Steve Rabinowitz | Special to WJW
As something of the outside media adviser to the Conservative movement, I understandably get a lot of reporter questions about Conservative Judaism. Last week’s involved a synagogue in Connecticut that is said to be moving from the traditional terms bar and bat mitzvah for its coming-of-age youth to a more generic b’ mitzvah — and I was asked if that was anything of a phenomenon.
It’s not, I said, but should it be?
Even though, I confess, I’m a little ambivalent on the issue, I think I should not be because my 18-year-old son tutors lots of kids learning their haftarah or Torah portions for their own Jewish rites of passage and I know them all and their parents. Also, because after six months of religious public school in Israel and nine years of Jewish day school here, Sammy now attends a public arts high school in the District that is diverse in terms of individual gender identity.
He says that in his school and in his generation, diversity and uniqueness are the new normal. “So, to think about how non-gender-conforming kids might want to use the terms ‘bar/bat mitzvah’ or ‘b’ mitzvah’ is not such a crazy phenomenon,” Sammy says.
Asking the titular head of the movement, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — the associations of all the Conservative movement rabbis and synagogues — he said he didn’t have specifics. “But, YES, some are talking about it,” he said. In fact, he said, at kiddush a couple of weeks ago (at his own Gaithersburg shul), someone was saying that another USCJ congregation in the D.C. area is making that move. But we didn’t know which one.
“My preferred term, by the way,” he said, “is never to say our ‘bar and bat mitzvah program’ but our ‘b’nai mitzvah program.’ And since even that term is gendered, I think some congregations will talk about their ‘b mitzvah program.’”
“And while as in all cases in our movement,” Blumenthal said, “different communities come to different conclusions, being sensitive to the changes in how young people understand their gender identity is important, and if it means adjusting our terminology, I think we need to have that conversation.”
His number two agrees. Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, chief operating officer of the same two movement organizations, said she was “pretty sure some congregations are using b’ mitzvah,” and cited one quick example in Temple Beth Zion (TBZ) in Brookline, Mass.
TBZ also says Hebrew is a gendered language, which they explain means that nouns have to be either masculine or feminine grammatically. “A girl becomes bat mitzvah, ‘daughter of the commandment,’” they write, “while a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, ‘son of the commandment.’ There is no gender-neutral way to say, “child of the commandment.”
“Some people use ‘b’nei mitzvah,’” the shul continues on its website, “which is plural and can connote girls as well, but it’s still technically masculine. ‘B’ mitzvah’ is a gender-neutral expression, literally meaning ‘of the commandment.’ Using this form allows us to include all genders when we write and talk, and individuals can choose how they refer to themselves and their simchah (joyous celebration).”
Konigsburg says she’s sure TBZ isn’t the only shul that feels this way.
“We think it’s great that some congregations are finding ways to be inclusive of the gender diversity in their communities,” she says. And isn’t it?
A quick survey of some of the bigger shuls in the Washington area validates both this thinking and this phenomenon.
Rabbi Michael Werbow at Tiferet Israel Congregation in the District and the regional lay leader of the Rabbinical Assembly for the mid-Atlantic states, says his own synagogue uses the term “kabbalah mitzvah,” he says, for some of their students if the kid so chooses.
At my own Adas Israel Congregation, Rabbi Aaron Alexander tells me we’re trying hard not to talk anymore about any of our young members’ bar nor bat mitzvahs. “We now try hard to say only b’nai mitzvah for any of them,” he says, even if it’s for only one. (Much the way many now routinely use the pronoun “they,” even to refer to only one person on second reference, and not the traditional he or she.) “But we also use ‘mi bait mitzvah’ [from the house of the commandment], for non-binary kids,” Alexander says.
Meanwhile, his immediate predecessor at Adas, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, now director of the Hineni Institute for LGBTQ Jewish Leadership in Washington and the rabbi at Kol Shalom in Rockville, says they switch “on a case-by-case basis.” “We have used the neutral term,” he says, “but most kids/families prefer the conventional terms.”
And my friend Rabbi Marc Israel, at Tikvat Israel (no relation) in Rockville, says he’s treating it the way that they do common pronouns. “A child could have a bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah or a bnei mitzvah, depending on their preference,” he writes me. “I don’t favor the use of the b mitzvah, because it has no meaning in Hebrew.”
Sammy, my young b’nai mitzvah tutor, says the opinion closest to his is Rabbi Israel’s. “As a teenager in our society who is well-versed in Hebrew and English, it’s easy to notice the linguistic differences,” Sammy says. “English is much easier to manipulate for the people who want to make that change. But in Hebrew, it’s not as easy.”
So, b mitzvah, b’ mitzvah, bait mitzvah? Plain old bar and bat mitzvah? Or something else?
Unlike the cliché of my father’s youth, “Today I am a man,” Sammy’s tutoring students and increasingly gender-fluid arts school classmates are much more likely these days to say, “Today I am a Jewish adult of non-conforming gender identity.”
The writer is president of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington public affairs firm. His younger son, Hershel Samson “Sammy” Rabinowitz, is a 12th grader at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. In the fall, he plans to attend the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, his father wants everyone to know. But he will long still be tutoring b-something mitzvah lessons on the side.