Esther Thorpe, left, identifies as non-binary and had a gender-neutral b'nei mitzvah ceremony with the help of rabbinical student Gabriel Webber.
 (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Miriam Taylor Thorpe)
Esther Thorpe, left, identifies as non-binary and had a gender-neutral b'nei mitzvah ceremony with the help of rabbinical student Gabriel Webber. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Miriam Taylor Thorpe)

Non-binary teen’s gender-neutral b’nai mitzvah was ‘a big responsibility’

When Esther Thorpe came out as non-binary a year ago, identifying neither as male nor female, Esther’s mother was worried. Miriam Taylor Thorpe already had one child come out as gay and feared that Esther, 14, would have trouble finding a Jewish community that would be accepting and inclusive.

The family already was planning for Esther’s bat mitzvah, but with the new revelation, Miriam wondered how her child could be comfortable taking part in a Jewish ceremony whose very name — bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls — is gendered.

“I was quite concerned because if something is important in your coming of age, it should reflect who you are in a person and not squeeze you into the traditional two genders that we happen to have just because of history,” said Miriam, who lives with her husband, Martyn, and seven children in the village of Otterburn, in northeast England.

As transgender and gender nonconforming people gain more acceptance, synagogues are having to think about how to welcome those with a diverse set of gender identities. Statistics about gender identity in children are hard to come by, but a University of Minnesota study published last year found that 2.7 percent of children in that state identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.

Catherine Bell, senior director of program and leadership at Keshet, a Massachusetts-based group that promotes LGBTQ equality, said the organization gets requests on how to make religious ceremonies inclusive of different gender identities.

“A real frontier for the work that Keshet does these days is around gender identity and gender diversity, a lot around transgender inclusion and making sure non-binary and trans youth are included,” Bell said.

The Thorpe children and their parents Miriam Taylor Thorpe, third from right, and Martyn Thorpe, second from right, celebrating Esther's b'nei mitzvah with congregant Hava Fleming. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Miriam Taylor Thorpe)
The Thorpe children and their parents Miriam Taylor Thorpe, third from right, and Martyn Thorpe, second from right, celebrating Esther’s b’nei mitzvah with congregant Hava Fleming. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Miriam Taylor Thorpe)

The Union for Reform Judaism — the congregational arm of the movement in the United States — has a toolkit for synagogues that includes a section on how to tailor b’nai mitzvah ceremonies to align with the child’s gender identity, said Rabbi Leora Kaye, the URJ’s director of program.

“What we’re seeing now is that there are families and there are congregations that are very open to exploring with the kids that are becoming bar and bat mitzvah how they want to be identified,” Kaye said.

The Thorpe family worked with the student rabbi of their synagogue, York Liberal Jewish Community, to adapt the ceremony, which was held last December. Gabriel Webber is a first-year student at London’s Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical school associated with the Liberal movement, a partner under the worldwide Reform umbrella. As part of his research ahead of the ceremony, he came across examples of ceremonies for non-binary children in the United States but not in the United Kingdom.

“Although this is the first one that we’ve had on the radar, it’s going to be far from the last one,” Webber said.

Webber spent a lot of time thinking about how to eschew gendered words in Hebrew during what they came to call Esther’s b’nai mitzvah, using the Hebrew plural term b’nai, which could refer to a mixed-gender group of people. Esther uses “they” as a singular pronoun rather than “he” or “she.”

Before settling on b’nai mitzvah, Webber looked for other possibilities. He found that other non-binary people had used terms such as ban mitzvah (ban is a made-up word that combines the Hebrew words for boy and girl, ben and bat) and zera mitzvah (zera means seed or offspring in Hebrew).

“Esther uses ‘they’ pronouns, which is also a plural being used as a singular, so [b’nei] fit, and it wasn’t making up Hebrew, which is probably better than making up Hebrew,” Webber said.

It felt like a big responsibility for other non-binary kids in the future.

He also looked into how to call up Esther to read from the Torah. Traditionally, readers are called up using their first name in Hebrew followed by ben or bat (son or daughter) and their parent’s or parents’ names.

Finding the right way to be called up to the Torah held a major significance for Esther.

“It felt like a big responsibility for other non-binary kids in the future,” Esther told JTA in an email.

Using a Hebrew name that relayed family ties and fit into the larger Jewish tradition was important to Esther, said their mother, who wrote about Esther’s b’nai mitzvah in the Jewish Chronicle.

“If you have a name that doesn’t give that tie into your family and your history, you are much more isolated,” Miriam Thorpe said. “And that compounds isolation that I know Esther still does feel — if you are non-binary or trans and you are the only person in your shul that [is] already in a different position.”

In the end Esther chose Esther m’beit Miriam, meaning “Esther from the house of Miriam.”

In addition to the liturgical changes, Esther had to read their Torah portion and write a drash, or sermon. Since the family lives a three-hour drive from York, Esther did their learning via videochat with Webber and a congregant.

In December, Esther led the service in front of some 100 people. Afterward there was a celebration with food, ice cream, popcorn machines and doughnuts, as the rite fell during Hanukkah.

The event was significant not only because it may have been the country’s first gender-neutral b’nai mitzvah, but also because it was York’s first bar, bat or b’nei mitzvah ceremony in more than 50 years. The city’s Jewish history is mainly known for a 12th-century anti-Semitic massacre in which all the Jewish residents were killed.

Despite the adaptations, there were still some lingering issues. Though immediate friends and family were respectful of Esther’s gender identity, others gave bat mitzvah cards and gifts geared toward girls, Miriam Thorpe said.

“It was quite easy to make the service be reflective of [Esther being] non-binary, once you have a rabbi that’s on board with it and you have a congregation that’s prepared to take that through,” she said, “and as soon as you left the service, you’re back to it’s either a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah and there’s nothing in between.”

Still, Esther is happy about how things turned out.

“I feel better,” they said. “I feel part of a community, accepted and acknowledged.”

Josefin Dolsten
Josefin Dolsten

JTA Editorial Assistant