Ottawa synagogue communities celebrate gender diversity

How gender inclusive language is being used in Torah call-ups and rites of passage

In honour of Pride month in Canada the E-Bulletin set out to explore what exists to increase inclusivity within prayer spaces for people identifying as non-binary. 

The Hebrew language and Jewish prayer are very gendered. Most words have masculine or feminine language built into the word. For example, Baruch Atah (Blessed are you) is masculine, Brucha At is feminine. But what if you are a person who does not feel that either of those fit who you are? How do you participate in prayer? How are you called to the Torah for an Aliyah (the honour to bless the Torah before it is read)?

Thankfully there are alternatives that local congregations are integrating to make everyone feel welcome. Cantor Jason Green from Kehillat Beth Israel (KBI) has worked with their ritual committee to develop a formula that allows for a non-binary call up to the Torah to be used and a formula for whenever one’s Hebrew name is required to be used.

The KBI formula allows for the traditional call up using the “ben” (son of) or “bat” (daughter of) formula and they have added a third option “Mi Beit” meaning “from the house of.” To make the call up seamless, honourees are asked ahead of time what call up they prefer, and it is recorded in the synagogue database. This ensures honourees are only asked once about their preference and reduces the chance for a mistake. For congregants who are gender fluid, they will need to inform the Gabbi (ritual attendant) team which call-up they would like used on a given day. Cantor Green commented, “we needed a system that addressed both tradition and change, which is very much the motto of the Conservative movement.”

Cantor Green explained all the elements of the call up and said, “this process really examined the Hebrew language and tried to use the intricacies of the Hebrew to inform the outcome. It was quite a technical process. We took the task very seriously. Inclusivity is a foundation of practice at KBI.”

For some there is a desire for gender neutral or non-binary language before adulthood, like when a child reaches the age of Bar or Bat or Bet or B. Mitzvah. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg from Temple Israel discussed how his community supports kids through this rite of passage. “Recognizing the diversity of gender, we now typically refer to our Jewish coming of age with the gender-neutral term B. Mitzvah. Our young adults have the opportunity to select which term suits them best (Bar, Bat, B.). We then look at the Hebrew that we use during the simcha to make sure that it is gendered comfortably for the celebrant.”

Rabbi Mikelberg takes a very hands-on approach and chooses to be the Gabbi when there is a gender diverse young person having their B. Mitzvah. This ensures that a high level of sensitivity is shown. He also remarks, that “perhaps most noteworthy, is that the B. Mitzvah of someone identifying as non-binary looks very similar to their peers, and it is welcomed with the utmost of joy.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has a wonderful article outlining why they advocate for Bet Mitzvah as an additional option for those for whom Bar or Bat do not quite fit. The full article can be read here

As Pride month comes to a close, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa wants to highlight that the work of inclusion is year-round and that many places in the Ottawa Jewish community are always working to welcome the broadest diversity of people to their congregations. This article only mentions two congregations, but there are more. Please reach out to any of the Ottawa congregations and learn how they are working to meet your needs.