Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari welcomed the Kol Tzedek congregation for Friday night Shabbat services in West Philadelphia.
“However you are and whoever you are, you are completely welcome as you are,” Fornari said.
But this was a special Shabbat at Kol Tzedek. In conjunction with the 2017 Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, this Shabbat service was entirely trans led.
Jessica Levine, a lay member of the congregation, delivered the D’var Torah on Friday. She said it was a fulfilling experience.
“I never imagined going to a service with enough trans people to lead the service,” Levine said. “It reminds me that Judaism is a space I’m welcome in.”
This was the first service at Kol Tzedek to specifically celebrate their trans members.
Fornari, who is queer, trans and genderqueer, has served as the rabbi of the Kol Tzedek reconstructionist congregation on Baltimore Street for the past year. Fornari is 35 and lives in West Philadelphia with his partner, Shosh Ruskin, and their two young children.
“I’ve wanted to be a rabbi since I was a little kid, since I was 10 or 11,” Fornari said. However, before the job opened up at Kol Tzedek, he had never considered becoming a congregational rabbi because it simply wasn’t an option.
Kol Tzedek started 13 years ago with a Hanukkah party in the basement of Calvary Center.
Once a Methodist Church, the Calvary Center for Community and Culture houses seven churches, a mosque, a temple, an Aikido studio, 12-step meetings, summer camps and morning exercise classes.
“Who was going to hire me?” he asked the Rev. Abbey Tennis, a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, over coffee one Thursday morning.
As a queer, trans, genderqueer rabbi with left wing politics around Palestine, there weren’t many synagogues that were scrambling to recruit him. However, Kol Tzedek is younger and queerer than most religious congregations. In fact, two of the three finalists in the rabbi search at Kol Tzedek were trans, said Rory Schonning, an executive board member who was involved in the hiring process.
“I really chased this job because I really wanted to be part of a vibrant, queer positive, racial justice, urban congregation,” Fornari said.
Kol Tzedek decided they wanted him to be part of their congregation, too.
“I’m so thrilled to have him as part of the community,” said Schonning, who is genderqueer and has been part of the congregation for three years. “Many people are saying, ‘This is my Jewish home and I actually can be Jewish in the way I want to be. I can be all parts of myself and be Jewish.’”
Schonning feels this is in part due to Fornari’s wisdom, thoughtfulness and ability to hold space in nuanced ways. At Kol Tzedek, it is common practice for members to state their pronouns during introductions. Gender neutral bathroom signs adorn the stalled bathrooms in the Calvary Center during all KT events. Transliterated versions of Hebrew texts are made available, so all participants can read and follow along during services.
Even the way newcomers are informed about the no-picture policy at Shabbat is delivered nonjudgmentally. For many of Kol Tzedek’s members, these small gestures make a big difference.
“I remember getting really emotional the first time I went,” said Briar Maverick, who has been attending Kol Tzedek for the past year. “It was the first time I was in a religious space where I felt unremarkable. I didn’t feel I stood out or was jarring in any way.”
As a transmasculine nonbinary person, Maverick is grateful to be able to have conversations about the queerness of the divine and the gender of the divine.
“For me, my gender and my spirituality go hand in hand,” Maverick said. “[Fornari’s] approach and insight has always resonated in an exciting way. It makes me feel really at home.”
Fornari has been out as genderqueer since 2005. Although he uses he/him pronouns, he prefers nongendered language and titles such as child, parent, and partner. He feels that “rabbi” works especially well as a nongendered title.
“I really don’t identify as male or female,” he explained. “I identify as some celebration of the blurry middle.”
Fornari finds affirmation of his gender identity in traditional rabbinical texts, which acknowledge the existence of multiple genders. The Mishnah is a major rabbinic text from around the third century that makes reference to at least six gender identities. One such gender identity is an Androginus.
“It says this person is in some ways like men, and in some ways like women, and in some ways like neither, and in some ways like both,” Fornari said. “I feel a little like that.”
Fornari is not the only publicly out trans rabbi in the United States. Rabbi Becky Silverstein is a genderqueer trans community rabbi in Boston. He was also ordained at Hebrew College and graduated in the same class as Fornari. Additionally, Silverstein was the first out trans rabbi to work at a conservative synagogue. For Silverstein, choosing to be publicly out as trans is a benefit to the whole community.
“We all want to see ourselves reflected in the world,” Silverstein said. “There are a lot of people who are gender-nonconforming or coming to understand themselves as trans.”
While it is affirming for trans congregants to see their identity reflected in their leaders, Silverstein says trans people can also push cisgender people to explore their own identities.
An increasing number of trans rabbis are entering and graduating from rabbinical schools across the country. Rory Schooning is one of three students who identify as trans entering this year’s 12-person class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In a school of nearly 50 students, 6 students are publicly out as trans.
“The number is growing,” said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which works closely with the college. “We will see more and more of that as society adjusts.”
Earlier this year, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association passed a resolution affirming the full inclusion of trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals in the Reconstructionist movement.
“This move is in keeping with our long-standing tradition of expanding our understanding of what the Jewish community looks like,” said Rabbi Wechterman. “We are sending the message that this is a value we are going to push our communities to be out front to be as welcoming as possible.
“Anyone who is Jewish and those who love them deserve to have a place in our community. All Jews are valued for their inherent worth and potential gifts. For most in the Jewish community, this is a human rights issue. People are who they are. And we see that as not very debateable.”
The Reconstructionist Movement is not the only trans-affirming denomination in Judaism. Among the four other major jewish denominations, Orthodoxy is the only one whose official stance is not LGBT affirming, according to Abby Stein, a trans woman who grew up in an ultra orthodox hasidic sect and attended rabbinical school before her transition. Jewish Renewal, Reform Judaism, and Conservative Judaism all have resolutions welcoming transgender Jews and have ordained trans rabbis who have served in their congregations.
“There are now a lot of out trans rabbis,” Fornari said. “There’s really a growing community of trans rabbis. It’s kind of an amazing moment to be part of the Jewish community in this way.”
About the Author
Salgu Wissmath is a documentary photographer from Sacramento, California, pursuing a master’s degree in photography at Ohio University. Learn more about them here.