conversion. “That initial period of finding a synagogue community and getting plugged in and becoming engaged in the Jewish traditions sort of had that air of inevitability, of rediscovery of something I had forgotten, even though I had never discovered it before,” Moser said. “I think that is an experience that a lot of Jewish converts have, the uncanny experience of feeling more at home in this environment that they were incredibly new to.”

Moser began her gender transition last year, after her first year of rabbinical school. She began to experience her new religion in a new way, shedding certain traditions that were typically assigned to men, and embracing aspects of Jewish femininity.

Converting to Judaism as a trans person isn’t just emotionally complex, it’s also practically complicated. Conversion is a gendered process, differing significantly depending on whether the candidate is a man or a woman. Without a built-in roadmap for transgender conversion, trans individuals and their rabbis are left to improvise — reinterpreting age-old rituals to work for their identities and bodies.

Traditional conversion is a multi-step process that entails a lengthy period of study and reflection and, for men, circumcision. Depending on the denomination to which he is converting, an already circumcised man will undergo a symbolic circumcision by extracting a drop of blood from the penis — a ritual called hatafat dam brit. Both male and female candidates must appear before a three-person beit din, or religious court, which rules on a person’s sincerity in living as a Jew. The conversion is sealed with immersion in the mikveh in front of witnesses, an act that symbolizes spiritual rebirth.

Rabbis with experience converting transgender individuals say the candidates should be given ample leeway to decide what gendered aspects apply to them. “Given that this is so emergent and new, the pastoral considerations of talking this through with the person involved are very important,” Litman said.

When Litman works with a transgender man, for instance, she explains the significance of circumcision and then follows up with a neutral question: “What are your thoughts on that?” Most trans men say that circumcision doesn’t apply to them; however, some feel that it is important to undergo a symbolic circumcision in order to fully convert as a Jewish man. They undergo a modified hatafat dam brit by extracting a drop of blood from their genitals onto a piece of cotton and showing it to a witness, who confirms with the beit din that the ritual took place.

For trans women, circumcision can also be a tricky issue. Litman recounted a recent discussion on the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic listserv when a rabbi asked whether a transgender woman in his congregation must undergo circumcision in order to convert. At first, Litman counseled the rabbi against circumcision. Yes, the candidate has a penis, Litman argued — but she is a woman, and women don’t undergo circumcision in Jewish tradition. Then several colleagues made her rethink her position. “They said no, circumcision is like being called to the Torah,” she said. “We call them without regard to whether they are women or men. A person with a penis should have it circumcised regardless of whether that person is a man or a woman.”

For many trans Jews and their rabbis, immersion in the mikveh can also be complicated. Because most Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues don’t have their own mikvehs, trans Jews are at the mercy of community mikvehs — which may or may not be sympathetic to their unique needs.

For instance, Litman said, mikveh attendants sometimes balk at the idea of a trans woman visiting the women’s side of the mikveh for her conversion ritual. Then there is the matter of who witnesses the immersion. Jewish custom holds that witnesses should be the same gender as the person converting, and so some mikveh attendants take issue when trans people bring witnesses of different genders. But Litman contends that same-gender witnesses are not mandated by Jewish law, and she encourages candidates to take Jewish people they feel comfortable with, regardless of gender.

An open-minded mikveh attendant will make all the difference for a trans person, Litman said. Both she and Rachel Weiss, a rabbi at Manhattan’s LGBT Synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, send their converts to mikvehs where they say they won’t be judged or questioned.

Noach Dzmura, a 50-year-old communications director who lives in the Bay Area, found in Litman a rabbi who “gets it” when he decided to convert in the middle of his gender transition in 2004. But despite Litman’s guidance, he was still a “deer in the headlights” when it came to deciding which gendered rituals worked for him, and how. In the end, he underwent a hatafat dam brit and had his immersion witnessed by another transgender man. His experience led him to edit “Balancing on the Mechitza,” a book of essays about Judaism and gender transition. He also co-founded Jewish Transitions, an organization that provides resources to people navigating conversion to Judaism and Jewish burial, two highly gendered rituals. Dzmura said he knows roughly 50 trans converts like himself.

If Dzmura could convert all over again, he would have asked a nontransgender man, or in his words, a “cisgender” man, to witness his immersion in the mikveh. This, he said, would send a clear message to the Jewish community that he is as much a Jewish man as any other.

“I know who I am now,” he said.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected]

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