Nick Teich is the founder and director of Camp Aranu’tiq, the first summer camp in the United States that caters to transgender and gender-variant youth (that is, children whose gender expression does not conform to conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity). The camp takes its name from an indigenous Alaskan term for a person who embodies both the male and female spirit. At Aranu’tiq, transgender campers — many of whom have been bullied, beaten up or threatened outside camp — have the opportunity to express themselves freely. They get to choose which bunk they stay in, depending on how they identify: on the “masculine spectrum” or the “feminine spectrum.”
Aranu’tiq, which serves kids between the ages of 8 and 15, began in 2009 as a weeklong summer camp in New England. (Teich doesn’t reveal its exact location, to protect the campers.) It has since added a week in Southern California; next year it plans to add a leadership camp for kids ages 16 to 18, and a family retreat in New England. “We’re outgrowing our space,” Teich said. “It’s a nice problem to have.”
Teich, a transgender Jewish man who is working on a doctorate in social policy at Brandeis University, spoke with the Forward’s Sarah Seltzer about his own camp experience, his religious background and what a typical session is like at his atypical summer camp.
Sarah Seltzer: You attended a mainstream summer camp. What was your experience like?
Nick Teich: It was a regular old camp that was about 95% Jewish. It was really important to me because it was really the only place where I felt I could be myself. I went all the way through this camp and had not yet transitioned [from female to male]. I was there for a total of 14 summers as camper, a counselor-in-training, a counselor and a member of the leadership.
It was just the place where people knew me as me. I was very tomboyish — that word doesn’t even cover it — but people were just like, “Oh that’s how you are.” I had a lot of friends and camp counselors that I looked up to. That was not what it was like at school, where [I was given the message,] “You have to conform to be more feminine.” I didn’t understand exactly what was going on with me, except I wanted to be a boy. There was no Internet at that time where I could find the words for what I felt. That has changed a lot for kids today.
Peace talks are due to properly restart today, but what lies at the end of the road if negotiators are successful?
There has been much discussion of the Israeli cabinet’s decision on Sunday to advance legislation to ensure that any peace deal is subject to a referendum. If the legislation passes Knesset, a plebiscite won’t just be required by law — it will be enshrined in a “basic law,” which is the closest thing that Israel has to a constitution.
To some this is a triumph for democratic decision-making; to others it is a further obstacle to peace, unnecessary in a representative parliamentary democracy.
The Palestinian leadership is also promising a referendum is a peace deal is reached. This has generated less discussion, but actually raises a more basic question — can it actually run a referendum?
The Palestinians are deeply divided, with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority ruling in the West Bank while the hard-line Hamas is in power in the Gaza Strip. The West Bank leadership is conducting the talks, but when it talks of a referendum, it means a vote in both the West Bank and Gaza.
But will Hamas allow a vote on a peace process that it rejects on its turf? Given that it has so-far blocked even far less controversial polling, such as last year’s local elections from taking place in Gaza, there is strong reason to suspect that it won’t.
The division between the PA and Hamas has paralyzed Palestinian voting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was elected for a four-year term in January 2005 — but due to the frictions new presidential elections have never been held.
One cannot help but fear a scenario where a draft peace deal is reached, and its signing is held hostage by the inability of the Palestinians to hold the promised referendum.
But one never knows — Hamas has given some indication in the past that it would not want to incur the international wrath that it would face from blocking a referendum, and would allow it to take place. If this happened, it would represent the tacit acceptance by Hamas of the peace process, which though difficult to envisage at this early stage, could come about.
The tradition of English liberty which runs through the political culture is a deep one, traceable back to John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644, through Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The nub of it was best put by Mill when he wrote, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
It is with this in mind that the recent decision by the British government to pre-emptively exclude Pamela Geller from travelling the United Kingdom should be considered. Geller, it must recalled as often as possible, is a spiteful and malicious person. Founder of Stop Islamisation of America and proprietor of the Atlas Shrugs blog, she has used her public platform to minimise the Bosnian genocide, label secular, democratic Kosovo a “militant Islamic state in the heart of Europe,” and perpetuate the myth that President Obama is the secret love child of Malcolm X.
