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By Gretchen Rachel Hammond
Throughout my life, I was a person in search of a religion to call my own. Born in the United Kingdom to a non-practicing Hindu father and a non-practicing Church of England mother, I never received any kind of religious upbringing beyond weddings and the hymns I was forced to sing in grammar school—words that were as meaningless to me as the tunes were depressing.
From an early age, I began to discover my identity. I was a teenager in 1980s England. The word ‘transgender’ was never used. All I knew was that the horrific bullying and abuse I suffered growing up had to be because God didn’t care for me very much.
When I was 18, I fled England for the United States. Without the internet or any U.S. history taught beyond “Oh and, by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies,” my education about the United States revolved entirely around Dallas, Dynasty, Starsky & Hutch and Quincy, M.E.
However, my history professor did at least provide some education about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. While naturally horrified, I was drawn immediately to the nobility of the Jewish people. I also obsessively watched and re-watched the miniseries Masada with Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. (It told the story of the historic Roman attack on a Jewish citadel and its leader Eleazar, and the Jews’ mass suicide as the Romans advanced.)
I believed America was where anything could happen and anyone was free to be whomever they wished to be. I was in for a bit of a rude awakening when the foreign exchange company placed me in New Albany, Indiana, with a Mormon family. They tried to convert me but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
My identity started to take over with full force and I suffered the consequences of America’s Judeo-Christian rejection of what some people considered a “perverse cross dresser.” I was in the middle of the Bible Belt and a doomed marriage to an evangelical Christian led to moments, in church, where I questioned my own validity as a human being.
In 2001, I attempted suicide. Most transgender people can tell you a similar story. I wasn’t trying to follow Eleazar’s defiant end. I just wanted the pain to stop. I did not credit God with my change of heart, but instead set the blame at God’s feet for my failure to remain an active part of the world
In fact, I flirted with atheism, believing that there could not be a God given the inner conflict I was suffering and the endless torment of knowing that I could not live as myself in a society which just would not accept me. Yet I could never reject God completely. I just had no hope that God would not reject me.
Fifteen years after the day I stood on the sidewalk of Indianapolis’s busiest street and was one step away from death, I met with Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. From there I joined Rabbi Cindy Enger’s classroom at Temple Beth Emet in Evanston.
By this point, my physical transition from Jonathon to Gretchen was over and I was beginning my journey toward finding God in Reform Judaism. There was just one missing piece.
I found it last year when, for one week I joined my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and gender nonconformists in their day-to-day struggle for equal rights in Israel. I was a secular transgender journalist invited to join a writers and bloggers tour of Israel during the 2015 Pride Celebrations. I wanted to know what life was like for the average Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individual.
After eight days in Israel, I realized that the lives of LGBTQ people there are not so dissimilar from our lives in America and I knew I wanted to be a part of the passion, solidarity and fight of the Israeli LGBTQ community. I knew it the moment I was invited to take hold of a corner of the immense transgender flag on its journey through Tel Aviv’s streets.
There was no question about whether I was an outsider or what my religious affiliation might be. As far as the transgender marchers were concerned, I might as well have been living and fighting along with them for years.
The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities may be celebrating more social acceptance in Israel but they are still fighting against religious intolerance and for pro-LGBTQ legislation that has stalled or even moved backwards. This has left them even further behind, say, a LGBTQ person in Mississippi.
In the end, I discovered the Israeli LGBTQ community is involved in a fight that is just as brutal and essential for their rights to exist as those in the trenches of any other country, or state, where such a right is being denied.
I had hoped to go to the summit of Masada and breath in the place Eleazar had made his last stand, but alas, the schedule didn’t allow for it. Instead, I found the people of Israel and especially their LGBTQ community to be as beautiful and flawed as those in the rest of the world. There is a passion to get a lot of things changed for the better and I believe they will.
I will be honest. Recent events in North Carolina, Mississippi and Orlando, Florida, have not only tied me further in solidarity to my LGBT community but also with the community in Israel. That is why I want to join them. Oppression must and can be fought no matter where it rears its head. The story of Masada taught me that.
I have found the God I have searched for all my life in Reform Judaism. It is a place I am accepted, where I can question God but love at the same time. I have been a part of many religions whether through circumstance or family, but this is home.
