Becoming Me and Speaking my Torah

Today is Shavuot.

For Jews, this sacred festival celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the conclusion of the long and arduous journey from Mitzrayim (Ancient Egyptian Bondage) toward the redemption symbolized by the covenantal relationship between G!d and the Children of Israel as they accepted the Torah.

The 49 days of the counting of the Omer represents the difficult but necessary healing introspection that was needed for the Children of Israel to become free, not only in body, but in mind and spirit. The rabbis explain that while they had left physical slavery, the trauma of Mitzrayim was imprinted on them in ways that impacted their ability to enter into relationship with G!d. It took far longer to leave behind the ways that they had internalized their oppression.

For me, it is especially symbolic that the Jewish Community of Louisville published my “coming out article” today. While I have been out as queer for a long time, it took me way too long to finish coming out as transgender. Today, this article finally helped me finish this journey.

As part of becoming who G!d created me to become, I no longer use the name “Nadia” but rather go by Naj (or Nachshon in Hebrew). Thus, this post also reflects the end of an era. I will be starting a new website in the near future, and invite those of you interested in continuing to read my words of Torah to join me as I do so. Until I do, I may still continue to post occasional information relevant to my newly forming community of Reform Judaism in Atlantic Canada.

I commit to dedicating the rest of my life to doing everything in my power to try to help others in their journey toward becoming who G!d created them to be. I grieve for the ways I did not feel safe to come out fully for so very long, and pray that I can work to make it safer for others to do so. I commit to doing so in the name of my former congregant, Henry Berg-Brousseau, zichrono livrachah: may his memory be for a blessing and a revolution.

*Tragically and terrifyingly, in the few short weeks since I wrote the article and it was published, the number of USA legislative acts of violence on the 2SLGBTQIA+ community increased from 476 to 491. Please add this to your saved pages and join me in tracking this, and working to fight against this rising hatred:

Here is the article I wrote: 

“Honoring the legacy of Henry Berg-Brousseau

On April 28th, on the front page of the Jewish Community of Louisville’s monthly newspaper, I was proud and heartened to see the wonderful article about Dr. Karen Berg’s courageous battle for justice in the name of her son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, z”l (may his memory be a blessing and a revolution). 

Dr. Berg’s battle is desperately needed, against the terrifying and traumatizing tidal wave of hatred sweeping the country. At this very moment, 474 anti-LGBTQ bills are making their way across the US. Democratically elected representatives who are transgender are being silenced and removed from office. Democracy itself is under attack. 

Many of you may know that I am a second generation-Holocaust survivor. Watching this is terrifying to me. The playbook is not as different as we want to believe from the one that legitimated the policies that sent my grandfather to Auschwitz and my father into hiding. 

Every Yom HaShoah memorial service, we vow: “never again.” We read the poem of the Rev. Martin Niemöller and tell ourselves that we would have been different: First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

Sadly, the time has come for us to translate our vows into reality. As we and leaving so much else that was suffocating my truest self/Self, for me to begin to heal the profound traumas that threatened to drown me. It is not possible to heal in an environment that denies us the right to be who we were created to be. speak, many in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are contemplating suicide. In particular, those who identify as transgender and nonbinary are at a much higher risk for experiencing bullying, harassment, threats, violence, murder and suicide — and that is just for those who feel safe enough to self-identify. 

Coming out of the closet opens us up to violence. But, living in the closet feels like death, and it often leads to death. I know, because this is not just a statistic. This is my life, too. 

Many of you know me as Rabbi Nadia. You may remember me as “the lesbian rabbi” who served at The Temple from 2002-2008, or you may remember me as the rabbi who worked to create policies and processes for transgender patients during my time working with KentuckyOne Health, or as the rabbi who called out Mayor Fischer on television for failing to arrest Breonna Taylor’s killers. 

What most of you do not know is that I began identifying as transgender almost 30 years ago. Tragically, due to multiple acts of violence, discrimination and threats that I personally endured, I decided to closet myself six months before I was ordained. I grew my hair, pierced my ears, bought a feminine wardrobe and went into hiding. 

I thought I could compartmentalize myself. I even believed that I could make a bigger difference if I did so, because Kentucky was not ready for a transgender rabbi. I told myself that my being gay was hard enough for most people to accept. I imagined that my Calling to bring healing and justice to the world would be more impactful, and my voice would be louder, if I stayed hidden. 