And then there’s Islam, about which she has said so much it’s hard to filter. “There are no moderates. There are no extremists. Only Muslims,” she said. “Devout Muslims should be prohibited from military service. Would Patton have recruited Nazis into his army?” she enquired on another occasion.
Geller has expressed support for Geert Wilders and the thuggish English Defence League, with whom she shares concerns about the so-called Islamisation of Europe, even nefariously calling upon Jews to stand up with them in this struggle.
But even considering the foregoing, or especially considering it, withdrawing Geller’s right to speak and address a rally organised by the EDL in the London neighborhood of Woolwich violated English liberal tradition. It is precisely this sort of application of state power to silence another that Mill deemed ‘noxious’ in any circumstance, whether “exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it.” The state, rather, must protect against “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
Geller’s case would be especially troubling because the government not only proscribed her based on what she had said but what she might say. If she were to repeat her slurs against Muslims of the type previously exhibited, she would be “committing unacceptable behaviours”, the Home Secretary deemed. This type of prior restraint goes against the grain of English liberty. Mill questioned rightly what authority has the right to decide what words are appropriate or inappropriate, what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. “They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.”
The $12.4 billion merger of Canada’s biggest grocery chain and the country’s largest pharmacy has Jewish roots.
The purchase of Shoppers Drug Mart by Loblaw’s will create “a homegrown juggernaut in the face of stiffer competition from the consolidation of existing players and the entry of a major U.S. retailer,” the Globe and Mail said.
The megachain had humble beginnings as a family-owned business. When his father Leon died in 1941, Murray Koffler’s mother urged him to study pharmacy and to run the family’s two drugstores in Toronto. Koffler didn’t just take over the stores; he “revolutionized the retail drug industry” in 1962 by introducing self-serve shopping in his newly-named Shoppers Drug Mart in east Toronto. “Up to this time, drug store shoppers had to speak with a pharmacist to purchase any product – from toothpaste to bandages,” according to an online bio posted by Dalhousie University, where Koffler earned an honorary degree in 2010.
Today, according to the company’s web site, Shoppers includes more than 1,240 stores, licenses or owns 59 medical-clinic pharmacies, and operates luxury-beauty boutiques called Murale. While removed from Shoppers’ day-to-day business, the Koffler family operates Super-Pharm, Israel’s largest drugstore chain, which Murray Koffler founded in 1979. Super-pharm has also begun expanding into Poland and China.
Through far-flung philanthropy, The Kofflers have also changed the landscape of Toronto. Among the institutions that bear their name: The Koffler Centre of the Arts, part of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto; the Koffler Student Centre at the University of Toronto; the Murray Koffler Urologic Wellness Centre at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital; and the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill, which advocates for sustainability.
Tiana Koffler, Murray’s daughter, the head of the family’s namesake foundation, and chair of the board at Koffler Centre of the Arts, told the Forward in an e-mail that she was traveling and unavailable for comment.
A new prince was born this week, and two new chief rabbis were elected. One of them was my cousin.
The common denominator for all three? Dynasty.
Born into elite clubs, these very different individuals will serve according to some ancient human code of pedigree and privilege in which some people are worth more than others. Their roles may or may no longer have power, but their symbolism is still significant to many.
In London, the Windsors secured another heir, who will smile and wave, cut ribbons and make sure the tourist industry continues fueling an empire on which the sun has long since set.
In Jerusalem 150 people — mostly (orthodox) rabbis and including only 12 women — voted for Israel’s two chief rabbis. And though in theory the vote was about merit, this time it was also about bloodlines, politics and ugly deals that have done little to celebrate the sacred role of religion or rabbis in the public arena.
We know his gender. We know his name. Now it’s time to move on to the next critical news item from London. I speak, of course, of the newborn HRH Prince George of Cambridge, and whether or not the little royal foreskin will be snipped.
Notwithstanding that the debate about the possibility that the new heir is actually Jewish has been put to rest, we are still left with the question as to whether his parents will opt to have him circumcised. We can be sure, however, that if they do decide to snip his tip, it will likely be a mohel, or Jewish ritual circumciser, to do it.
