This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
(JTA) — Like many Jewish teens, Ash Brave was nervous for their b’nai mitzvah. Memorizing the Torah portion, sending invitations, planning a party: It’s a lot for a 13-year-old to think about during what can already be an anxiety-filled age.
Despite the typical stress involved with preparing to enter the adult Jewish community, Brave cheerfully described their gender-neutral b’nai mitzvah last summer, recalling feeling “really supported [by] the whole synagogue.” For teens like Brave, an eighth grader from Boulder, Colorado who uses he and they pronouns interchangeably, gender-inclusive b’nai mitzvahs (often termed “b’mitzvahs”) offer an opportunity to come of age as their full selves.
Across the country, there is an expanding list of Jewish community centers, day schools, Hillels, organizations and more that include and celebrate LGBTQ+ identities. Many synagogues are following suit with the ceremonies they offer and the language they use. Some congregations are initiating these changes on their own; in other cases, the teens themselves are propelling the shifts.
Traditionally, most synagogues hold gendered b’nai mitzvah, with bar mitzvahs for boys and bat mitzvahs for girls (“b’nai” is the Hebrew plural form meanings “sons and daughters,” although it is technically masculine). Increasingly, many Jewish congregations are moving towards gender-inclusive b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Synagogues like Har Hashem, a Reform synagogue in Boulder, have been offering these ceremonies for years at the request of their congregants. Because of these shifts, many gender nonconforming Jewish teens feel a deeper sense of belonging in their religious communities.
According to Rabbi Fred Greene of Har Hashem, the synagogue holds approximately 25 b’nai mitzvah ceremonies annually. In the last year, three of those were gender-neutral. Although the congregation has offered the option for almost five years, this is the first year they have had teens opting for the inclusive version. Greene said that the congregation also has teens who have transitioned after their b’nai mitzvah. He estimates that they have 5-7 teen congregants who identify as trans or genderqueer, meaning they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
B’mitzvahs at Har Hashem mirror the traditional gendered ceremonies in everything but language. “We have folks that don’t feel like a ‘ben’ or a ‘bat,’” said Greene, using the Hebrew words meaning “son” and “daughter.” “So we come up with other Hebrew terms, [such as] ‘beit,’ which is from “the house of [parent name].” He said that a number of changes can be made to the Hebrew to increase inclusivity, ranging from the creation of new terms to using the infinitive version of words that would otherwise be gendered. “We’re not treating anybody any differently, other than being sensitive to their needs,” he said.
Ruby Marx, a 16-year-old who uses she/her pronouns, had a gender-neutral b’mitzvah with Temple Beth Zion in the Boston area in early 2020, pre-pandemic. “I always knew that I was gonna have to have [a b’nai mitzvah]. But when it came time to start thinking about it, I was like, ‘I really don’t feel comfortable having a bat mitzvah.’ But I wasn’t comfortable [having a bar mitzvah], either. So someone suggested that I do something in the middle. And that felt right for me.”
Marx, who describes herself as gender-fluid, was the first teen in her congregation to have a ceremony that didn’t fall within either the bar or bat categories. In the years following, several other teens in her community have had gender-neutral ceremonies, including one having an upcoming ceremony in mid-March.
“I don’t think anyone else had done something like that before,” said Marx. “I think a lot of other kids started to feel comfortable being like, ‘oh, maybe that’s something I would want to do,’ or incorporating different things that they’re passionate about [into their ceremonies].”
For her ceremony, she wore a prayer shawl featuring rainbow trimming and various rock n’ roll patches from her favorite bands. Marx said that the most rewarding part of her experience has been being a trailblazer for inclusion in her congregation. “It definitely feels good to know that I can help other kids feel comfortable being who they are, because I know that sometimes I’m not always comfortable being who I am. It’s nice to know that kids can look up to me,” she said.
Gender inclusion in b’nai mitzvahs has been expanding for decades, beginning with the American introduction of the bat mitzvah in 1922 for the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, in New York City. Before that, only boys were allowed to engage in the important coming of age tradition. After Judith Kaplan’s ceremony, the custom slowly spread across the country in non-Orthodox synagogues. For decades, however, the ceremonies for girls differed from those offered to boys: In many synagogues, girls were not allowed to read from the Torah, and their services were held on Friday nights rather than Saturday mornings. Orthodox synagogues were slow in accepting the bat mitzvah, and still maintain strict gender roles in synagogue.
As feminism progressed both outside and within Jewish communities, girls pushed to be allowed to read from the Torah and to be counted towards a minyan, the 10-person quorum required for public prayer. Full bat mitzvahs became an accepted norm. A similar pattern is now occurring for b’mitzvahs.
As a coming of age ritual, b’nai mitzvahs occupy a unique role in Jewish life. Their goal is to integrate young Jews into the broader community, signaling that they have the knowledge and maturity to take on adult ritual responsibilities. Because of this, many young trans Jews wish to have a ceremony that will fully reflect them as they become more involved in their community and beyond.