Maybe this is true. I will never know. What I do know is that those years of hiding took their toll on me in ways that I am just now beginning to understand. In too many ways, my voice was muffled – not just by the world, but by the violence I inflicted upon myself by continuing to repress my truest self/ Self in the name of a safety that was suffocating.  

It took leaving a country where my very existence felt illegal and unsafe, and leaving so much else that was suffocating my truest self/Self, for me to begin to heal the profound traumas that threatened to drown me. It is not possible to heal in an environment that denies us the right to be who we were created to be.

I am just now beginning to find my voice to assert my truth. I now proudly identify as transgender nonbinary and prefer the pronouns “they” or “we.” I add the pronouns “we” because, to me, all third-person pronouns feel “othering,” and because I have always seen myself in the struggles of others and I pray that more people will see themselves in mine. 

I believe that the only way to do the “tikkun” (healing justice) that we are commanded to do, is by beginning to see beyond what separates us from one another. Judaism teaches that we are all created in the Divine Image. The Torah uses the word “Elohim” to refer our Creator: this is a plural word. 

Instead of arguing over the use of male language or female language to refer to the One in Whose Image we were created, I believe we should instead just use “they” language. This would be an excellent exercise to practice using this “new” pronoun: they. It is not new, but we are being told that it is, because so much of Judaism has been repressed as well. How many of us know that the Talmud references as many as eight genders? Transphobia is also a war against the many religions that assert nonbinary Truths. 

When someone we know and love tells us that they have a new name and a new pronoun, the way to unlearn what we thought was true is to practice retelling the stories and memories we have of them, using their correct name and pronouns, until it finally becomes our “new normal.” Let’s start practicing this skill by learning to use “they” to refer to the One in Whose Image, we were ALL created. 

One of the things that helped me begin to feel safe to articulate my truth was being immersed in an environment where the default pronoun for all people was “they.” It takes a while to practice this, but the difference is profound and lifesaving. At least, it was for me. 

I say “lifesaving” because the pressures that kept me hidden brought me to a place where I lost the will to live. Despite all my faith and all my training and all my privilege and all my years of therapy…despite being a rabbi and a chaplain and a social worker and a therapist, with a doctorate in ministry and pastoral counseling – despite having intervened in the lives of so many people who struggled with mental health challenges and having served as vice president of the country’s largest free-standing nonprofit psychiatric hospital — despite all of this, I found myself actively wishing for death and found myself choosing it in ways that scared me. 

This is the power of hatred. Systemic violence and discrimination, promoted in overt and covert ways, and enshrined in law, slowly infiltrates our psyche until we begin to drown in the hatred that is being poured over us – especially if it is reinforced by those closest to us who fear the vicarious stigma that comes with being connected to someone that is a target for hatred and violence…all of these and more contribute to forcing people into closets that can, and often do, kill. 

Fundamentally, this issue is about saving lives. Far too many people who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+, like so many other “equity-seeking groups,” face discrimination, violence, harassment, assault and murder. But we also are forced to endure, in silence and shame, unique forms of harm such as being disowned by family, friends and communities of faith, retraumatized every time we seek to do basic things like use a restroom, along with countless other daily and profound intersectional harms worthy of an article unto itself.  

The commandment of “Pikuach Nefesh” (saving a life) supersedes every other commandment. So why isn’t every Jewish community across the country fighting the tidal wave of hatred making its way into legislation across the country? Why is this not our top priority? 

Sadly, I know the answer to this only too well, for I was silent too. I realized the full weight of my own silence and complicity when I read the front page of the April newspaper and saw myself named “Nadia” and “she.” Ever since Henry died, I have wondered what might have happened if I had found the courage to come out earlier. This question haunts me every day. 

I will never know. But in my grief, I made a vow to Henry that I would dedicate the rest of my rabbinate to f ighting queerphobia and transphobia in his honor. I dedicate my life to fighting on his behalf and doing everything I can to ensure that no other person experiences what he did, nor what I did, nor what so many others are suffering at this very moment. 

The Torah states in Leviticus 19:16 that we should not stay silent while our neighbor’s blood is shed. I commit to doing everything I can to ensure that Henry’s death is a revolution of life-saving blessings for all who are drowning under the same tidal waves of hatred and shame and trauma. I pray that each of you, who are reading this today, will join me in this sacred mission and do the same.”