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Jewish Transgender RepresentationMany Jewish teenagers mark their journey towards adulthood with a pivotal coming of age ritual signifying new social and religious responsibilities. Children assigned male at birth are typically inducted into this period of their lives with a bar mitzvah, while those who are assigned female at birth usually celebrate with a bat mitzvah. However, the ceremonial path to adulthood can take a different turn for Jewish transgender youth. For these teenagers, the ritual not only marks the passage into adult life but it can also become a public commemoration of their desire to live authentically.

What Is the Mitzvah, and Why Does It Matter?

Before one can understand how the bar or bat mitzvah can be an important event for a transgender Jewish teenager, one must comprehend its significance within Judaism. Bar and bat mitzvahs are celebrated at age 12 or 13. The word "bar" translates to mean "son" while "bat" means "daughter," and "mitzvah" can be rendered in English as either "commandment" or "law." When Jewish teenagers go through these commemorative events, they are considered accountable for their actions and responsible for observing the Torah's commands along with traditions and ethical teachings within their religion.

This mitzvah ceremony takes place during Shabbat services. While customs for each synagogue or even between different branches of Judaism can vary, most versions of this ritual include the boy or girl in question reading a segment of the Torah before the congregation and giving a short sermon on a topic related to that day's reading. After the Shabbat, a special meal is generally held in honor of the boy or girl celebrating the mitzvah.

One Young Woman’s Bat Mitzvah Story

Writer and LGBTQ advocate Britt Rubenstein told the story of her transgender daughter Lily in a 2015 Keshet blog post. The start of her transition coincided with the year during which she would have marked a bar mitzvah, but her parents canceled the event. "She spent a great deal of time being angry with God,” her mother explained. “As happiness set in, confidence continued to grow, and support continued to flow from our Jewish community, Lily announced that it was time to start scheduling her Bat Mitzvah.” Two years later, Rubenstein led Shabbat services, read from the Torah and observed her passage into womanhood at her bat mitzvah.

A Unique Rite of Passage for a Transgender Boy

In a March 2015 piece in Haaretz, contributor Hannah Rubin told the tale of Tom Sosnik, an eighth-grader from San Francisco known for a viral speech in which he came out as transgender at his school. During most of his childhood, Sosnik had struggled with being assigned female at birth. Cutting his hair in sixth grade brought him comfort but also provoked bullying from classmates. It was then that his parents searched for a more inclusive educational institution and discovered Tehiyah Day School. As Rubin explains, the viral speech was actually part of a naming ceremony that the school’s rabbi, Tsipi Gabai, designed as a “cross between a bar mitzvah and a brit.” After Sosnik’s address, Gabai recited a special blessing in which the worshipper expresses gratitude for being made in God’s image. “I am no longer Mia, I never really was,” Sosnik said to those gathered. “Now I finally stand before you in my true and authentic gender identity as Tom.”

Many religious traditions are intended for the gender one was assigned at birth. Yet as some transgender Christians have used baptisms and similar rites to publicly affirm their true selves, Jewish teenagers are using bar and bat mitzvahs for the same purposes. They’re also examples of how today’s reality calls for flexibility and methods that honor the spirit of the individual.

Category: Ceremonies Society


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