At the bottom of each email he signs, Mike Moskowitz lets people know that “He/His” is his pronoun of choice. There’s nothing unusual about that these days – that is, unless you are an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.
He definitely doesn’t fit the mold but Moskowitz still looks the part: Even on a sweltering summer day, this bushy-bearded rabbi is dressed in his heavy black coat and hat, appearing rather out of place in proudly secular Tel Aviv. But he’s used to that by now.
“The truth is I feel othered in whatever space I’m in,” admits Moskowitz good-naturedly during an interview with Haaretz. “So I’ve gotten good at feeling bad.”
Just recently, he says, while attending a New Jersey Pride event where he received a special award, several participants took note of his attire and assumed he was there for a counterprotest. They proceeded to called the police.
Not that he isn’t considered suspect by the other side as well. The Orthodox, right-wing weekly Jewish Press, for example, recently dismissed him as “fake Orthodox.”
For the past year, Moskowitz’s official position has been scholar-in-residence for trans and queer Jewish studies at Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world. It’s a brand new position created just for him.
He’s spending six weeks in Israel this summer, part of that time as a fellow at the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and part meeting and counseling LGBTQ groups around the country.
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Moskowitz, 39, identifies religiously as “yeshivish” even though, he admits, “I’m not sure all my old yeshivas would still want to take credit for me.”
How a straight, fiercely observant, Orthodox-ordained rabbi ended up becoming an advocate for the transgender community begins “with something personal.” Four years ago, a member of his immediate family (he is unwilling to provide further details) transitioned. “Until then, I had never really thought much about gender identity,” he says. “I wanted to be a good ally and supportive, but I didn’t really know how.”
As a first step, he consulted with a prominent Orthodox rabbi known to be supportive of LGBTQ inclusivity. “It was a turning point for me, because the response I got from him was that he’d never before received questions about the trans experience,” Moskowitz recounts. “Since this rabbi was considered to be an expert on the subject, I understood there was a void that needed to be filled. And what do you when you have a void? Our tradition says that you fill it with compassion, love and humility — and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
His transformation into an ally of the transgender community cost him his job. At the time, Moskowitz had been working as a rabbi at Columbia University, where his employers were the Orthodox outreach movements Aish Hatorah and Ohr Somayach. When they learned he had started using a pen name to write protest letters to Jewish day schools that were threatening to expel trans students, they presented him with an ultimatum: Stop or forfeit your job. Moskowitz refused to back down and was fired.
“The problem was that nobody else wanted to hire me after that,” he relays, “so I ended up working at a deli in Lakewood.”
In January 2018, he was among a group of rabbis arrested in Washington while protesting the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. They were all sitting handcuffed in the police van when a member of the group asked if anyone “had some Toyreh to teach,” as Moskowitz pronounces it.
The rabbi who put out that call was Sharon Kleinbaum, the spiritual leader at CBST. Moskowitz took her up on the offer. She was so impressed by this out-of-the-box rabbi, and so heartbroken by his employment predicament, that she decided to hire him on the spot for her own synagogue.
Somewhat ironically, he doesn’t attend services there, explaining that he doesn’t “daven at synagogues where there’s mixed seating.”
His new job, though, doesn’t really require much work with Jews who are already out and comfortable with their sexual identity, like those who attend CBST. Insofar as the lesbian, gay and bisexual community is concerned, he works mainly in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox world trying to overcome prejudices and promote inclusivity. When it comes to the transgender community, though, his work cuts across all the Jewish denominations and also includes interfaith collaborations. “The trans experience is still relatively new for everyone,” he says.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Moskowitz is a ba’al tshuvah (a Jew who embraced Orthodoxy later in life). His parents, he says, were not particularly observant, though he did celebrate his bar mitzvah at a Conservative temple. Concerned when he began dating non-Jewish girls, his mother sent him to United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative-affiliated teen youth movement, and it was there that his interest in Judaism was sparked. At 17, he dropped out of high school to attend yeshiva.
Moskowitz is a graduate of both Mir in Jerusalem and Beth Medrash Govoha (the world’s two largest yeshivas), and is now pursuing a doctorate in Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Asked how he resolves his commitment to Orthodoxy with his advocacy work on behalf of transgender people — a group largely rejected by the movement — Moskowitz replies: “I believe like most folks in the yeshiva world that the Torah is eternal, infinite and given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Part of what that means to me is that God spoke to Moses about the trans experience within Jewish thought and Jewish law. There is no consensus yet on the issue, but there is a very urgent need to provide safe spaces to these people while the rabbinic world tries to figure it out.”
Strange as it sounds, Moskowitz, a divorced father of three, says he looks forward to the day when his job will be redundant. And he believes that day is not far off.
“I think there’s an expiration date on homophobia and transphobia, even within Orthodoxy — certainly within centrist Orthodoxy,” he says.
“In America, we just marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Back then, you couldn’t find one rabbi anywhere willing to say it was OK to be gay. When CBST started out 40 years ago, people questioned how you could have a gay synagogue. Today, people ask why you even need it anymore.”