In the last day, the British press has been filled with articles about the relationship between the House of Windsor and circumcision. “Will William and Kate call for the rabbi?” ask the tabloid headlines, unaware that a mohel need not necessarily be a rabbi.
They ask, because historically, the male offspring of the British royal family have been circumcised. The tradition dates back to the reign of George I, who brought the custom over from his native Hanover in the early 18th century.
Prince Charles lost his foreskin as an infant back in 1948. Dr. Jacob Snowman, the then-medical officer of the Initiation Society (a sort-of guild for UK mohels), wielded the blade, as he was better trusted than a regular physician to perform the minor surgery. In fact, the royal family traditionally prefers to rely on the know-how of mohels.
“There are many people outside the Jewish community who call on them for circumcision,” Maurice Levenson, the Initiation Society’s current secretary, told The Telegraph in reference to mohels. “Their experience and expertise provides parents with a considerable degree of comfort and reassurance.”
The recent suspension of Ryan Braun, the star Milwaukee Brewers outfielder known affectionately as “the Hebrew Hammer,” has brought in its wake a host of anti-Semitic tweets directed at Braun — and pretty much everyone else of Jewish heritage.
The Huffington Post reported on the Tweets in the best way they could, by compiling a top 10 ten list of the most anti-Semitic responses to Braun’s suspension. Highlights include a charming Tweet by a user named Tyler Winslett: “Of course Ryan Braun took steroids. He’s a Jew, and last I checked, sports aren’t really their thing.”
The sentiment was shared by Ryan Hicken:
Ryan Braun is a jew he was just leveling the playing field, he should get an exemption or somethingampmdash; Ryan Hiken (@Hikeman5000) July 23, 2013
Some went with an older anti-Semitic trope:
lol Ryan Braun is NOT giving back his MVP award, name me one time a jew gave something up willinglyampmdash; Michael Mc (@irishrebel311) July 23, 2013
Justin Credible, whose eloquent tweet, “NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS TO JEWS HAHAHAHAHA” was featured on Huffington Post, simply locked his account and changed his profile summary to “Living life, I am not antisemetic.” [sic]
Braun has been accused on Twitter of being a “Juicing Jew” since allegations of his performance-enhancing drug use began. Bigotry online, and particularly on Twitter, the only major social networking site which doesn’t prohibit hate speech, is rampant and doesn’t take prompting.
“The most anti-Semitic postings about Ryan Braun didn’t begin with his suspension,” says Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights director.
“The [ADL] sees [internet bigotry] as the newest trend in anti-Semitism,” said Lauter, though she noted that it’s difficult to quantify the amount of hate circulating online. Despite the decline in overt anti-Semitic incidents in 2012, as measured by the ADL, a ramp-up in online hate speech is weakening the positive trend.
Anti-Semitism directed at Jewish baseball players is nothing new, says Peter Ephross, co-editor of a new oral history of Jewish major leaguers.
“In 1918, Bob Berman, the catcher for the Washington Senators, was heckled by anti-Semites and the famous pitcher Walter Johnson stood up for him,” Ephross said.
Al Rosen, who, like Braun, won the MVP award, was known to fight anyone who dared insult his Judaism. Still, Ephross thinks the days of widescale anti-Semitism pointed at Jewish players is 30 years in the past.
“Only two types of people know who the Jewish baseball players are,” he assures me. “Jewish baseball fans and virulent anti-Semites.” And you need to search Twitter to find at least one of them.
A royal baby and Bar Refaeli — they’re both in the quiz this week and for the exact same reason, just showing up not wearing much. The Brewers’ Ryan Braun is here, too, along with Allan Sherman. That’s not a pairing you are going to find anywhere else, so take the quiz already!
The best of times has turned into the worst of times for Jewish baseball fans now that Major League Baseball has suspended slugger Ryan “Hebrew Hammer” Braun in baseball’s latest performance-enhancing drugs scandal.
The Milwaukee Brewers slugger and former National League Most Valuable Player, who is the son of an Israeli-born Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has boasted of setting a good example for Jewish children.
