Trans Jewish leader proud of both identities

PHOTO: Shir Tikvah President Emma Lugo.

Congregation Shir Tikvah’s new president, Emma Lugo, is likely the first transgender woman to lead a synagogue board in Oregon. Her election coincides with both increased acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ individuals and a dramatic increase in antisemitic and LGBTQ hate crimes.
“I am proud of both of my communities, and that pride gives me strength,” says Lugo, who began her presidency in October. “It’s a really exciting, thrilling time to be a transgender Jew.”
Lugo is also the president of KBOO radio, where she hosts Transpositive PDX, which explores the vibrant activism in Portland reflecting the transgender communities. The show airs at 
6 pm the first and third Tuesday of every month. She hopes to feature another prominent trans woman, Jeopardy champion Amy Schneider, on a future episode.
PBS called the 2022 midterms “a historic year for LGBTQ candidates vying for state and federal office,” with more than 430 winning election according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek will be one of the first two lesbian governors in history. It was also a history-making election for transgender candidates running for state legislatures, the PBS report continued. 
“Being Jewish and being trans gives me more strength. It doesn’t give me fear, even though I know there is reason to be afraid,” says Lugo.
National organizations make that reason clear. Anti-LGBTQ legislation remains on the rise, with more than 150 anti-trans bills introduced in states this year, according to the ACLU. The ADL reports antisemitic incidents in 2021 reached an all-time high nationally, with the trend apparently continuing this year.
But for Lugo, pride and sense of responsibility are dominant.
“I see it as a responsibility, not a privilege, to be a good steward of collective Jewish values,” she says, adding she is excited to “have the opportunity to serve my community in this way.”
She says Shir Tikvah has gone out of its way to create an open and welcoming space. She describes the Torah study Rabbi Ariel Stone leads each Saturday as an opportunity to support people as they explore Judaism in whatever way suits them. With Shir Tikvah now located at the Eastside Jewish Commons, there is space to welcome anyone interested to join the Torah study and other programs.
“My goal is to keep the boat going steady,” says Lugo. “Moving here (to the EJC) already rocked the boat.” 
Congregation Shir Tikvah and Eastside Jewish Commons moved into 13,000 square feet of space at 2420 NE Sandy Blvd. in May 2021. The move has given the independent congregation the space to grow and to help others explore their Judaism. But Lugo says she misses the small, intimate gatherings when they met in a church basement. The pandemic also changed the congregation, introducing electronics – including Zoom and microphones – to Shabbat observance.
“I want to nurture and foster what we have going,” says Lugo. “The work we have done as a congregation belongs to the whole community. We are a socially engaged, Torah-centered, inclusive community practicing Judaism that is both very traditional and very open.”
“My goal is to support Rabbi and her important work,” adds Lugo, who joined Shir Tikvah about seven years ago.
Lugo moved to Portland with her partner, Nini Thomas, 13 years ago from Minnesota. The two married a year later. 
“There are all sorts of different relationships in the Torah,” says Lugo, noting that makes Judaism open to a nontraditional approach to relationships.
“When Shir Tikvah started about 20 years ago, it started as an experiment,” says Lugo. “It has transformed into a beautiful work of art, and I’m really excited to see what it does in the next five years.” 


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