Creating a gender-neutral Shabbat children’s blessing

Join me in a brief meditation about our Shabbat experience. Think about being in our chapel for the family Shabbat service. Picture yourself walking over to light Shabbat candles as friends and family around you do the same. Listen to the blessings for the candles and grape juice. Now imagine standing with your family—the people who are usually with you at the end of Shoresh, or perhaps imagine people you wish could be with you. Picture yourself standing with those people, with their arms around you.

Feel your hands on your children’s heads as Rabbi Reeves asks you to put your hands on a boy child’s head: Y'simeich Elohim k'Efrayim v'chi-Menasheh. May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Rabbi Reeves then asks you to put your hands on a girl child’s head: Y'simcha Elohim k'Sarah, k'Rivkah, k'Rachel, v'Leah. May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.

Now imagine Rabbi Reeves and Cantor Berger singing the Priestly Benediction. Y'varechecha Adonai v'yish'm'recha. May God bless you and keep you. Ya-er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka. May God show you favor and be gracious to you. Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v'yaseim l'cha shalom. May God show you kindness and grant you peace.

Welcome Shabbat as you breathe in. And breathe out. Let a peaceful, calm feeling come into your body like a wave.

Think about how you feel. What emotions do you have? What does your body feel? What does your heart feel?

The 2nd/3rd graders are learning this spring about the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers in the Torah. Their learning will begin with a guided meditation like this one where learners will close their eyes and imagine receiving this blessing from their parents at the end of Shoresh every week. The Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, comes from the Book of Numbers in the Torah. This video from BimBam describes the Priestly Blessing as a gentle stream. Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell says in the video that this blessing “has flowed for generations before you, and now it comes to you… When we step into this stream, we receive an ancient and powerful blessing” that links us to our ancestors and to God.

This blessing’s link to our ancestors and to God is powerful in and of itself, and it is even more powerful when framed as part of our Shabbat rituals to bless our children.

Yet as an educator, as a parent, and as a Jew I want our boys to have the wisdom, kindness, and strength of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. And I want our girls to have the leadership, faith, and peace of Ephraim and Menashe. I often struggle with how to retain the ritual of our tradition’s Shabbat blessing while instilling equal values to all of our children.

Hebrew is a gendered language, and the Shabbat children’s blessing is a very gendered blessing. I have already incorporated b’nei mitzvah into my vernacular as an imperfect but workable singular or plural term, the importance of which shows in stories like this one about a gender fluid “both mitzvah.” We have more work to do to show our gender inclusion in our actions, not just our words.

That work will continue this spring and summer as we create a gender-neutral Shabbat children’s blessing to implement by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. I will lead this process and bring others to the table, including parents who bless their children each week at Shoresh and our clergy, as we create a ritual that retains our tradition from generations past and modernizes the ritual for today’s world. I welcome you to join me in this process and, as always, to suggest other ways Shoresh and KAM Isaiah Israel can include others in our actions and in our words.