At Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, a non-gender ceremony in a gendered language

From left: Ian Rothman (holding tallit), Rabbi Greg Harris, Tiarra Joslyn, Elisha Frumkin (holding tallit) and Hazzan Asa Fradkin. | Photo credit: Sara Greenbaum

On a two-year journey of self discovery, Tiarra Joslyn came out as non-binary, no longer identifying as male or female. To affirm that new identity, Joslyn set out to change their Hebrew name to one “that would be a better fit to who I was and how I felt as a person.”

Joslyn, 40, the communications manager at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, underwent a Hebrew name change last month in a small, private ceremony led by Rabbi Greg Harris and Cantor Asa Fradkin. The Jewish ritual and blessing beneath a chuppah was a welcoming event and a first for Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Bethesda.

“It was a beautiful ceremony and very meaningful,” Harris said. “It was the first time that this is taking place and I had the honor of participating in it.”

“I really appreciated that the rabbi was so willing to work with me on this, to make a ceremony like this,” Joslyn said.

Harris and Joslyn drew inspiration from gender affirmation and name-changing ceremonies documented online. They took care in scripting the ceremony because “Hebrew is a very gendered language,” Joslyn said. “It’s evolving with things like the Nonbinary Hebrew Project,” one of many efforts making space for LGBTQ+ Jews in Jewish communal life.

Joslyn’s Hebrew name was changed from Tovah (good) bat (daughter of) Avraham v’Sarah to Neriah (lamp of God) Rachmiel (mercy) mibeit (from the house of) Avraham v’Sarah. Neriah was chosen to honor Joslyn’s great-great-Aunt Lenora, a beloved pen pal during Joslyn’s childhood.

The ceremony brought on a wave of emotions for Joslyn. “I was excited and full of joy for this opportunity to share this part of my identity with my friends and family through a congregational setting.”

In one part of the ceremony, Josyln wrote their old Hebrew name on a piece of paper and “released” it into a bowl of water. “It was kind of like tashlich (casting off), but for my name instead. I got a little choked up at the end because releasing the name was like acknowledging that I am no longer that person, but also I am ready to become the person I was meant to be.”

The ceremony was livestreamed for a select few. “We didn’t announce it anywhere publicly until after the fact as it was a very personal thing for me,” Joselyn said. “But all of my colleagues and congregants I’ve spoken to about it have been very supportive and happy that Beth El was willing to have such a ceremony.”

Joslyn flew in for the ceremony from Las Vegas, where they work remotely for Beth El, managing the website, newsletter, social media and promotional materials. Joslyn and their husband, Daniel, moved from Arlington to Las Vegas in July 2019 to be closer to family.
In a video recording of the ceremony, Harris can be heard saying: “This is really a ceremony of affirming who you are and bringing who you are on the inside out to the rest of the world. And it is you who we know and that is why we’re excited for this moment. You’re giving us the gift of creativity, of creating a ritual for which there is really no precedent.

“And so, it is Judaism being at its most relevant for this moment, for this place in your life. And that’s really our hope for everyone to be able to access a tradition that is ancient, but is also in the moment as what we’re doing right now for you and for us.”

On the video, Joslyn stands near the bimah and addresses her old name, Tovah, and says goodbye. “You were a good name, pun only mildly intended. I chose you in the late spring of 2010 as I was getting ready to convert to Judaism . . . It felt like me but I’m not sure it was ever really me. Now I find myself at another point in my life of change and transition and this name no longer feels like me as I continue on this journey of self-discovery.”

The recording of Joslyn, now Neriah Rachmiel mibeit Avraham v’Sarah, continues: “I want to say thank you for the first name that I chose for myself, accept it as part of myself, as I close one chapter of my life and open another. I want you to know that even as I’m letting go of the name, I will still try to be Tova, to be good.”

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