Leading as My Authentic Self

July 14, 2023Erica Kushner (they/them)

As a socialist-Zionist youth movement, Hebrew is sprinkled throughout many of our machanot (camps), seminars, and programs of Habonim Dror North America (HDNA). Hebrew is an incredible connecting point for us to our Judaism and to Israel. Hebrew is also an incredibly gendered language. I didn’t always have a problem being a chanicha, (camper, feminine), but by the time I was old enough to work on tzevet (staff), I wanted to be a counselor, but I felt uncomfortable calling myself a madricha (counselor, feminine). I also knew that I didn’t want to call myself a madrich (counselor, masculine). At that point, there wasn’t anything else to be, and so for my first year on tzevet, I was a madricha (counselor, feminine). I didn’t have the language in English or in Hebrew to describe myself. 

In 2015, HDNA passed a proposal at our Veida (decision-making forum) around gender-neutral Hebrew usage in the movement. This proposal had been brought by a trans member of the movement and addressed the issue that there were no endings in Hebrew for people who are not men or women, as well as the fact that all plural personal nouns in Hebrew automatically use the masculine ending. This proposal created a new singular neutral ending, -ol, coming from the word kol or all, and an inclusive plural ending -imot, combining both masculine and feminine endings. The idea was partially based on what people in the movement had seen our partners in Israel do and partially based on the fact that something needed to be created, that we were not able to fully be responsible to members of the movement who didn’t fit neatly into the gender binary. The language that had been used for so many years had created an environment where not everyone could be themself. By this point, I had learned the language in English of trans and non-binary and was using they/them pronouns. To know that people in my movement had taken it upon themselves to create and affirm language in Hebrew that aligned with the language we were already using in English was massively empowering and supportive.  It meant that for chanichimot (campers, plural, inclusive), we could address all of them without prioritizing the boys and masculine -im ending over the girls and feminine -ot ending. It meant when I went back to machaneh that summer, I could be a madrichol (counselor, neutral). I no longer had to choose between madricha (counselor, feminine) or madrich (counselor, masculine). I could choose to be myself.

This change was not something everyone welcomed. While the majority of movement members welcomed the new endings with open arms, it brought up tensions around what is “real” Hebrew. If we are teaching something that is not used in modern Hebrew, are we misleading our chanichimot (campers, plural, inclusive)? Is it our place, as diaspora Jews, to challenge the Hebrew language? It was often difficult to navigate the challenges to this proposal, as it felt like an attack on me as a person. Through listening to people who took affront to this change, it was clear that for many people within HDNA, this change felt like a personal challenge to a language that felt like home. By creating dialogue around gender inclusivity and trans and non-binary identities and Hebrew, we found a way to work together and move forward.

Since the proposal passing in 2015, I have been in many different Jews spaces where I have brought the endings we use in HDNA as an example of a potential way Hebrew could be more inclusive. As it was back then, there are people who are not as interested in changing the language they use, but more and more, the Jewish community is engaged in questions of belonging and identity, both gender and otherwise. There are more people than ever exploring how Hebrew will change to keep up with the times. For people to imagine a world in which Hebrew can contain non-binary endings, we must also imagine a world in which people who speak Hebrew want to see their language evolve. Neither of these worlds is imaginary, and they exist in more Jewish spaces than just HDNA. We are all learning and growing together, in partnership, and creating more inclusive Jewish spaces every day. 

A key question that I think about when looking back on this time is one of the most important things I have learned from being a part of HDNA: “What is the world we are trying to build, and how do we work in partnership to get there?” In HDNA, we are constantly envisioning society as a better place. We are educated to question our reality, to look through a lens of Jewish values and hagshama (actualization), and find ways we can change things for the better (tikun olam, some might say). The conversation around Hebrew and gender was no different, and by creating dialogue, it allowed us to develop new partnerships in order to better our movement together. I am proud to be a part of Habonim Dror North America, a movement that works on changing the world around us for the better and has allowed me, as a non-binary person, the opportunity to lead while being my authentic self. 


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