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How Does Your Synagogue Handle Candle Lighting with Interfaith Families?

Our staff around the country worked together on this project to gather information about the ritual policies of synagogues in different regions. All rabbis were asked the same question, below, and their responses follow. The opinions expressed do not reflect a policy of 18Doors, but are meant to be an educational resource to be shared and discussed with the greater Jewish community.

In many synagogues, the parent of a child whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah service is the following Shabbat morning is invited to recite the blessing for lighting the candles at the Friday evening service. Since lighting the candles is a brachah shel mitzvah, referring to Jews being commanded to perform the act, this can be a complicated issue when one of the parents of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not Jewish. 

What is your synagogue’s policy on candle lighting? Who can say the blessing over the Shabbat candles at Erev Shabbat services? Specifically, can a mother or father who is not Jewish recite the blessing the Friday evening of the child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah? If not, is there an alternate role they can play?


A Team Effort

Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco, CA (Reform)

For Shabbat evening blessings (candles, wine, challah) I/we call up to assist the family (usually parents, grandparents, other relatives) and then ask the Jewish parent to actually light the candles (or a grandmother or another Jewish member), the child to hold and lead the kiddush and the parents together to hold onto the challah with me as we all join in the brachah (blessing over the challah).

-Rabbi Larry Raphael

Inclusivity is Key

P’nai Or Jewish Renewal Congregation of Philadelphia, PA (Renewal)

Inclusivity is a hallmark of our P’nai Or Jewish Renewal Congregation. We are a “come as you are” place, and while most members are Jews, others are not. When we call people up to Torah based on the theme of the Torah reading, we might say: “This aliyah is for anyone who, like Sarah is wrestling with… Or like Avraham, is arguing with God in behalf of justice… Or like the twelve scouts, is struggling to see through fears…” and anyone can come up. However, we do not presume that those who are not Jews should say a bracha (blessing) that is not accurate for them. They would not say “Asher bachar banu (referring to God “Who has chosen us…” Not that most of the Jews like that either), or “Asher natan lanu…” (“Who has given us…”), or for that matter, “Asher tzivanu” (“Who has commanded us…”) or “Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav…” (“Who sanctifies us with the commandments”] braches (blessings), because these are affirmations of belonging to the “Tribe,” and they have not yet opted to be inducted consciously and formally into the Jewish people or our faith path—even if they are allies, dear friends, family members, fellow-travelers and members of our Congregation. So while we always call everyone to stand, and might well call a whole family up to light Shabbos candles when we gather early enough on Friday night, and to bless the children too, those who are not Jews offer their own wonderful blessings in their own words.

-Rabbi Marcia Prager

Include, Honor & Respect

Or Shalom of San Francisco, CA (Reconstructionist)

At Or Shalom, inclusivity and acceptance are some of our most deeply held values and therefore, we allow people of all backgrounds to participate in all rituals. However, as I talk with families, we discuss together whether a particular ritual is appropriate, authentic and comfortable based on each person’s relationship with and understanding of Jewish tradition. It is rare that a person who is not Jewish will feel comfortable and authentic reciting a Hebrew blessing, but the meaning of that moment is so much more than the literal translation of the words, and sometimes it can make sense. In my view, Jewish teachings overwhelmingly support the position that including, honoring and respecting a parent who is not Jewish is so much more important than punctilious ritual observance. Sometimes that respect means including a person in a ritual, sometimes it means respecting his or her choice NOT to be Jewish, and therefore, making a visible boundary.

-Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

Case by Case

Congregation Kneseth Israel of Elgin, IL (Independent)

Typically, we have Kabbalat Shabbat services during the academic year and we don’t usually light Shabbat candles because it is after sundown. In the rare cases where we have, I pre-light them, and it is the mother, or the president of sisterhood, or the president of the congregation or the Bar/Bat Mitzvah who says the blessing.

When I meet with Bar/Bat Mitzvah parents, I talk about the role each parent wants to play. Often the parent who is not Jewish wants to stand behind the Jewish parent so that he or she participates and is supportive, but doesn’t say something he or she does not believe. Usually the entire congregation sings the candle blessing so in this case, like Kiddush at a Passover seder at home, it is the act of holding the cup or lighting the candles, not the blessing itself. We always, in my history here, found a role for a family member who is not Jewish—a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin who wants to participate.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein


Welcoming Shabbat Communally

Kol Emeth of Palo Alto, CA (Conservative)

At Kol Emeth, candle lighting is viewed as an entry into Shabbat. As a result, we only light candles during the part of the year when the sun has not yet set. Our candle lighting ritual involves a number of candles set out on a table top. Sometimes people do their own lighting, in which case families do the same practice as they have at home. Other times, we invite people to light and then say a communal blessing. It engenders a sacred welcome to Shabbat. Since the practice is a communal one, issues of Jewish status never arise. Anyone may light one or two of the many candles, and then we all say the blessing together.

-Rabbi David Booth

Full Participation

Congregation Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia, PA (Reform)

At Congregation Rodeph Shalom, parents who are not Jewish of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah participate fully in all honors they choose. In our interpretation, those parents, and also grandparents, have enabled the child to arrive at this wonderful simchah (joy), and we are thrilled to honor and thank them. Most important, we love to open the door for the B’nai Mitzvah students to feel the full love, support and participation of the family.

-Rabbi Jill Maderer
Have a question regarding synagogue rituals that you’d like us to have answered in this column? Share your question in the comments below!


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Author: 18Doors