“I do consider myself definitely Jewish,” he has been quoted as saying. “And I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids.”
Oy. Some role model.
After months of denying any involvement in the doping scandal, Braun now says he is accepting his suspension — a tacit admission that he broke baseball’s rules on performance-enhancing drugs.
“I realize now that I have made some mistakes,” Braun said in a statement. “I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions.”
With Braun’s acknowledgment of his links to Biogenesis, a Miami-based clinic (MLB did not specifically mention Biogenesis when it suspended Braun), those Jewish fans who defended Braun will have to change their tune. Some of his supporters once cited an arbitration panel that overturned his 2011 test because of the chain-of-custody issues in handling his urine sample, while others believed Braun’s high levels of testosterone were linked to medication they believe he took for herpes.
Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe has succeeded in staying in office for 33 years with a potent mix of populism and violence — and he may have an Israeli company to thank if he extends his rule one more time.
The 89-year-old leader faces his sternest test yet next week when he squares off in a presidential election rematch against longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
Few doubt that Mugabe, a former liberation war hero, would be trounced in anything close to a free or fair election — he has presided over the collapse of a once promising economy and engineered the billion-percent bout of hyperinflation that killed the Zimbabwe dollar.
That’s where a company called Nikuv comes in. It is working with the Zimbabwe government’s Registrar General, which among other things maintains the country’s famously corrupt electoral roll.
Investigative journalists and opposition leaders believe Nikuv’s real role is to help Mugabe’s loyalists rig the July 31 poll.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change party said it was “concerned about electoral fraud [by Nikuv] through manipulation of the voters’ roll, and the issuing of multiple national identity cards to individuals that would then allow them to vote twice.”
In past elections, turnout was suspiciously high in ZANU-PF’s rural strongholds. Widespread problems with the roll led to lower turnout in cities and towns, where the ruling party is wildly unpopular.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century. In September 1913, Mendel Beilis, the clerk of a brick factory, stood accused in a Kiev courtroom of murdering a 13-year-old boy to use his blood to make matzo.
Over the course of a four-week trial, the court heard allegations that Beilis stabbed Andrei Yushchinsky multiple times in order to drain his blood in an act of ritual murder. The allegations sparked an international outcry from Jewish and non-Jewish journalists, politicians, intellectuals and clergy.
Experts on Jewish history and on the Beilis trial will meet at Dartmouth College, July 22, for a one-day public conference to discuss the West European origins of the blood libel, the importance of the Beilis trial, and its relevance today.
“The Beilis case is a strange, mysteriously understudied phenomenon,” said Edmund Levin, author of A Child of Christian Blood, a book about the trial that will be published in February.
The plot thickens and the drama continues in the weird case of the Jewish lawmaker who claimed fatherhood of a bikini model — then found out he wasn’t the real dad.
A day after a DNA test proved that Rep. Steve Cohen was not genetically related to Victoria Brink, the young woman’s real father said he knew he was the dad all along and never bought the Tennessee Democrat’s original paternity claim.
In an interview with POLITICO, John Brink, ex-husband of Victoria’s mother, Texas lawyer Cynthia Sinatra, said he was not even aware that his ex-wife knew the Tennessee Democrat. He added that he holds no grudge towards Cohen and does not plan on contacting him.
“How could I get mad at him? I don’t see it as his fault, I see it as my ex-wife’s fault,” Brink, president of Houston-based Environment & Energy Group, told Politico.
Brink married Sinatra in 1985 and the couple divorced in 1989. Victoria was born in 1988. In a CNN segment that aired Thursday morning, a paternity test revealed that John Brink is the actual father, not Cohen.
Cohen and Brink first made headlines last winter when the congressman, a lifelong bachelor, Tweeted at the willowy Brink during President Obama’s State of the Union address. When reporters questioned the familiar tone of his message to the attractive younger woman, Cohen explained that he had found out a few years ago that he was Brink’s father.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Cohen stuck his foot in his mouth again.
Yesterday, RealClearPolitics reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns tweeted that when she contacted Cohen for a comment on the story, he replied: “You’re very attractive, but I’m not talking about it.”
