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Living With Authenticity: Reflections on Trans Jewish Identity with Cooper Hartog and Pamela Heller

June 22, 2023 | General News

In honor of Pride Month, we spoke with 17-year-old Central member Cooper Hartog (who uses both he/him and they/them pronouns) and their mother Pamela Heller about trans Jewish identity, their experiences in Jewish spaces, Cooper’s recent naming ceremony, and more.

Cooper (center left), Pamela (center right), and family light candles during Central’s virtual Pride Shabbat, June 2020

Cooper Hartog and Pamela Heller

Cooper (center left), Pamela (center right), and family following Cooper's naming ceremony on March 31, 2023

Cooper’s B’nei Mitzvah (the first B’nei Mitzvah at Central), March 2019

Cooper on Rosh Hashanah 2020 with the challah they just baked (all dressed up but no place to go because of the pandemic!)

Cooper with Rabbi Mo Salth at Cooper’s confirmation, June 2022

CENTRAL: Cooper, you recently had a naming ceremony at Central Synagogue. Mazel tov! What made you decide to acknowledge this moment in a Jewish way?

COOPER: Well, if I’m going to change my name, my Jewish name is also part of my name. I need to change both, not just one. But I actually had more of a thought process about deciding to do it in a public ceremony. I realized my birthday was on a Friday, so I decided I wanted to do it on my birthday. Then I was like, wow, my birthday is on Trans Day of Visibility. So why not be visible?

CENTRAL: Can you tell us a little bit about the ceremony? What was the experience like for you?

COOPER: It was cool. I liked the experience. I mean, it’s like all the namings when they name small children, except I didn’t cry.

PAM: [laughs] Yeah, you didn’t need me and Daddy holding you.

COOPER: Yeah, I think it was cooler than most namings that way.

PAM: For me, that day was very joyful and fortifying. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of fully being seen. Rabbi Mo Salth did a beautiful job of not just making it about Cooper as a trans person, but as a whole person.

CENTRAL: What have your experiences been like in Jewish spaces?

PAM: Jewish spaces have been incredibly affirming to Cooper as a trans person and for me as the parent of a trans child. Cooper goes to URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, and from the youngest ages I remember them celebrating Pride. Cooper came home from those summers with language for describing themselves. Central Synagogue has always been a very welcoming place. Cooper had the first B’nei Mitzvah at Central and from the moment they said they wanted it to be a B’nei Mitzvah, Central helped us think about that and what it might look like. During the pandemic, Cooper became really involved with Keshet through their youth programming. I was so impressed with what they offered, but more importantly, I could see him finding a community. He's been part of the steering committee and chaired their Shabbatons for two years. Progressive Judaism has been a really important part of – and a very affirming part of – this aspect of our identity.

CENTRAL: Do you feel it's important for Jewish people who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community to step up as allies?

COOPER: I think it’s important, but what I think is even more important is solidarity. An ally is someone who’s aligned with you. Think about it in terms of war; your allies are fighting with you. But when you’re in solidarity with a group, you may not necessarily be fighting with them, but you support them. It’s more like support from afar.

So while I think it’s important that you have allies who are directly fighting alongside you, I don’t think it’s realistic for everybody to do that, because not everyone can actively fight for everyone’s rights. For example, fighting antisemitism is such a big thing that you might not be able to also fight for trans rights at the same level because you can’t do everything. But you should at least not be fighting against or hindering other people’s fight.

PAM: I agree that not everyone can be very active about all the issues they care about. But what I do think is important is for people who are vocal about any kind of civil rights issue to understand that LGBTQ rights broadly and trans rights specifically are very much part of that fight. Certainly, we as Jewish people know what it is to be “othered.” I do think it's important that people understand that these things are connected.

It's a scary time for trans people and the people who love them. Cooper's looking at colleges all over the country right now, and I have no doubt that he’d be fine on most college campuses. But if he needs to go get care, I'm a little bit afraid for him to be in certain states. And that’s not okay.

CENTRAL: Can you highlight a few trans or queer individuals or organizations you admire?

PAM: The Union for Reform Judaism came out with a statement in late May that took a vocal stance on the importance of speaking up for trans rights, which is great. In terms of resources and making things accessible, trans advocate Jodie Patterson – who is the parent of a trans child – makes these issues very understandable for people who sometimes think these are not their issues. But the person who I most admire – and I know it might sound hokey and Cooper will definitely roll his eyes – is Cooper.

COOPER: You can’t say that!

PAM: You can't, but I can, because I'm your parent. And the reason I say that is not just because I love him and think he's awesome, but because he is so very much who he is. Like with him wanting to do the naming ceremony, it wasn't this major political statement, it was just because Jewish ritual means a lot to Cooper. He's not trans to make some big political statement. It’s just a part of who he is, and he lives that authenticity. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

COOPER: You know what’s a major political statement? I believe New York City needs more bike lanes—but really for my scooter. That’s the only major political statement I will make.

Thank you, Cooper and Pamela! And Cooper, mazel tov again on your naming ceremony! 

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