“I’m the most prominent anti-zionist Jewish trans woman in the midwest. There’s three of us, but thats something.”
But let’s start in 1895.
That’s where Stephanie Skora begins the story of her faith, when members of her family who survived pogroms in Russia and Poland founded the first synagogue in Chicago after the famous fire, Congregation Ezras Israel in Rogers Park. Stephanie grew up in the same congregation before her family moved to a Reconstructionist synagogue.
Once she got to college, Stephanie felt disconnected from the Jewish community. Then, after coming out as trans, she got banned from U of I at Champaign Urbana’s Hillel. “Through Palestine I rediscovered my Judaism,” she explains. “The religion that beats into children’s heads that you’re supposed to ask questions about everything doesn’t actually want you to ask that many questions.”
Stephanie started a religious practice that blends Jewish religious anarchism with Jewish scripture that she calls anarcho-Judaism. “I need a specifically anti-zionist worship space. I can’t say prayers with the word Israel in them. I’m not gonna do that, because the meaning of that prayer has changed,” she explains.
Even though she admits that “I’ll never find what I’m looking for” in a religious space, Stephanie sometimes attends services with Tzedek, led by Rabbi Brent Rosen. Tzedek doesn’t have a building, and holds services in churches. “If you didn’t belong to a very old synagogue growing up you probably spent most of your time being Jewish in church,” she tells me. Since Jewish congregations often end up buying churches when Christian congregations can’t afford them, “we’re reclaiming ourselves from the fan fiction one building at a time.”
Stephanie is outspoken about her anti-zionism, and she knows the consequences of her organizing work. “Nine out of ten rabbis would say I’m a terrible Jew and nine out of ten rabbis would all be zionist hacks, and the tenth one would be just that one rabbi I know who’s cool.” She says that she belongs “to a growing community of Jews who practice in a specifically anarchist way.”
Meeting with Stephanie, I am struck by how deeply religious she is. “For me Judaism and transness are very intimately intertwined… it’s important to me to be just as Jewish as I am trans in everything political that I do, and to make my Judaism articulate itself in the ways that it needs to be unapologetically anarchist, unapologetically femme-forward, unapologetically trans-affirming, unapologetically pro-palestine and constituent with that, anti-zionist by rule.”
Stephanie thinks a lot about spaces where she can truly be herself. One of those places is Chicago’s annual Dyke March, “one of the few spaces where a trans anti-zionist person can openly go and be themselves and not fear rejection. You can’t deny the religious aspect of Dyke March… I go to temple once a year and its the Saturday before pride.”
According to Stephanie, there are three things Jews refuse to talk about seriously: gender, wealth, and Palestine. In order to change anything in Judaism as a whole, “you have to be the best grassroots organizer who ever lived because you have to talk to every individual Jewish community and change their beliefs as a whole.”
There are trans Jews and trans rabbis, but they exist on the margins. “There’s this trade off. To be an anti-zionist trans Jew is to exist at the intersection of invisibility and ostracization.” Of course, it’s hard to ask people to voluntarily ostracize themselves from their community. But, “they’re voluntarily sacrificing their liberation as a trans person by choosing to continue to oppress Palestinians.”
Sometimes the ostracization can come from the trans community. “A lot of trans spaces are violently secular, and hate religion as a matter of course, for not terrible reasons… but they translate that into hate of religious people, and thats not okay.”
We’ve all seen the resurgence of anti-semitism and literal Nazis among the far Right. Stephanie explains that “anti-semitism and transphobia are co-constituative, you cannot have one without the other.” Her main example is the burning of the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft in 1939 in Nazi Germany. “It’s taken us 80 years to catch up to where that knowledge was, and it had been developing for a long time” she says.
Stephanie’s message to other trans Jews? “It’s okay to be you. Being trans is not treif. It’s okay and Jewish, very deeply Jewish, to be trans, in whatever way you are. Judaism is deeply trans, and deeply genderqueer, and to be a trans Jew is a beautiful thing.”
Still, “it’s not worth sacrificing the freedom of other people in the long run for your momentary safety now, because people who require you to oppress others in order to be accepted as a trans person don’t actually care about you. They care about your politics.” Stephanie says, “you have to never stop talking about Palestine.”