A Pittsburgh Jewish burial society — chevra kadisha — is preparing itself to properly treat bodies of transgender Jews when the time comes.
Five members of the New Community Chevra Kadisha recently returned from the annual convention of Kavod v’Nichum, the national organization for Jewish funerals, in Skokie, Ill., where some participated in a workshop on transgender burial with Noach Dzmura.
Dzmura, himself a transgender Jew, edited a collection of essays in 2009, “Balancing on the Mechitza,” which addresses issues facing transgender Jews in the Jewish community.
His book won this year’s Lambda Literary Prize for nonfiction. Dzmura and his colleagues in the trans-Jewish activist community want to encourage the next generation of transgender Jews to join the Jewish community instead of avoiding it.
“There’s a population of transgender/transsexual Jews who are active in their respective Jewish communities,” said Malke Frank, spokesperson for the New Community Chevra Kadisha. “This will be an issue that our chevra needs to discuss for any future situations.”
The significant difference between transsexual and transgender people is that transsexuals have undergone surgery to live life as a man or a woman. The transgender people live as the sex they believe they are without the surgery.
That could pose questions for chevra kadishas, according to Frank.
“If it’s a transsexual Jew, there isn’t a problem,” she said, since the transsexual has surgically acquired the sexual organs of the gender he or she lives as. “But transgender is an issue because how are you respecting the person? If it was a woman who felt she was a man and lived his life as a man, the question for the chevra is who performs the tahara?”
Tahara refers to the ritual washing of the body. Traditionally, men in a chevra kadisha wash a male body while women wash a female body.
In the case of a transgender person, the issue isn’t so clear.
“Those are some of the issues that are going to be talked about,” Frank said, noting that this is a relatively new issue for her chevra kadisha and others around the country.
It is not clear how many transgender or transsexual Jews live in the Pittsburgh area, Frank said, and so far, her chevra kadisha has not done tahara for a transsexual or transgender Jew.
But the issue has been around nationally for several years.
Rabbi Elchonon Zone of the National Association of Chevra Kadishas, said in a 1998 NPR interview that chevra members must deal with “20th century issues.” When called upon to perform tahara on a transsexual, he said members of his chevra in Queens, New York, struggled over whether men or women should work on the body.
“Unfortunately, this is one area that really, there is very little written about,” Zone said in the interview. “It’s something that’s kind of transmitted from person to person. It’s kind of evolved. OK, I was taught by watching others do it.”
David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, suspects most chevras in his organization have not encountered this case yet, or have kept the matter private if they have.
But he noted that performing tahara varies very little from man to woman.
The bottom line, he said, is to treat all bodies with respect and honor.
“We are committed to do what we are doing,” he said. “We want to provide honor and respect the people, whether they are male, female or transgender; they deserve the same honor and respect as the next person.”
When her chevra finally deals with tahara for transsexuals or transgender people, Frank expects it will be handled privately and not make waves in the community.
“It is such an intimate, personal thing, I don’t see why people should know about it,” she said. “The funeral home doesn’t ask questions. The family, they’re not going to say anything; it’s just for the chevra to deal with. That’s what I’d like to believe . . . that they’re treated with the same respect and honor [as] another person would be.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)