Huey-Burns later tweeted again saying that after her initial tweet, Cohen approached her and apologized for his comment, saying that it is a “difficult and personal time” for him. Indeed.
Just asked Rep. Cohen about the paternity test developments and he told me: "You're very attractive, but I'm not talking about it."ampmdash; Caitlin Huey-Burns (@CHueyBurnsRCP) July 18, 2013
Two British members of parliament from the centrist Liberal Democratic Party seemed to be doing their utmost to dissuade Jews, friends of Israel, and generally right-minded peoples from sticking with their already-damaged party through to the next election.
First, during a debate on changes to the national curriculum, Sir Bob Russell thought it would be an opportune moment to ask the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, “On the assumption that the 20th century will include the Holocaust, will he give me an assurance that the life of Palestinians since 1948 will be given equal attention?”
Russell’s unlettered and questionably-motivated equivocation was swiftly condemned by the Jewish Leadership Council, whose chief executive Jeremy Newmark who labelled them “a shocking piece of Holocaust denigration. There is simply no comparison between the two situations.”
Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, added that “to try to equate the events of the Holocaust with the conflict in the Middle East is simply inaccurate as well as inappropriate.”
Then on Saturday, David Ward, another Lib-Dem MP, Tweeted: “Am I wrong or are am I right? At long last the Zionists are losing the battle — how long can the apartheid State of #Israel last?”
His tenor bears a noticeable resemblance not only to the discourse of anti-Semites who use ‘Zionists’ in place of ‘Jews’ to mask their latent prejudices, but also the former Lib Dem peer Baroness Tonge. In 2012, Tonge was finally resigned the whip after saying that Israel would “not last forever” and would “reap what they have sown.”
UPDATE: David Ward has been suspended from the Liberal Democrats until September 13 in reaction to his comments about the “apartheid state of Israel.”
In a letter to Ward, the party’s chief whip Alistair Carmichael explained that his comments “questioning the continued existence of the State of Israel fails the test of language that is “proportionate and precise.’” This, in combination with remarks back in January which accused ‘the Jews’ of failing to learn the lessons of the Holocaust brought “the party into disrepute” and harmed “the interests of the party”, Carmichael said.
Ward’s suspension from the Liberal Democrats coincides with Parliament’s summer recess – although he will be suspended for almost two months, this period only accounts for a few days of parliamentary business. Jewish community organisations, therefore, while welcoming the punishment were disappointed with its toothlessness.
In a statement, Jeremy Newmark, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council said: “There are serious questions as to whether this move came swiftly enough and whether it goes far enough.”
Israel’s rabbinical establishment has responded to a worrying survey pointing to the widespread extortion by husbands whose wives want divorces. And instead of moving to stop the phenomenon, it has simply attacked the survey — conducted by one of Israel’s largest polling firms commissioned by a major university.
For Israel’s Jewish population, all marriage-related matters run through the rabbinate. This means that if a couple wants to get divorced, they must obtain a religious divorce certificate, which the husband is able to withhold leaving the wife virtually powerless to secure a divorce. The husband’s refusal can turn the wife in to an agunah, often translated as a chained woman.
One in three women in the process of getting a divorce experiences financial extortion by their husbands, according to a survey by the Geocartography research institute for the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University.
While this figure is hard-hitting, its full significance may not be instantly clear. This isn’t one in three divorce cases initiated by women where men try to extort, but one in three of all divorce cases.
It’s unknown exactly what proportion of divorces are initiated by women and what proportion by men. However, once you factor in that a significant number are initiated by men, you are looking at a situation where extortion is the norm, or on the verges of being the norm. In short, the power to generate the get is widely viewed as a financial asset by husbands whose wife wants a divorce.
The Rabbinical Courts Management has now responded to the survey, dismissing it as based on “the subjective feelings of the sample group’s participants in regards to the rightness of the divorce’s legal proceedings.” But the survey wasn’t about how divorcee women feel but rather about what they were expected to pay — a pretty objective indicator.
