“Must This Lesbian Wear a Dress to an Orthodox Synagogue?”

On January 7th, Steven Petrow, who writes a biweekly column for The New York Times titled “Civil Behavior” that addresses questions related to gay and straight etiquette, published a question about the intersection between Jewish religious practice and gender expression:

Dear Civil Behavior: I am a gay woman who tends to dress and identify on the masculine side. I’ll soon be attending a religious service at my extended family’s Orthodox synagogue, requiring modest attire, which means that women are not allowed to wear pants and can be denied entry. I think that as long as I dress respectfully and in the spirit of the religious mandates I should not have to compromise on my gender identity and expression. My family says that I’m being difficult and that “when in Rome …” Of course, there is no chance my relatives would dress according to a code I prescribed for an event if it conflicted with their religious identity. So why am I considered “difficult” for not compromising in the expression of my gender identity when they would be considered justified in not compromising their religious expression?—Name withheld

Both Petrow and the article’s many commenters provided a variety of answers to the woman’s question about the issues at hand: is it acceptable for the woman to purposely ignore the synagogue’s customs, and is it acceptable for the synagogue to expect her to wear a skirt? However, regardless of whether you agree with the responses, which run the gamut, there is a much larger concern: how can Jewish institutions create an inclusive space for the LGBT community while maintaining their religious customs?

The woman identifies herself simply as a gay woman, whose gender in theory does not preclude her from wearing a skirt. In Orthodox Judaism, modest dress for women requires a skirt that covers the knees while sitting. This practice is seen as a sign of respect much in the way that a man, regardless of his religion, must wear a kippah (head covering) when inside a synagogue. These traditions of dress are gender-specific and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. This begs the question: if the synagogue were to deny the woman entry because she wore pants, would it be because she wasn’t adhering to their dress code, or because she is a lesbian?

The woman’s family and the Orthodox community at large may not even view this as an LGBT issue, merely an issue of respect for the community’s policies. And if that is the case, the woman could be seen as simply being difficult. However, individual institutions, regardless of their policies and religious views, must remember that they not only represent their institution, but also the Jewish community as a whole. How can they find a way to be warm and welcoming to all, so that if this is this woman’s only interaction with the Jewish community, it is a positive one?

Although this may be an isolated event in this woman’s life, it highlights the challenge of melding traditional Jewish customs with LGBT life, which is a long, ongoing process. Offering a compromise for the woman and her family, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in New York City, suggests that the woman wear loose-fitting pants with a long overshirt. This compromise demonstrates the woman’s respect for the synagogue’s policies and her family’s religious beliefs while continuing to express her gender identity.

While it is important that the woman respect her family’s synagogue’s religious practices, it is equally if not more important for the Jewish community to create safe spaces in which LGBT Jews and their families feel welcome and included. The Orthodox community as a whole may not overtly welcome those from the LGBT community, but the process of inclusion can start by creating an atmosphere in which this woman would feel comfortable asking if she would be refused entry to the Orthodox synagogue for wearing pants, instead of needing to pose the question to an advice columnist.

In recognizing the needs of LGBT interfaith parents who are raising or considering raising Jewish children, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has created the LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle, which is currently being piloted in the Los Angeles area. For more information, please contact JOI’s LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle Coordinator Lisa Hanish at LHanish[at]

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