Bet Mitzvah: An Inclusive Term for the Jewish Coming-of-Age Ceremony

Rabbis Linda Joseph and Evan Schultz of the CCAR Worship and Practice Committee explain how the committee chose a more inclusive phrase as the CCAR’s general term for a Jewish milestone.

In recent years, existing terms for the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony—commonly referred to as a bar or bat mitzvah in singular, b’nei or b’not mitzvah in plural—have come to seem inadequate due to their gendered nature. For the past several months, the CCAR Worship and Practice Committee has searched for an all-inclusive, general term for this milestone for use in CCAR Press publications, CCAR statements, and on our social media channels.

When the CCAR Board assigned this task to our committee, we spent some time establishing criteria, researching, debating, and discussing. In our conversation, three key priorities were identified: We wanted a term to be inclusive of all gender identities and gender expressions. We wanted a term that honored the Hebrew language in its usage and meaning. And we wanted a term that used familiar or existing language so that it would be understandable, useable, and “sticky” (i.e., it would be inclined to be used).

Criteria in hand, the committee entered a research stage. We solicited colleagues in the CCAR and ACC to share with us the terms they used and why. We surveyed American, Israeli, and British colleagues as to their thoughts. We asked questions of experts in feminist theory, gender theory, and queer theory. We read sermons on changing language around this Jewish milestone. We consulted the Nonbinary Hebrew Project and Keshet.

Our research left us rich with possibilities. The commitment to tradition, creativity, and imagination of our colleagues and congregations presented us with at least sixteen viable options. Discussion ensued on the meaning, nuances, and interconnecting textual references of these terms, reminiscent of the pilpul (Talmudic disputation) of the rabbinic scholars of yore. Ultimately, we settled on the term “bet mitzvah.” 

We found this nomenclature compelling for several reasons:

  • Bet is the first Hebrew letter of the traditional name of this lifecycle event, so the term is gender neutral. Using the letter bet provides flexibility for a student to choose which term they would like to use—bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, b’nei mitzvah, or bet mitzvah. It thus acknowledges the traditional terms while creating a new term that honors diverse gender inclusivity and expression. Bet mitzvah is also the term recommended by the Nonbinary Hebrew Project and is already in use in several congregations.
  • The lovers of text in our souls associated the letter bet with the first letter of the Torah. It is the letter opening the parashah that honors all of God’s creations. It is a letter open to possibilities for what may follow. In addition, bet can be read as the conjunctive form of bayit, alluding to the inclusion of all participants in this coming-of-age ceremony who have a “home” in Judaism. In Hebrew, bet mitzvah makes sense as a conjunctive.
  • Finally, bet is a term that both Hebrew literate and non-Hebrew literate members of our communities have heard before. Like the more traditional familiar terms, it is one syllable. The committee believed this term could become “sticky.”

The CCAR Worship and Practices Committee felt that bet mitzvah best reflected our determinants of inclusivity, honoring Hebrew, and using familiar or existing language. We also recommended that CCAR Press publish a footnote about the term when it is first used in each publication, until it becomes a regular part of our Jewish vocabulary. The CCAR Board accepted our proposal and recommendations.

Importantly, we do not intend for this term to replace “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” but rather to be an additional, inclusive option for families and youths. While “bet mitzvah” will be our default general term in CCAR materials, we hope that each student will be encouraged to choose the term that’s most meaningful to them.

Language by its very nature evolves with our human and religious mores and understandings. We begin with using bet mitzvah in CCAR publications, correspondence, and social media. It will guide us as we consider new designs for lifecycle certificates. But perhaps one day, there will be a future when websites have a tab labeled “Bet Mitzvah,” when your local Jewish bookstore carries bet mitzvah cards, and when you receive a “thank you so much for coming to my bet mitzvah!” note from a thirteen-year-old.

Rabbi Linda Joseph is a member of the CCAR Worship and Practice Committee. She is the rabbi of Bet Aviv in Columbia, Maryland, and serves as faculty for the URJ’s Introduction to Judaism program.

Rabbi Evan Schultz is cochair of the CCAR Worship and Practice Committee. He is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Inclusion interfaith Prayer

Blessing for a B”Mitzvah by Non-Jewish Family Members

I am the rabbi of a tiny community in the Rocky Mountains of Montana—the largest congregation in the state. Easily over eighty percent of our members have intermarried. Non-Jewish family members and friends are part of the life of my community.

B”Mitzvahs have become moments of interest to me. They are large gatherings with guests from all over the country. They obviously mean a lot to my families and their relatives, who almost always are excited to be a part of the service—and who cry no less than their Jewish family! They also are, by very nature, moments of commitment and exclusivity.