To the courts’ spokesperson the survey was a “cynical attempt to create a propaganda machine against the rabbinical courts.” Yet one wonders why the courts must feel so threatened by a survey on the behavior of the male public. These statistics only reflect badly on the rabbinical courts if they want them to. If the rabbis joined forces with female activists to halt the problem, in a couple of years time when the survey is repeated and finds a sharp decline in extortion, they would be the heroes.
Can the American man leading Israel’s solar power revolution work his magic on the country’s ailing electric car company?
Better Place launched with big, international plans, but went bankrupt earlier this year. Now, Yosef Abramowitz, an idealistic American businessman who first became acquainted with Israel on a Young Judea gap-year program and has had a growing connection with the Jewish state ever since, is in the hot-seat to resuscitate the company.
Abramowitz’s Sunrise Ltd, together with the Association for the Promotion of the Electric Car in Israel took control of all of the company’s assets in Israel, as well as its intellectual property in Switzerland subject to the Swiss seller. The deals for the two countries are worth 18 million shekels ($5 million) and 25 million shekels ($7 million) respectively — and possibly more by the time all monies are paid.
Abramowitz is a charismatic and talented operator, who has iron determination. The Forward interviewed him when he was just about to assemble his first solar power field for his Arava Power, the first company to sell electricity to Israel’s national grid. He recalled when we spoke to him how the idea for solar in Israel came to him in a flash of inspiration when he was visiting and found the early-morning sun so hot and thought to himself that the region should exploit it to its full potential. But it’s not his inspiration that has made him succeed — it’s his determination.
Abramowitz isn’t the first person to think of feeding solar energy in to Israel’s national grid, but he’s the only person who had the staying power to spend years bashing his head against what looked like the brick wall of state bureaucracy, and then continuing the crusade through endless paperwork to get his project off the ground.
Better Place’s big mistake is that it over-expanded. It didn’t get its model working well on a small scale before thinking, and spending, big. If Abramowitz reins in the operation, and runs it cautiously and with that quality which is at a premium in Israeli business — patience — he may just realize Better Place’s original vision of making electric cars mainstream.
Hollywood hunks, NBA stars, Ginsu knives — they’re all here in this week’s news quiz, ready to amuse, amaze and Amar’e. Follow the jump for the quiz!
I am pleased to announce that two members of the Forward editing team are being promoted to positions that reflect their journalistic strengths and skills.
Dave Goldiner is the new director of digital media. Dave has shared responsibility for the digital team for the past year, and deserves credit for the enormous growth in our Web traffic seven days a week. His hunger for the news and enthusiasm for the Jewish angle knows no bounds, and he will bring that passion to his new position directing the entire digital team. Dave will continue to oversee the Forward Thinking blog.
Abigail Jones is the new senior editor and head of special projects. Abigail has dramatically increased our presence on social media and has displayed great skill in developing new projects and special sections, such as the popular Inspired Rabbis project and the Aging section. She will now focus on developing projects across print and digital platforms with all section editors, and will bring new vitality to signature projects such as the Forward 50. Abigail remains the editor of the Sisterhood blog and will be the newsroom’s point person on Web design.
Please join me in congratulating them both.
This week, the Forward launched our month-long series on the lives of transgender Jews. Our project kicked off with six profiles of transgender rabbis and rabbinical students.
As the editor of the series, I first became interested in transgender issues after I spent a year reporting on gay and lesbian inclusion in Jewish settings. In the past several decades, the non-Orthodox Jewish world has made enormous strides in welcoming gays and lesbians as congregants, rabbis and community leaders.
But there are still many questions regarding inclusion, particularly when it comes to halacha, or Jewish law. For instance, after the Conservative movement officially sanctioned gay marriage in 2006, it took another six years to provide guidance on how rabbis should conduct a gay wedding ceremony that meets the requirements of Jewish law.
In the course of my year of reporting on gay and lesbian Jews, I began to wonder about the untold stories of the “T” folks in the LGBT Jewish world. Of course, there have always been transgender people in synagogues and in other Jewish settings. And it’s been a full five years since Joy Ladin — formerly Jay — made headlines when she returned to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women as a woman.
