Rabbi Elliot Kukla is surrounded by plants. They hang from his Oakland home ceiling, adorning his green-painted walls. Ferns even embellish his shirt as we speak over Zoom on a June afternoon.
It is clear that he cares so much about keeping things alive, keeping things nurtured. That goes for his plants, yes, but also his work with the disabled and the dying, with trans and nonbinary youth, and his activism around racial and environmental justice. Talking to Rabbi Kukla, I get a sense that I often do when I talk to great rabbis: that they were meant for this work.
Yet despite the kind of ease and gentleness imbued in his demeanor, becoming a rabbi took a lot of elbow grease, requiring Kukla to shove himself into spaces that weren’t made for him, forcing doors open along the way for others to follow suit.
Back in 2006, when Rabbi Elliot Kukla made history as the first transgender person ordained by a major movement, he had plenty of people tell him that Reform Judaism just wasn’t ready for a rabbi like him, that he wouldn’t be able to get a job. It wasn’t the first time someone in the institutionalized Jewish world told him no.
Kukla grew up in ’90s Toronto, where, they tell me, there just “wasn’t a lot of queer access to Jewish communal life.” The community was conservative, “with a small c,” he explains. “I had a lot of experiences of exclusion.”
When their first wife wanted to convert, she was refused at the mikvah for being in a queer relationship. “We were very involved in a synagogue that wouldn’t let us get married,” Kukla says. They decided, “I’m going to just open this door by myself,” and enrolled in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in New York.
The Talmud was actually the catalyst to Kukla coming out as trans, which he did just weeks before his ordination from HUC. Kukla’s thesis was on Tumtum and Androgynous, two ancient biblical figures that are beyond male or female. As he studied and excavated these ancient scriptures, over a millennia old, he found, beyond academic zeal, a sense of comfort, of home. He understood that his passion for these texts went beyond the academic.
Kukla wasn’t the first trans student in his cohort. In 2003, his colleague Reuben Zellman made history as the first trans rabbinical student accepted at HUC (Zellman was ordained in 2010).
“Reuben was having a lot of trouble finding work in congregations. He’d been accepted by the movement, but the kind of groundwork to figure out how to support him hadn’t been done,” Kukla explains. “I almost universally got this message of: We don’t think you’re going to be able to work.”
The idea of making history is so joyous, so triumphant, especially in hindsight. Yet in reality, for the person making it, it often feels terrifying. Here was Kukla, weeks from an ordination that he had spent years working towards, and had gone into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for, and suddenly, the immutable truth of who he was, revealed by those affirming ancient texts, seemed like the very thing about to keep him from his calling.
Luckily, the dark projections that plagued that period around his ordination turned out to be almost comically wrong. Kukla attributes it to “an ongoing issue” of “not seeing the extent to which trans people are here and have always been here.”
“From the moment I was ordained, the issue has not been not having work, but having too much work. The hunger for trans religious leadership has just been enormous.”
In 2007, Kukla wrote a blessing for gender transition which made the rounds online. Soon, they were inundated with trans people from all over the world reaching out, asking for advice and guidance.
Being trans, nonbinary and Jewish aren’t Rabbi Kukla’s only marginalized identities. Kukla has lupus, and at one point spent about four years in bed following a bad flare-up.
Disability has been part of his work even before that diagnosis, however. When Kukla was first ordained, they decided to go to school for hospital chaplaincy. It was a way for them to avoid looking for pulpit work, what felt like a temporary arrangement. Instead, Kukla fell in love with the work.
“At first, I thought that [hospital chaplaincy] would be harder in 2006 as a trans person than working in a progressive or LGBT congregation, which is where everyone expected I would work,” he recounts. “But what I discovered was that my gender rarely came up, even though it was written on my body. It was a moment in my life when I was very gender ambiguous.”
When it did come up, his gender was an asset, not a hindrance. While being trans is not a disability in any way, the people he spoke to were also in a state of transition — be it from health to illness, from living to dying, or from independence to living under care. That feeling of change and otherness was a bond between Kukla and the folks he was working with.
After being diagnosed with lupus, Kukla says that “the outsider-ness that I experienced and the ableism I experienced was very connected for me with the experiences of isolation and othering that I’ve experienced as the first trans rabbi.”
A lot of transphobic language is ridden with ableism, Kukla has observed. “People will say things like God doesn’t make mistakes,” and that, “being trans is like being perverted or being deformed or being mentally ill.”