My life as a secular British transplant in the United States amounted to a 25-year discovery of my authentic self. Now that I have discovered where I belong—as a proud Jewish transgender individual in Israel—I expect the road to get there to be as challenging as it is long.
But it is a journey I can hardly wait to begin. Next year, in Tel Aviv.
InterfaithFamily is proud to offer many LGBTQ resources and connections. For more info, click HERE.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond was born in Manchester, England. She came to America at the age of 18 as part of a foreign exchange and was placed with a family in New Albany, Indiana. In the course of her career, Gretchen has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film critic for FOX 59 and WXNT radios in Indianapolis, a fundraiser for theaters and educational organizations and is currently a senior staff writer for the Windy City Times in Chicago with a focus upon investigative pieces and features. A transgender woman, Gretchen was inducted in to the Trans 100 in 2015 and has lectured on transgender issues for the Adler School of Professional Psychology and Roosevelt University in Chicago. Gretchen sits on the Board of the Trans Life Center at the Chicago House. Her book The Last Circle was published in 2013.
By Tamara Reese
When my family moved to Pittsburgh, my son was 10 weeks old and my husband was entering into a grueling six-year medical residency. Though we’re not Orthodox, he found us an apartment smack dab in the middle of the eruv—a ritual enclosure some Jewish communities use to allow residents to carry certain objects on Shabbat and holidays, which would otherwise be forbidden. He was hoping that by surrounding ourselves with Jews, I would feel supported in living a Jewish life.
Judaism is my chosen faith. While the conversion process was long and intimidating, it is not nearly as intimidating as raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. My husband grew up a secular Jew and his mother has since passed, so there has never been anyone to show me the ways of brisket braising and Hebrew prayers. And while I studied prayer books and cookbooks, blogs, and literature about how to build a Jewish home, I prayed every night that someone would take my hand and show me the way.
Our first week here we attended a family Shabbat service. I sat in the lobby hushing my fussy newborn and I noticed another woman chasing her 18-month-old daughter through the coat racks. She smiled at me and asked if we were new to the area. Turns out her husband was also in medicine and they were Pittsburgh “transplants” as many call it: people who come here for a job—usually away from family and friends—and end up staying because they love the city.
We developed a friendship and her family invited us to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and birthday parties. Five weeks after our first meeting, she babysat my not-bottle-taking newborn so that I could have a minor surgical procedure. Two years later, she rushed over to my house when I was in labor with our second son, scooped up my toddler, and grabbed a laundry basket like it was her own home, allowing me to focus on getting to the hospital.
My friend was also a convert and I looked up to her greatly. I admired the Jewish art on her walls and her collection of menorahs. I watched her cook, pray, and mother her Jewish children. I was inspired and hopeful that I could execute Judaism just as effortlessly one day.
Mothering unites us as Jewish women.
As a child, I sang almost before I could speak. I truly believe that it was a gift God bestowed upon me to share with the world. As an adult, I remember walking into my first Shabbat service and hearing the music. So beautiful and so… foreign to me. I wanted nothing more than to find familiarity in that sound. The sound of Jewish music.
After living in Pittsburgh for about two years, I met a woman at the park one day. Our children were very close in age and she and I were equally nine months pregnant. We got to talking about life, about ourselves. We were both Jewish and both in a local MOMs club chapter but had never met. She told me in passing that she and her sister sang in an a capella group and I should come sing for them sometime.
I did and was welcomed into this group, Kol Shira, to sing Jewish music alongside nine other Jewish women, each of us differing in our level of observance but all equally Jewish in the eyes of one another. Through a chance meeting at the park, Jewish song became part of my everyday life—learning it, hearing it, and singing for my children.
Song unites us as Jewish women.
When we welcomed my daughter into the Jewish community, Kol Shira filled the chapel with beautiful music in her honor. And when I gave birth to my fourth child two months ago, these same women hosted the most thoughtful brit milah (ritual circumcision). They walked into my living room that morning and let me cry on their shoulder; they hugged my children; they held my baby; and they brought beautiful food and décor, set it up, served it, and cleaned up every last bit, leaving leftovers in the fridge for my family. These Jewish mothers held my hand because they remembered being the one shaking and sobbing on their son’s eighth day of life.
