A Guide for the Gender Neutral B-Mitzvah

This guide provides suggestions and current best practices for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive b-mitzvah ceremonies. It includes adaptations to traditional rituals as well as considerations for event space, written materials, and additional ritual components.

February 21, 2020

By Essie Shachar-Hill

Intro

For many young Jews, a Bat or Bar Mitzvah is an exciting rite of passage when they become an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community. It is the first time the person is called up to the Torah. However, this ceremony can be extremely gendered (as evidenced by the name Bat/Bar Mitzvah: daughter/son of the commandment). While gendered language works for some people, it doesn’t work for all. The traditional language and practices associated with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can exclude people who are non-binary, agender, gender fluid, gender-queer, or any gender identity that is not girl or boy.  This guide was created to help in the creation of an affirming, inclusive ceremony.

As you work to create a gender-affirming B-Mitzvah ceremony, remember that we are part of a Jewish tradition that is continuously evolving. For example, the coming-of-age ritual was originally (and still is today in Orthodox communities) only for boys. The Bat Mitzvah ceremony (for girls) only became popular in the US in the 1970s! Most branches of Judaism continue to grow and adapt in order to meet the needs of contemporary Jewish communities. There is a growing need for a gender-inclusive version of this ceremony, which is not surprising considering Judaism has a tradition of discussing gender diversity stretching back thousands of years!

Hebrew Language

Perhaps the most challenging obstacle in creating a gender-neutral or gender-inclusive ceremony is the gendered nature of the Hebrew language. While gender-neutral Hebrew is still very much in development, below are some current best-practices for inclusive Hebrew.

Ceremony name

Rather than Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, some people opt for the more neutral B’nai Mitzvah.

Technically, B’nai mitzvah is the plural masculine form, but because in Hebrew mixed-gender groups defaults to male language, it’s still somewhat ambiguous (albeit within the confines of a patriarchal language).

Others opt simply for B-Mitzvah to avoid gender altogether and to avoid potential confusion over b’nai mitzvah being plural. (Note: This guide uses B-Mitzvah as a general term for the ceremony, but the child should choose the name that work best for them.)

Zera Mitzvah (seed/offspring of the commandment), Simchat Mitzvah (joy of the commandment), and Brit Mitzvah (covenant of the commandment) are also neutral options that parallel the traditional language of Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Ban Mitzvah is another option, creating a new word from the combination of the Hebrew word for boy (ben) and girl (bat).

For those less concerned with Hebrew, one might use They Mitzvah as a reference to gender-neutral English pronouns, as well as rhyming with B’nai Mitzvah.

Aliyah language

Rather than “ta’amod” (“please stand” feminine) or “ya’amod” (“please stand” masculine), one can use the neutral infinitive “na l’amod when calling someone up to the Torah.

The most common neutral aliyah language is to replace the traditional language of either “son of__” or “daughter of___,”  with “from the house of___.” For example, “אסתר מבית שרה ומשה”. (Esther mibeit Sarah v’Moshe. Esther from the house of Sarah and Moses.)

Another option is to say, mimishpachat meaning “from the family of.”

All together, the call to the Torah might sound like this:
“נא לעמד___, מבית\ממשפחת ___, ַלעליה השלישית.” (Please stand [name], from the house/family of [parents’ names], for the third aliyah.)
For a maftir aliyah, לקריאת ההפטרה (Likriyat hahaftara, “For the reading of the haftara”) is used rather than the gendered מפטיר or מפטירה.

For even more suggestions and various other situations (like calling up the child of a kohen or for wrapping/lifting the torah), check out Kehillat-Hadar’s guidelines.

God Language

In English translations, one can use they/them pronouns when referring to God, or eliminate pronouns altogether by just saying God.

Neutral words like ruler, sovereign, parent, and creator can replace gendered terms like king and father.

In English and Hebrew, one can also alternate masculine and feminine God language.

One can alternate using he/him and she/her pronouns, as well as alternating between mother, father, king, queen, etc.

English Language

Neutral Terms

When speaking or writing about the ceremony in English, one can use words like child, kid, or descendant rather than son or daughter.

In some cases parents use phrases like “my eldest” or “my youngest” to refer to their child in a non-gendered way.

Similarly, the word adult can be used in place of man or woman. (For example, “Today, my child is becoming an adult in the eyes of their Jewish community.”)

Written Explanation/Framing for Guests

In written materials (like invitations or printed program booklets), consider including a note about language and identities. Having this written down will provide guests some information and hopefully will save the child and their family from answering the same questions over and over. For example: “Jordan is non-binary, meaning they do not identify as a boy or girl. Jordan uses the pronouns they/them/theirs rather than she/her/hers or he/him/his. We have made adaptations to this ceremony to use non-gendered language in both English and Hebrew, and rather than a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, this will be a gender-neutral B-Mitzvah. For more information, visit keshetonline.org.”

You can also encourage guests to share their pronouns by providing pronoun pins or encouraging people to share their pronouns on name tags.

Gifts and cards

For people choosing to receive gifts for their celebration, these presents and cards are often gendered. Providing guidance for guests about appropriate gifts and cards may avoid gifts that are invalidating of the child’s gender identity, as well as helpful for the gift-givers. There are many cards that simply say “Mazel Tov”  or “Congratulations” that are appropriate for people of all genders! Gifts or charitable donations based on the young person’s interests and hobbies need not be gendered.

In some congregations, the synagogue community presents a gift to the B-Mitzah child which is often based on gender (i.e. Shabbat candles for girls and a kiddush cup for boys). You may choose to have a conversation with synagogue staff and lay leaders ahead of time to discuss this gift. The young adult might want to choose between these two gifts, select an alternative gift, accept both, or something else entirely.

Gender Affirming Ritual

Some young people may want to use their coming-of-age ceremony as an opportunity to also honor other life transitions. They might include additional content in their B-Mitzvah ceremony such as a Name Change Ritual or another blessing or prayer for marking a gender transition.

Space

Bathrooms

In every space that you will be using (synagogues, restaurants, rented event spaces), make sure there are all-gender bathrooms available. If the space only has gendered bathrooms, consider turning one or all of them into an all-gender bathroom by covering the gendered bathroom sign with an all-gender bathroom sign like this one from Keshet. (Make sure to check with the venue staff before doing this so everyone is on the same page and staff do not remove your signs.)

If the venue does have an all-gender bathroom but it is located separately from the gendered bathrooms or is not obvious, consider making a sign to place near the gendered bathrooms explaining where the all-gender bathroom can be found.

Language

If you will have contact with servers, maintenance staff, outside entertainment staff, etc., consider having a conversation with them in advance of the event about how to greet guests. Many servers and ushers are trained to greet people in a gendered manner (using “ma’am”, “sir,” “young lady,” etc.) which could be harmful to trans and nonbinary people in the space.

 


Sources:
https://www.jta.org/2018/03/01/lifestyle/teen-gender-neutral-bnei-mitzvah

https://www.kehilathadar.org/system/files/resources/kehilat-hadar-gender-inclusive-ritual-guidelines-may-2018.pdf

https://reformjudaism.org/history-barbat-mitzvah

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/style/gender-fluid-bar-bat-mitzvah.html

https://www.keshetonline.org/resources/gender-fluidity-in-the-jewish-tradition/

https://www.ritualwell.org

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