Brave, the Colorado teen, chose to have their ceremony gender-neutral to ensure it still fit them down the road. “I don’t really know what I’m going to identify as in the future, because identity is fluid. And while I may be comfortable right now with being closer to a male identity, [later] I might be less comfortable with that,” they said.
Marx, the gender fluid teen outside of Boston, said entering the community as her authentic self was an integral part of her choice. “I had grown up watching all my cousins, and then my sister, have [ceremonies]. Afterwards, they were a lot more independent in their Jewish identity. That was something that appealed to me, because I wanted to be connected to the Jewish community, but I wanted to do it in my own way,” said Marx.
B’mitzvahs aren’t the only gender-inclusive ceremony offered now. Many Reform congregations have also created ceremonies for gender transitions, Hebrew name changes, and coming out, often based on a curriculum offered by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. “These are holy moments of growth and transformation, and we want to be supportive in their journeys,” Rabbi Greene of Har Hashem said. Brave also had a ceremony with Har Hashem to change their Hebrew name, and the synagogue made them an updated yad — a pointer used in reading Torah — to match.
Teens who were not able to do their ceremony gender-neutral say having access to inclusive ceremonies would have increased the enjoyment and meaning of their b’nai mitzvahs. “I would have felt more like I was stepping into my own skin, instead of the skin [of someone] that I was pretending to be,” said Mica Newmark. The 17-year-old, who uses they/them pronouns, had a gendered ceremony at Nevei Kodesh, a Renewal synagogue in Boulder, before coming into their identity more. Since their ceremony, Newmark has grown apart from religion. “I don’t really relate anymore,” they said.
Even teens who were more clear on their identity struggled with having gendered ceremonies. Jay, a 15-year-old from Boulder, came out immediately following their ceremony. (Jay, estranged from a parent who has a leadership role in their synagogue, asked that their last name be omitted.) They found the ceremony “pretty stressful” and their coming out experience difficult, explaining that they wanted everyone to understand the concept of existing outside of the gender binary, but didn’t feel that was possible at the time. “I had really long hair then, so I wanted to cut it, and just be more me,” Jay said. “But I was really stressed, because I knew I was going to get misgendered at the ceremony.”
In the following years, Jay helped to institute the use of pronoun pins at synagogue events, as well as generally making an effort to educate community members on transgender issues. “I think [gender-neutral ceremonies] allow queer Jewish people to embrace their religion and continue to flourish within Judaism without feeling gendered,” they said.
Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ+ organization, published a guide for b’mitzvah ceremonies. “Celebrating the Age of Mitzvah: A Guide for all Genders” includes information from what to call the ceremony to what the dress code should be, all aimed at helping communities create inclusive and meaningful traditions.
The need for the resources came from synagogues and young congregants, said Jackie Maris, the Chicago education and training manager for the organization. “It’s not just Jewish boys and girls becoming Jewish men and women, it’s Jewish kids of all gender identities becoming Jewish adults,” said Maris. “Having a tool that helps guide everyone through that process, with gender-expansive language and rituals that include folks beyond the binary, is very needed.”
Keshet recently updated the resources. “Adjusting practices to make them more inclusive is what has always been done in Jewish tradition,” said Maris. “Even ancient practices and rituals have evolved over time, and because they are human constructed, we continue to humanly evolve them.”
However, a number of communities still mainly offer gendered ceremonies. Orthodox synagogues and others that are non-egalitarian have not made widespread shifts towards gender-neutral ceremonies.
Despite the strict gender separation in Orthodoxy, there is also a growing push for inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in these spaces. Organizations like Eshel, a nonprofit based in the United States and Canada, work to provide LGBTQ+ Orthodox jews and their families with resources for living and thriving in Orthodox Jewish spaces. Other organizations are targeted specifically at teens, such as Jewish Queer Youth, which engages queer youth from Orthodox, Hasidic and traditionalist Sephardi/Mizrahi communities.
“LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not,” reports The Trevor Project. For both Brave and Marx, their communities, families and friends were largely supportive of their decision to have non-gendered ceremonies. “It definitely felt like the community showed me a lot of love to be able to do that,” Marx said. “I was really able to be myself.”
By expanding inclusion, Jewish institutions are expanding their reach and impact, as well as creating more engaging communities. “I don’t think that God creates in vain. And so, while there’s a lot of people that are still learning, including myself, about issues relating to gender and identity, our role as a sacred space and a Jewish community is to have an open tent where folks can enter in any doorway they want, because there are no doors,” said Rabbi Greene of Har Hashem.
Brave said that their ceremony made them feel fully included in their synagogue. “It felt good to officially be a part of a community that I can’t really get taken away from,” they said.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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