Max Blustajn did not intend to start a revolution. At least not at first.
At first, Max was a kid with many of the typical concerns kids have as they approach the age of b’nai mitzvah: will I be able to learn my Torah portion? Will I screw up in front of everybody? What if I totally blank on the tune for Aleinu? And then, there were the pandemic-specific unknowns: will we be allowed in the sanctuary, or will the whole thing be on Zoom? Will my grandparents be able to come? Should we postpone until COVID is over?
But all these questions took a backseat to the one that emerged as the most important, the most central to Max’s identity as a Jewish child preparing to become a Jewish adult:
Is there really a place for me in the Jewish community?
This question emerged because Max had recently come out as non-binary, identifying as neither a girl nor a boy; as they approached the age of Jewish adulthood, they wondered: if I’m not a Bat Mitzvah (daughter of the commandments) and I’m not a Bar Mitzvah (son of the commandments), what am I? How will my tradition accept me, understand me, make space for me?
And that’s when the revolution began.
Because Max refused the two obvious options that lay before them: squelch their gender identity and go forward as a Bat Mitzvah, or reject their synagogue community altogether. Instead, Max chose what was clearly the much harder, and much braver, option: to work closely with the rabbi and cantor to create a way to bring the full truth of their identity to this milestone moment.
And so, on May 22, 2021, Parashat (Torah portion) Naso 5781, the first B’Mitzvah was celebrated at Max’s synagogue, located in suburban Connecticut. With their family (including grandparents!) and a few close friends sitting in the sanctuary pews, Max led the service, read Torah perfectly, and gave a profound d’var Torah. They also remembered the tune for Aleinu.
But more than that, they transformed the way their Jewish community marks this rite of passage. From now on, the synagogue will use ‘B’Mitzvah’ as the default term for referring to this lifecycle moment. There is now a non-gendered alternative for being called to the Torah (instead of being called up as “son or daughter of…” people can choose to be called up as ‘from the house of…”). And without a doubt, the next non-binary child who is preparing for their B’Mitzvah will feel less afraid and less lonely in being who they are as they become a Jewish adult.
How do I know about Max? Because they are my nibling (that’s the non-gendered term for the child of your sibling, as Max taught me), and I was privileged to sit in the sanctuary last month as they led the service, read Torah, and remembered the tune for Aleinu. I listened, as the rabbi and the cantor and the synagogue president spoke about how much they had learned from Max throughout their process of becoming a B’Mitzvah. And I listened, as Max shared their words of Torah, writing themselves into the story of our people and locating themselves in the Jewish community by reminding us that they have been part of us all along.
I do admit that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the new ways our world is thinking about gender. My personal experience as a woman and the categories in which I was taught to understand gender have made it hard for me to see beyond the binary of male and female. Which is why I am grateful for Max, and people like them, who are willing to guide me. Who are courageously pushing their communities to embrace them, even without perfect understanding. And who are allowing their stories to be shared, as Max has allowed me to do here, so that even more minds and hearts can be opened.
So to Max Blustjan, my nibling, my teacher: Thank you. The revolution has begun.