In thinking about a possible way for non-Jewish family members and friends to accompany, celebrate, and support their grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins, and friends, I wrote the following blessing.

Blessing for a B”Mitzvah by Non-Jewish Family Members

For generations, each member of our family has paved their own road.

Whenever we come together, we celebrate the vastness of our traditions, the depth of our stories, and the care that connects us.

On this day, you are taking upon yourself a heritage older than most others on this planet.

From this day on, you are a bearer of Torah, one of the sacred books of humanity.

We see that you are strong, wise, and ready to hold on to this book and make its teachings part of your own story.

We are proud of your pride in being Jewish.

We respect the respect you show for your heritage.

We love the love you feel for a people and a wisdom you chose for yourself.

Go, _______, find your own way. Take our blessings with you.

Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT.

Social Justice

Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

About two years ago, my friend and teacher Rabbi Peter Levi described his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah service. Instead of doing the early part of the morning blessings, they would sing a couple of introductory songs, leave the sanctuary, and enter the social hall for a social action project where they would pack boxes of grains and canned goods for the homeless. I admit that when I heard the idea, I was nonplussed. Seeing the look on my face, Rabbi Levi put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s called a Bat Mitzvah, not a Bat T’filah.”

My mind was opened.

He made me realize the whole issue I have with our B’nai Mitzvah rubric as it has been for years. We want to create engaged Jewish adults, and we are creating cookie-cutter kids who will be able to their their kids, “You’ll do it because I suffered through it, too,” just like we are telling ours. So after hearing Rabbi Levi’s simple sentence, I began to plan.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek, we hold a semi-annual “B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp,” where I gather the students who will become B’nai Mitzvah within the following nine to sixteen months. We discuss the four things a child has to accomplish before they can receive the title of Jewish Adult: Lead services, Teach through a D’var Torah, Commit to a Mitzvah, and Give Tzedakah. Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, Tzedakah. As much as this talk may inspire them, which I hope it does, it still leads to the same thing. The children lead a service, have a party, give tzedakah, and maybe remember to keep doing their mitzvah.

Some kids have an easy time with this they enjoy it, they love performing and they thrive on the bimah. Others struggle.

In thinking about Rabbi Levi’s words, I wanted to encourage our emerging Jewish adults to make their B’nai Mitzvah experience more personally meaningful. But first I needed a guinea pig.

I had known Jonas Holdaway for nearly four years when he and his parents sat in my office to discuss his upcoming Bar Mitzvah experience. I knew he was already a passionate giver of his time and resources, and I asked him a question. Knowing that the requirements of becoming a Bar Mitzvah are still Leading, Teaching, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, is there one he would like to highlight over the others? Jonas chose Mitzvah. He wanted to make sandwiches for the hungry, and he already had an idea for his guests to participate with him. I asked him if he would like to cut out some of the prayers from the morning service and do that as a part of his Saturday morning celebration.

After a few months of planning and organizing, Jonas became a Bar Mitzvah on September 9, 2017. He did a spectacular job of reading Torah and leading some of the prayers, but the best part was when he started to teach after just two introductory songs. The look on the faces of the regulars was priceless. They were intrigued as to why he might be speaking at this point. He spoke eloquently about how important feeding the hungry is to him and his family. He spoke about volunteering at soup kitchens and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then he told his guests that they would be making sandwiches and sack lunches for the hungry that very morning.

We ushered his guests into the Social Hall where Jonas had set up stations for packing bag lunches. One table made sandwiches, another decorated bags, a third put apples and cookies into bags, and there were boxes for collecting the finished lunches. Participants went from station to station, making two or more lunches, which Jonas took the following day to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. After boxing up 346 lunches, Jonas led the congregation in the rest of the worship service, including reading beautifully from the Torah.

Jonas allowed us all to feel uplifted that Shabbat morning, showing us what it really means to be a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish man committed to the commandments. The service Jonas led and the experience he had was much more of a revolution, and he has inspired future nigh-13-year-olds to have the same choice.

Instead of doing the same service their peers do, each student at CBT from this point on will be taught that the four things they need to do are Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, but whichever one they put at the forefront is up to them. If they want to break from services to organize a social action project for the community, or organize a longer lesson plan that allows us to dive deep into the weekly Torah portion, or even coordinate a fundraiser that will bring tzedakah to a cause about which they are passionate, any of these things can be the focus of their B’nai Mitzvah service. Of course, if Leading services is their passion, they will lead a great service. They will do what we did, but they won’t be dragged to it. They will take on the helm of B’nai Mitzvah with passion, and God willing, they will stay connected to the Jewish community by their own choice, because they will know that they are part of a revolution.

Rabbi David N. Young serves Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California.