“We think those things are an insult because we think there’s one right way to have a body, one right way to have a mind, and that’s ableism.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a rabbi, Kukla finds comfort from that ableism and transphobia in Jewish texts.
“The Talmud is filled with nonbinary characters. Judaism is also filled with lots of different ways of having a body and lots of different ways of responding to that.”
Rabbi Kukla now lives in Oakland with his wife and child. We’re both planning our kids’ 5th birthday parties as we talk, sharing cake woes and qualms about where all the guests will fit. We’re both trying to figure out a lot of the same things about parenting — including how to help our kids understand the nuances of gender identity.
Kukla didn’t have a plan for talking to his own child about gender. Instead, they’ve enmeshed their kid into their own, queer reality. “I’m trans and nonbinary and our universe is trans and nonbinary,” Kukla explains. They use non-gendered nouns for people as much as possible — words like “person” and “child” instead of “man” and “woman,” “boy” or “girl.” They ask their kid, “What gender do you feel like?” and are working on asking people what their pronouns are.
Being a parent has also shaped the way Kukla thinks about his work. “My early career was all focused on end of life and dying. Now a lot of my work has shifted to thinking more about youth.”
It’s thrilling for him to work with trans and nonbinary youth especially, and just like parenting, it’s been incredibly eye-opening. “When I talk to trans youth, the things that they expect for themselves, the amount of diversity, the amount of richness that seems possible to them, is more than I could possibly have imagined when I think of myself as a closeted trans young person.”
“If you’re used to being oppressed, then your expectations can be too low. My generation of trans people was coming from this place of such thick invisibility and oppression that we’re really grateful for a gender neutral toilet, which is great, but that’s really not enough,” he says. “I speak to some trans youth who have such higher expectations for just when you walk in the door, and sometimes I have that moment that I think all older people have, like, ‘Well, I didn’t expect that.’ And then I realize, ‘Oh, right, that was the goal — for you to have higher expectations.'”
Trans youth have proven to him that “you should walk into a space and expect that no one assumes your pronoun, not just a gender neutral toilet, you know?”
It’s been 17 years since Rabbi Kukla was ordained, and the questions he most often gets asked have changed. At first, rabbis were asking him what to do when a trans person wanted to join their congregation (“Just say Shabbat shalom,” Kukla would respond). Later, people were asking how to celebrate the trans and nonbinary members of their community — how to hold a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for nonbinary kids, for example.
Over the last few years, however, the calls and e-mails have turned grimmer, fearful. “Now the questions are more like, ‘My own kid is nonbinary, and we live in Texas. We’re scared, what do we do?'”
For Kukla, seeing trans issues take center stage following a wave of anti-trans legislation across the country is both heartening and devastating. On the one hand, it means that trans and nonbinary people have become “so visible that we can’t be ignored anymore,” but on the other hand, this moment of backlash to the level of prominence is “a really vulnerable and dangerous moment for trans people to be in, because our humanity is being so debated.”
As, as he says, “conservative religion is being weaponized against the trans community,” Kukla believes this is “a really key moment for progressive religion to step up and say, we’re here.” It’s the job of progressive Judaism to shatter the illusion that this is about religious versus modern ideas about gender, because, as Kukla’s work proves, trans people and gender diversity have always been part of our religious texts and stories.
For Kukla, the most important thing right now is supporting trans kids. “They are really who are most under attack.”
With that, they share some concrete actions we all can take, like calling representatives and supporting organizations that advocate for trans kids. He also stresses the importance of how we support the children in our lives who may or may not be trans, or who are wanting to explore their gender identity, in being “the whole-est version of themselves.”
“Kids are getting that message of what’s going on legislatively, and it’s impacting them,” Kukla says. “It’s incredibly meaningful to have adults send a different message: that I accept you, however you are, and I believe that you’re created in the image of God.” Kukla connects it to the idea of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish value of human life. “There’s evidence that when trans kids get the message of acceptance from the adults around them,” Kukla explains, issues of mental health and suicidal ideation, which affects a majority of trans youth, “are really different.”
Kukla believes that in synagogues, Jewish spaces, in talks with religious leaders and over the Shabbat table, “We can send the literally life-saving message that, ‘I believe that you and all of your messiness and changing form is created in the image of God.'” That can come in the form of gender-neutral language in prayers, and in our conversations about God. “And it matters who’s on the bimah,” Kukla adds. “It matters who is speaking — whose stories matter.”
“Is there room on the bimah for the bar mitzvah boy wearing a dress? Is there room for true nonconformity?” Kukla asks. It’s his life’s work to ensure that there is.