Concrete suggestions and best practices to design and support affirming b'mitzvah celebrations
Please note that this guide is designed with egalitarian communities in mind, and does not address considerations such as how to negotiate a mechitzah or concerns about how different obligations or communal roles are understood as gender-specific in Orthodox spaces. Many Orthodox and non-egalitarian communities create affirming and loving communities in which transgender and nonbinary community members celebrate their milestone moments, and that process may look different than those outlined in this guide.
Keshet is happy to consult and work with you to develop rituals that are deeply affirming and authentically rooted in the Jewish approaches of each community.
If you are interested in choosing Keshet as a b’mitzvah project, learn more here.
At its best, reaching the age of mitzvot (12 or 13 years) is an exciting, affirming, and connecting experience. It is a time for young members of Jewish communities to be called to the Torah for the first time, teach Torah to their communities, lead tzedakah or mitzvah projects highlighting their favorite causes, and take on new responsibilities and leadership roles in their communities. For many young people, this celebration represents months or years of work, planning, and study. A well-constructed ceremony offers a community —and parents or caregivers— the opportunity to tell a young person that they are recognized, honored, and celebrated.
Because this celebration holds so much weight, the ways in which it can recognize or erase the gender identities of young people can have an outsized impact. Gendered language, principles, and assumptions are often woven through the preparation and the ceremony: the title, language, and dress codes are all typically gendered throughout this process. Transgender, nonbinary, gender-expansive, or gender-exploring youth may experience these moments as painful and alienating. Unaddressed, these can be negative formative experiences rather than the celebration of Jewish community and identity that they are meant to be.
This guide offers suggestions for language and practice. It is intended for youth of all genders, as well as for those who are in moments of transition and exploration. It pulls from and expands upon tremendous work created by Jewish communities. The purpose of this guide is not to erase gender from Jewish ritual, but to multiply the options to create intentional spaces of belonging for all. When we are affirming and expansive in our approach, we create moments of possibility, connection, and celebration.
One of the first questions we hear from youth, parents, rabbis, cantors, and communal leaders is, “what do we call it?” Is there a term for reaching the age of mitzvah that does not specify a gender? And if so, should we only use that term for the celebrations of nonbinary or gender-expansive youth, or should we use it for everyone?
Historically, many communities have called this moment of transition a Bar Mitzvah (masculine) or Bat Mitzvah (feminine), literally meaning “subject to commandment.” For a person who does not identify with the gender assigned to them, having a name for the ceremony that is gendered incorrectly can feel uncomfortable and cause disengagement. For youth who identify as boys or girls, it is easy to use the gendered term that is reflective of that identity. But for youth who do not identify as either boys or girls, whose genders are fluid, or who are exploring or wondering about gender, more expansive terms are needed.
We recommend the following terms:
All four of these terms remain close to the essential meaning of “Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” emphasize the celebratory nature of the event, and can be understood as gender-neutral or gender-expansive. We recommend using whichever of these terms most resonates.
These terms will be used interchangeably throughout the rest of this guide.
Whichever option you choose, the gender-expansive title should be easily accessible and made known to the community, both in materials as well as formal and informal conversation. This may mean that staff require additional training in order to feel comfortable.
If you are a communal leader, you may also want to consider whether you use this term only for youth who are themselves nonbinary or gender-expansive, or whether to revise your language across program names, handbooks, website, and other materials to reflect the gender diversity of the Jewish community. Options include: referring to the ceremony using multiple terms (i.e. Bar/Bat/B’ Mitzvah) and specifying that youth will choose the option that best work for them, or referring to the ceremony using the gender-expansive title in all materials.
The most commonly-used form for aliyot in synagogues in the United States and Canada is to use the gender-neutral phrase “na la-amod” (“please rise”) to invite an individual to the Torah. In some communities, this is used for all who approach the Torah to relieve the burden of “guessing” a person’s gender. In other communities, “na la-amod” is presented alongside “ya-amod” (masculine) and “ta-amod” (feminine). In those communities, a mechanism such as aliyah cards is used to invite each honoree to indicate how they should be called.
Traditionally, Hebrew or Yiddish names include the name(s) of a person’s parent(s). An individual’s name is connected to their parent’s names by the term “ben” (son of) or “bat” (daughter of). Gender-expansive options include:
Some transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people might want to use their kabbalat mitzvah as a time to take on a new name. This is a wonderful opportunity to affirm their name and identity in community. A rabbi, cantor, or service leader can announce the new name and offer additional blessings, share information about what the name means, and invite the community to congratulate the young adult on their journey.
In addition, some transgender or nonbinary adults may request a simchat mitzvah ceremony to celebrate a new name/affirm an identity, revisit and re-engage a ceremony that felt painful or alienating as a young person, or celebrate a Brit Mitzvah for the first time. These are beautiful opportunities to deepen and honor a person’s connection with Judaism and mitzvot.
There are several other blessings throughout the ceremony. Many communities offer a mi shebeirach blessing to the celebrant and their parents. Some options are:
All of these options should be made available to celebrants to choose language that most resonates.
You might choose to also review the liturgical language that you use for the Divine:
Hebrew is historically a grammatically gendered language, with nouns, adjectives, verbs, and most parts of speech taking gender markers. There are many Hebrew speakers working to create gender-expansive forms of Hebrew for daily and ritual use. We are still in a time of linguistic development, and there is not (yet) a single universally agreed-upon, gender-expansive grammatical form. However, there are several options for calling a celebrant to the Torah and offering blessings in ways that are gender-expansive.
Hebrew is not the only language that is gendered. While English does not incorporate gender deeply into its grammatical system, there are still many moments in a Brit Mitzvah where gendered defaults might create a barrier for a nonbinary or gender-expansive participant.
The following steps will make your space more accessible to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people:
Celebrating the age of mitzvot is only one (although formative!) moment in Jewish communal life. There are many other steps that you can take or advocate for to build a community in which youth and adults of all genders can thrive.
We hope that these suggestions and tools can help you plan an affirming event! While gender-affirming practices are an important baseline for a meaningful and joyful celebration, don’t let your focus on building these practices take over the whole event. Transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people have so many interests, passions, talents, and ways of connecting with community, and all of these deserve to be celebrated and made a part of the B’Mitzvah! And if you are interested in choosing Keshet for your B’Mitzvah project, you can learn more here.
Wishing you a joyful, meaningful, and perfect celebration!