That morning when we welcomed my beautiful boy into the Jewish community, my home was filled with people—only one of them was related to us by blood. My friends, this community of women, took the all too familiar weight of that day off of my shoulders and spread it around each other and I am forever grateful.
Tradition unites us as Jewish women.
A few years ago, we sang at the Chabad Women’s Convention that was held in Pittsburgh. The message of the conference was “sharing your light” by encouraging other women in their own Judaism. When I think of all of the women who have shared their light with me these past six years in Pittsburgh, I am overcome with emotion. Each one gave me little drops of Judaism, and from those drops my cup runs deep. Just by surrounding myself with women who embrace each other and their faith so effortlessly, I’ve become more modest, more generous, more accepting, and more capable. They have inspired me not only to be a better Jewish mother, wife, and teacher, but showed me how I can share my light.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller and her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two boys and ginger-baby daughter. Her passions include child injury prevention, gentle parenting, and breastfeeding advocacy. #YouAreAGoodMama
By Emily Waife
I’m Emily, the summer intern at InterfaithFamily/Boston! I thought I would kick off my internship by sharing a story about my family.
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Every Saturday morning, my mom, sister and I would attend Shabbat services. I learned the prayers and the meanings behind them at the youth services led by a beloved Hebrew school teacher. Twice a week I attended Hebrew after-school where we learned about the Jewish holidays, learned basic Hebrew and studied the Torah stories in creative ways. After I became a bat mitzvah, I chose to continue my Jewish learning at an after-school Hebrew high school program. I continued studying there until graduation my junior year, and became a teacher’s aid my senior year of high school. I have always felt a strong connection to my Jewish heritage and Judaism continues to be an important part of my daily life.
Throughout my Jewish education, I have been told that if nothing else sticks from my education, the one thing I must do, as a Jew, is marry a Jew.
It’s been like a broken record throughout all of my youth: “Marry a Jew! Marry a Jew!”
To be honest, I never thought much of it. I’m sure when I was told this countless times as a third-grader in Hebrew school, it was in some round-about way. Or maybe the love that I have always felt for Judaism shielded me from realizing that this message was not a benign suggestion, but was being pushed down my throat. It was something I listened to, almost without thinking—never truly questioning what I was being told.
I remember just four years ago, on one of the last days of Hebrew high school the director came and spoke to my class. All seniors, all about to graduate high school and leave the comfortable, sheltered bubble of our Jewish community. The one thing I remember the director telling us that day was that we had to promise her that we would marry Jews. She did not specify that just raising our children Jewish passed the test, she specifically told us that we had to marry Jews and expressed concern about interfaith relationships. We all nodded and listened to her explain the reasons for marrying a Jew.
It did not dawn on me until later that if my parents had followed this same message, I wouldn’t be here today.
I am part of an interfaith family. My dad grew up in a Reform household in a Midwestern suburb where there were not a lot of Jews at the time. My mom grew up with a Jewish father and a Unitarian mother and was raised in a Unitarian church in New England. My mom converted to Judaism in her adult life and committed to teaching my sister and me about Judaism. I have always known that no matter what, I am Jewish. For my whole life we have shared Christmas dinner with my cousins, Rosh Hashanah at my synagogue and large Passover seders made up of people from a variety of religious backgrounds.
Being a part of an interfaith family has taught me that there are many different ways to celebrate Jewish holidays, as well as secular holidays. I have been taught to invite people of all faiths to our home for holiday meals, treat people with respect and learn from one another. My family has taught me to open my heart and my door to those in need, which come from our Jewish values and being a kind person in general.
It is my hope that in Hebrew schools in the future, even at a young age, students are taught the same things I was taught about Jewish holidays, traditions and the Hebrew language. But there must be a way for us as Jews to impart our values and traditions on to the next generation while accepting and embracing those in our community who are in interfaith relationships. Interfaith relationships and families are a very important part of the Jewish community and create more opportunities for learning about and exploring the Jewish faith.
I am first-hand proof of how interfaith families are positive assets to the Jewish community. That is what the new message should be.