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300 Hillcrest Blvd Hoffman Estates, IL 60169


Beth Tikvah Congregation

Our House of Hope

300 Hillcrest Blvd, Hoffman Estates, IL 60169  


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From the Cantor's Desk

Ilana Axel, Cantorial Leader


Supporting Vulnerability in Ourselves and in Others

Deuteronomy 22:5 A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.

When my daughter “came out” to us, her family, one summer night at dinner she had some trepidation. She thought of us as a hetero-normative family, meaning, our only shared experiences about sexual orientation were traditionally binary. In other words, we were all wired with sexual orientations that met our biological designations at birth, as well as the accepted “male” or “female” social norms. Except her. Think about that for a moment. What kind of emotions do our children feel when they fear they are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of their family members?

My son’s response to her announcement “I am gay” filled me with admiration. “Are you ok, are you safe?” was all he asked. She said she was, and we went on with our dinner. From that moment we became a human-normative family.

My son’s concern for his sister was not naïve. According to the M.I.T. Center for Civic Media, “sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people face harassment, discrimination and violence even in the most "enlightened" places despite the fact that they represent a significant sub-population. A (2011) UCLA study ( estimated that 0.3% of the US population is transgender and 3.5% is not straight in sexual orientation. This translates into 9 million individuals, about the population of New Jersey.”1

Under 4% of the population. That is only 1% more than Jews in the world. Yet we Jews seem to garner a lot of unwanted attention. As do OUR friends, OUR children, OUR siblings, OUR parents, OUR congregants, and OUR students who experience themselves naturally through a non-binary or non-conforming identity. Their civic rights, emotional supports, and personal safety are under constant threat. Certainly there has been significant progress but at the present time there is also a lot of push back. As my daughter once commented rhetorically, “Who would choose to be gay and have to go through all this?”

So, around 96% of us are naturally wired in a binary fashion. Non-binary gender refers to people who do not fall into the strict understanding of being either “male” or “female.” Trans-gender (often called “trans”) refers to people whose core identity is different from the one assigned them at birth. Most, though not all, trans people are binary. It is quite clear to themselves if they are either male or female. None of these people are confused about their gender identity, any more than the rest of us 96% are. And, none of us are truly confused about who we are attracted to, no matter what our gender identity might be. But, many of us are confused about how to welcome in and support people of varying gender and sexual orientations because, for the first time in Judeo-Christian history, they are acceptably and publicly visible. It just feels new. Like being the first Jew to move into the neighborhood.

In order to jump onto this learning curve, a small group of us held a study session in May about trans and non-binary people, in order to better understand how to engage in a more comfortable and natural way. We also prepared snacks and messages of hope and support for transgender youth who attend a drop-in center weekly in Palatine. There is certainly complexity in the realm of human sexuality but we learned that we do not have to understand how another person feels inside in order to simply respect them. If you need or want to know something about them then, as with all other people, just ask.

BUT! Two guiding principles can help us in this newness. First, and we’ve already talked about this in another context (see Clergy Corner Tikvahite April 2017)ASSUME NOTHING. Second, we can also apply Hillel’s dictum: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” For example, would you like people to know how to address you? Of course. You should feel free to ask others what pronouns they prefer you use to address them. Would you want someone to know more about your private parts? Of course not. Their private parts are also not your concern. We are all vulnerable. No one wants to say the wrong thing. No one wants to offend. There is much we will need to teach each other.

But, what do we do about our biblical verses such as the one from Deuteronomy cited above that has lent cause to so much discrimination? A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God. Clearly there is a message here about the importance of publicizing one’s sexual identification correctly. Is it at all possible this means that one must be true to oneself, and dress according to one’s true identity, rather than hiding one’s identity from the public? Is God’s concern for one’s abomination actually that of not being true to oneself, and of, essentially, lying about who you are? (For all this and more come to Torah study on Saturdays at 9 am). This can be a meaningful spiritual challenge, and indeed a challenge for all of us who wish to live in communities and congregations that are truly dedicated to the full flowering of human rights and potentialities.

Ultimately, the world I dream of is not one where people have to “come out” and declare that they are non-binary or non-conforming. This is like being forced to put a sign out that you are sexually active. Straight people are not required to do this. All I had to do was bring home my boyfriend. Enough said.

May the day draw near when people will simply bring their loving partners home to meet their families, with no need for declarations or explanations. May our intimate relationships be judged only for their love, honesty, and integrity.

Would you like to discuss this or anything I’ve written about this year with me some more? I am around most of June, end of July, and August. Wishing all our Beth Tikvahites a wonderful summer.

1D’Ignazio, Catherine. (2016, June 3). A Primer on Non-Binary Gender and Big Data. Retrieved May 15, 2017, from

Categories: Cantor