Passover is about our journey from oppression to freedom. Each year we sing, “Avadeem Hayeenu, Atah B’Nei Chorin: We were slaves but now we are free.” But this year, I’m not as comfortable rejoicing when so many living in this country are experiencing heightened oppression resulting from a wave of xenophobia (fear or hatred of strangers or of anything that is strange or foreign) and homophobia that has swept over the country over the last few years.
Coincidentally, the first day of Pesach, March 31, is also International Transgender Day of Visibility. It was instituted as an annual holiday in 2009, “dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide.” And why is bringing awareness this particular group of individuals so important? Because, there are over 1.4 million adults – approximately 0.6 percent - who identify as transgender in America, and their needs and challenges are often overlooked, or even deliberately ignored.
In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality, conducted the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the United States, with 27,715 respondents from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and U.S. military bases overseas. The results are disturbing and sobering.
According to the survey, “respondents reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence in every aspect of life.” Ten percent were met with violence within their own families when they came out, or even kicked out of their homes. In school, most respondents experienced verbal or physical harassment or assaults, and 17% were unable to continue attending school as a result of these attacks. Thirty percent reported being harassed, assaulted, fired or denied promotions at work because of their gender identity. One third were living in poverty, had trouble communicating with or receiving service from their health care provider, and/or were harassed in public spaces.
Many respondents were not comfortable using public restrooms for fear of further harassment or worse, and even went so far as to control the amount they ate or drank in order to avoid them. And to make the problem even worse, the US Education Department recently announced that it won’t hear complaints about, or take action against, schools that do not allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
It’s shameful. And it’s against everything that the lessons of Passover teach us: namely, to treat the stranger with respect and dignity, because we know what it’s like to be the “other” - we were once slaves in Egypt. It’s an integral part of our story as well as our identity. Advocating for human and civil rights, promoting social justice -- it’s what we Jews do.
So what can we do, specifically, to fight against this blatant discrimination against transgender individuals?
The word Mitzrayim (translation: Egypt) literally means “narrow straits.” We all sometimes find ourselves held captive in our own personal mitzrayim. Fear, obsession, work, debt, illness, can lead us into the depths of despair and disconnection, causing us to land in a constricted space – a closet, so to speak - of our own making. Hopefully, it is a temporary dwelling place, and we find our way back out of that closet and into the light, free from whatever has kept us imprisoned, physically, mentally or emotionally.
I hope and pray that in the not-so-distant future, equality for the LGBTQ community in all areas of life will be a non-issue.In talking to my students, many don’t even understand what the problem is. They have grown up learning to love an accept their transgender friends, siblings and classmates. I’m also encouraged by the fact that, 2 ½ years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution affirming the rights of transgender and gender non-confirming individuals. The resolution put forth a number of recommendations that they hoped their member congregations would follow, including, “making bathrooms gender neutral, training staffers on LGBT issues, eliminating gender-specific pronouns on name tags and sorting Hebrew-school classes by birthdays rather than gender.”
We are observing a holiday that celebrates freedom from oppression. What better time to think about those who still face oppression in our communities and in our country, and let them know that they are seen and heard, and we stand beside them?Our tradition teaches us that none of us are free until all of us are free. May the holiday of Passover inspire us to renew our efforts to fight for that freedom so that next year, we can say with all sincerity, “we were slaves, but now we are – all of us- free.”
Cantor Sheri Allen is in her ninth year leading Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. She is also president-elect of CQEC: The Coalition for Quality End-of-Life Care in Ft. Worth, Texas, and is the Jewish Community Chaplain for VITAS Healthcare in Ft. Worth. Cantor Allen recently created the Arlington, Texas Interfaith Consortium with the goal of fostering friendship, understanding and education among faith communities. She is also an enthusiastic ally for LGBTQ rights. Cantor Allen lives in Ft. Worth with her husband Richard. They have three grown children: Jeremy, Emily, and Preston.