Yet after a few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender inclusion was the “new frontier,” I began to look more closely at how Jewish settings are welcoming trans Jews, and at how trans Jews are creating communities of their own.
I was assisted in my research by Michael Berson, the teenage son of a friend of the Forward, who spent a month looking into the topic for me. He mailed me an inches-thick pile of printouts on everything that has ever been written about transgender Judaism, it seemed. (Or at least everything that’s available on the Internet.)
On a bus ride from New York City to Maine, I pored over his findings and delved into the book of essays he included with the packet: “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community.” As I suspected, the story of transgender Judaism is rich, complicated and evolving, with a fascinating cast of characters — a recipe for great journalism.
Under Jewish law one must protect oneself by injuring, instead of killing, a potential assailant, unless killing is the only option. One is also required to avoid any situation in which one’s life may be placed in danger.
If George Zimmerman had abided by these simple principles, he should have chosen to avoid conflict and danger, if at all possible. He should have only used enough force necessary to protect his life when he confronted Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla. subdivision on February 26, 2012.
He might never would have opened fire and certainly wouldn’t have shot to kill. Trayvon Martin might be alive today.
Trials for defendants should take place in courts of law, not courts of public opinion. The point here is not to second-guess the jury, but to look at the facts from a perspective in Jewish law and perhaps draw lessons on where policy can be improved to avoid the likelihood of such tragedies.
Under so-called Stand Your Ground laws, a person is not required to avoid conflict and has no duty to retreat from a potentially dangerous encounter. If you can safely retreat to avoid injury, Jewish law requires you do that.
The New York Times reported that Zimmerman earned an A in a college class that delved into Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Thus, Zimmerman’s intimate knowledge of Stand Your Ground laws may have influenced his decision to follow Martin that fateful night (even though it was not invoked in his defense at trial). He knew that legally he would not have to retreat if a confrontation ensued.
Despite a 911 dispatcher’s request that he not follow Martin, it appears that Zimmerman continued to follow Martin, or at least got of his car. That amounted to unnecessarily putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation.
The Torah says, “[t]ake utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9, 15). Taking care of ones life was later codified by the Rambam in his code of Jewish law. (Rotzei’ach 11:4 and the Hoshen Mishpat 427:8).
Rabbis have understood this to mean that any unnecessary action that presents an immediate danger, such as entering a burning building, or walking on a rickety bridge that may collapse. Even putting coins in one’s mouth lest they transmit bacteria, is prohibited. (See Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger in Binyan Zion 137, Rosh Hashanah 16b, and Yerushalmi ibid. 8:3). It is fair to extrapolate from the prohibition against unnecessarily endangering yourself that chasing a suspicious looking person with a gun, in the middle of the night - would be considered an unnecessarily dangerous activity (far more dangerous than putting coins in your mouth that may have bacteria).
It is not as if it was Zimmerman’s job to get out of his car with a gun in the middle of the night to follow someone whom he suspected was up to no good. He called the police because he knew it wasn’t his job to enter this potentially life-threatening situation.
The following is an open letter to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States
We are deeply concerned that Israel is about to return Eritrean asylum seekers before allowing for an appropriate refugee status determination process to take place.
According to those detained in the Saharonim internment camp for asylum seekers, on July 14, about 15 Eritreans who spent the last year in Saharonim prison were returned to Asmara, Eritrea where they will face probable arrest, torture, and danger to life. We are aware that there are around 200 Eritreans in total who have been designated to return to Eritrea.
If these people are returned, their lives will undoubtedly be in danger as a result. We are concerned that Israeli authorities are not acknowledging the imminent and serious danger to the asylum seekers’ lives nor are they processing their asylum claims responsibly, transparently, or fairly. We believe that such treatment of those who have fled from an oppressive and tyrannical regime is unconscionable.
As Jews, we know that such treatment of the stranger is forbidden by our Torah. As American Jews, we feel that such treatment of a disenfranchised minority challenges our legacy of fighting alongside other minorities for civil rights.
As members of the world community, we call on Israel to uphold its legal obligations. We call upon the Israeli authorities to desist from the attempt to return refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated.