Becoming BMitzvah

June 27, 2022Rabbi Jen Gubitz

"I love how loud I can hear your eyes roll," I tell them. They laugh because they all know what I mean. Despite some of their pre-teen behaviors (eyerolls and excessive phone use among them), I love seeing how our students at Temple Shalom of Newton transform throughout the process of becoming BMitzvah. It's the end of my first year coordinating the BMitzvah program and my colleague Allison Lobron, an experienced leader in inclusion and social emotional learning, and I are hosting an end of year celebration for our BMitzvah students. We entice them with sugary frozen treats from Trader Joes, fun games, and then pivot to important reflections on their experience. Not a single student flinched at the beginning of the year, when I started referring to our program as BMitzvah, in lieu of the common b'nei mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah).

A week prior, I welcomed our fourth-grade families into the journey. "We call it BMitzvah here now, but your child may choose to call their experience bar or bat mitzvah or some other term we can agree upon that best describes how their identity and this Jewish journey align." Parents nod and we move on. Ideologically, today we understand that gender identity is on a spectrum (or a construct for many), the binaries of the past are not sufficient to support our children's spiritual development. While this takes some getting used to for many of us, many of our youth understand it without question because they live it daily. As one recent BMitzvah student reflected, "BMitzvah includes non-binary people like me!"

How do we update thousands of years of tradition, Hebrew language, and ritual life that has historically been gendered and binary? How do we adapt when binary gendered terms like bris (in the sense of a "male" baby naming), bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, bride, groom, and so on are no longer fully inclusive of the gorgeous spectrum of human identities? Luckily, it's not only Sex and the City's reboot "And Just Like That" that celebrate a "they mitzvah" for Charlotte's nonbinary child. Rather, Reform synagogues and their clergy and congregants across North America have been exploring and trying out new ways of creating affirming communal experiences that are adaptive and responsive to the identities of our community members.

In Toronto, Holy Blossom Temple offers nonbinary youth the opportunity to become "perach mitzvah." Rooted in the Talmudic term Pirchei Kodesh, which refers to the young kohanim in training and is the source for the Temple's name, perach is the Hebrew word meaning "blossom" and it's a beautiful metaphor for how a teenager's identity is blossoming on their Jewish journey.

Rabbis Daniel and Karen Kriger Bogard of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis noted that their lifecycle ritual is called "beit mitzvah" (House of Mitzvah), and they provide families with a list of ways families might call the ritual. "Beit' sounds like the original term, and it is like a house, housing all of the options that people can choose from," Rabbi Karen Kriger Bogard commented.

Further innovation includes communities renaming the educational experience leading up to the ritual celebration: Rabbi Alex Shuval Weiner of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, GA, calls their preparatory program "Becoming" and their ritual is called "BMitzvah."

Rabbi Elisa Koppel, Interim Director of Education at Temple Judea in Durham, North Carolina calls their preparatory program "darchei mitzvah," pathways to mitzvah.

Still many communities choose to call their broader program b'nei mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah), with openness for adaptation. Rabbi Ahuva Zaches of Congregation Or Ami in Richmond, VA, notes that "So far, we've only had one student call it a bet mitzvah based on the Nonbinary Hebrew Project's version of Hebrew. But if someone wanted to call it a b'nei mitzvah, BMitzvah, simchat mitzvah, [or] kabbalat mitzvah, we would go with whatever term they prefer."

Giving adolescents the agency to choose the ritual name can be so powerful. Margo Michaels, a congregant of Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, has a nonbinary child who requested that their ceremony be called b'nei mitzvah because they felt the word was a good all-gender alternative. Amy Mintz Gach's child Eli, who identifies as nonbinary and uses he/him pronouns, became b'nei mitzvah at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, MI, choosing that ritual title because "it included all genders." Adrienne Kametz's child explored many options with their Rabbi Jack Paskoff of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA. The family settled on "Kabbalat Mitzvah," meaning "Receiving the Commandments," because their child "liked the idea of this being a gift, a receiving."

Zev Mesnick, a recent confirmation student at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham shared in their Confirmation speech how they value their temple's focus on inclusivity. "This temple especially," Zev writes, "has taken giant leaps and bounds to make sure everything is inclusive, particularly for gender non-conforming individuals like me. Changing the name of someone's bar/bat mitzvah to "BMitzvah" is one of those changes that gave me hope. I wished that, as well as realizing my true identity earlier on in my life, BMitzvahs were a thing when I was younger, especially when I had a friend who identified as non-binary at the time who had to use the gendered form."

To be sure, these nomenclature changes are not just a mere rebrand. As much as they can bring about inclusion and welcome, they can also bring about discomfort and surprise to extended friends and family who may not know about their loved one's gender identity, or not yet understand the nuances. One parent I spoke with, Jen Otner, a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville talked about her concerns for calling her child's coming of age ceremony a BMitzvah. "For us," she shared, "my child's date is fast approaching. I'm not sure how my family will embrace the BMitzvah idea. Not everyone knows [my child] is non-binary... adding to that lack of understanding is the possibility of messing with people's idea of how you are supposed to practice Judaism." Though change can be hard, this moment in a family's Jewish journey can become a beautiful point of education for sharing values with loved ones about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The reason I love calling Temple Shalom's program "BMitzvah" is because it sends an explicit message to children who may be exploring their gender identity that they don't need to have all the answers by the time they turn 13. Rather, BMitzvah is one stop on the journey to finding themselves in the stories of the Jewish people.

The Mussar masters call the eyes "the Windows of the Soul"; and I pray for my BMitzvah students that, in this ritual process of Jewish learning and preparation, we can see in their eyes a sense of feeling seen, known, and heard for who they are, what they believe, and what they're still figuring out. May our communities of inclusion and welcome transform adolescent eyerolls into eyes that sparkle with the light of inclusive Torah.

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