As the new assistant rabbi and music director at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, Reuben Zellman counts among his official duties tutoring b’nai mitzvah students and directing the choir.
Unofficially, his job description includes one other bullet point: trailblazer.
Zellman, 31, is only the second transgender rabbi ever ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (he received his smicha on May 16 in Los Angeles). At Beth El, he joins Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who happens to be gay.
It may be a one-two lineup for the history books, but congregants didn’t have that in mind when offering the post to Zellman, who has been Beth El’s rabbinic intern for the past year.
“Reuben brings in a joy and energy to everything he does at Beth El,” says Dan Magid, vice president of the 500-household congregation. “Nobody is really conscious of this being some sort of historic thing. Reuben is really terrific, we like him and we like what he does.”
Adds Kahn, “We brought Reuben here as a great musician as well as a great rabbi and teacher. He was so good, everyone said –– as the ad used to say –– ‘Can we keep him?’”
Zellman will be installed during a Shabbat ceremony on June 18.
When he started working at Beth El last summer, Zellman faced no resistance or uneasiness from congregants over the fact he is transgender.
Just the same, the two rabbis held a congregational forum in January to permit Beth El members to ask questions. Everything was on the table, including issues related to transgender and sexual orientation.
According to the nonprofit TransGender San Francisco, transgender is an umbrella term that includes “persons whose perceived gender or anatomical sex may be incongruent with their gender expression, and persons exhibiting gender characteristics and identities which are perceived to be androgynous.”
“Every transgender person has decisions about what kind of questions they want to answer,” Zellman says. “There are many people in society who are outsiders in some way, or their experience is new and unfamiliar to others. All those people, myself included, have to reflect about how we’re going to arrange with a world that does not totally understand us.”
He says the Beth El community proved itself welcoming, although, Zellman adds, “to be welcoming doesn’t mean they have to understand everything about transgender people.”
Kahn notes that Beth El b’nai mitzvah students have uniformly enjoyed studying under Zellman’s tutelage, and that older congregants likewise have embraced their new rabbi.
Zellman isn’t new to the Bay Area. For much of his seven-year tenure as a rabbinical student, he worked in local congregational life, previously at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. For several years he taught Hebrew school and worked with adult b’nai mitzvah students at the largely LGBT San Francisco synagogue.
A native of Los Angeles, the rabbi was born Claire Zellman and reared in a Jewish home with little religious activity. In 1999, at the age of 20, Zellman transitioned from female to male, taking on the name Reuben. He chose it before knowing that in Hebrew the name means “Behold, a son is born” (it was also the name of his grandfather).
As a U.C. Berkeley student with an interest in service, Zellman traveled to Alabama to take part in the rebuilding of a church destroyed in an arson fire. A lifelong singer, he went on to study classical voice at San Francisco State University while studying cantorial singing privately. He also began attending services at Sha’ar Zahav.
Because of his musical talent, Zellman initially contemplated a career as a cantor. Later that changed to becoming a rabbi. A singing rabbi.
In 2003, Zellman became the first openly transgender person accepted into the rabbinical program at HUC-JIR. While a student, he took many cantorial courses and kept up secular music study as well. At Sha’ar Zahav he conducted the chorus, a task he performs at Beth El.
Zellman is not the first transgender person to be ordained at HUC-JIR. That distinction belongs to Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who came out before his ordination in 2006 and today works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.
They won’t be the last. Zellman notes that there are now a number of transgender rabbinical students at HUC-JIR and at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as well as others active in various Jewish community endeavors.
Zellman and Kukla have collaborated on TransTorah.org, which serves transgender Jews. It offers Torah and Talmud study guides, rituals, essays and other resources that explore the intersection of Judaism and gender.
Zellman still will devote some time to the website, though he admits his job as a pulpit rabbi will take up most of his time.
Kahn, who had the honor of presenting Zellman at his ordination last month at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, is proud of his new assistant rabbi. Just as he is proud of the congregation that embraced him.
“I would be wrong if I didn’t say I had anxiety through this process,” Kahn says of Zellman’s tenure so far. “But I have to say our congregation has lived up to its highest values in seeing the whole person.”