At the beginning of the bar mitzvah service for our oldest son, our rabbi asked the congregation to think about a moment during the prior week when they had felt really good or peaceful or amazed, and then to introduce themselves to the people around them and share that thought. A few minutes later, several people volunteered these moments aloud, and then the rabbi announced what our son, who was standing up front with the rabbi and ready to lead the service, told him. “The best moment is right now, being up here,” he said. He was poised, ready and at ease. That warming-up exercise and our son’s response set the tone for the service that followed: a precious space of prayer, reflection, and celebration carved out of our hectic lives.
We are an interfaith family–I am not Jewish and my husband is–so to help our family and guests who aren’t Jewish feel more comfortable with the service, we followed a tradition in our Reconstructionist congregation whereby each family creates a booklet for their son or daughter for the big day. Guests get their own copy to take home. The booklet is a supplement to our siddur, the prayer book for a service. It contains the complete Torah portion for that week, along with an English translation. The child’s tikkun olam (healing the world) project is usually described, and there are photos of the child from birth onward, along with pictures of relatives, and poems and quotations significant to the family and child, which are interspersed among the photos.
In our son Alex’s booklet, there are short descriptions of the major prayers, such as the Sh’ma, Amidah, Aleynu, and Kaddish, and of the Torah service, to help guests follow and better understand the service. My son wrote descriptions of the relationship between his Torah and Haftarah readings and his community service project–raising money for a library in Guatemala–connecting the ancient text to modern-day problems of poverty, lack of education and immigration.
For friends and relatives we rarely see, the booklet also gives a good idea of the young man our son is becoming. It includes photos of him with his Catholic, Christian and Jewish relatives, as well as with his friends. Everyone could see his growth from infancy to adolescence, his skateboarding phase, and his one-year stint on the middle school football team. The pictures show the close relationships he has with his younger brother and his two Jewish uncles. Alex has always been a great reader with a fine sense of humor. We put in a timeline of several of the stories he’d enjoyed through the years, starting with Pat the Bunny and ending with The Taming of the Shrew, along with some choice Dilbert comics.
The booklet honors Alex’s deceased Jewish grandparents, great aunts and uncles, most of whom he had never met, through old photos of them. This made it feel more like those family members were there, where they rightly belonged–it is their heritage that is being handed down.
As a parent who isn’t Jewish, planning for Alex’s bar Mitzvah was emotionally overwhelming at times. I think the fear of doing something “wrong” is greater for those who haven’t grown up in this tradition, and perhaps even for Jewish parents who are returning after a long absence. We know of other parents who felt they had to meet expectations of other family members, primarily Jewish grandparents. That wasn’t the case with our families. My husband’s parents had passed on years before, and my family had no expectations whatsoever. None of them had ever been to a bar mitzvah.
But my dad was eager to participate. A former high school German teacher, he is enthralled with other languages, cultures and faiths. Our rabbi, Daniel Brenner, who is director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, readily suggested a reading of Psalm 30, David’s song for the dedication of the temple.
Typical for my enthusiastic dad, he showed up that morning with something additional to read. My heart raced as I wondered how it would fit in with the service and if the rabbi would approve, especially on short notice. Reb Daniel didn’t miss a beat and gave the OK for my dad to also say a prayer for a bar mitzvah after the D’var Torah, Alex’s speech about the meaning of his Torah and Haftarah readings.
The older my dad gets, the more sentimental he becomes, and it was obvious how proud he was of Alex and to be able to be a part of the event. We all felt the glow of Alex’s achievements in the days to come, and my dad said several times that he wished he didn’t have to wait two years for the bar mitzvah of our second son, Jeffrey. Alex himself was practically jubilant and relieved when it was all over.
As I write this, we are traveling that path again. The first time around, I often felt unsure of my footing, though now the path doesn’t seem so slippery. Alex’s bar mitzvah made me even more certain that we have done the right thing by choosing Judaism for our family. He learned so many necessary lessons–the importance of struggling, questioning, practicing, helping those less fortunate and speaking with conviction in front of a large group–lessons that will serve him well as he continues his journey to adulthood. I think that the bar mitzvah had a profound impact on his younger brother, who had been a pretty regular complainer about Hebrew School, but who has begun his independent bar mitzvah tutoring with a seriousness and degree of responsibility that has surprised my husband and me. Now, that may not last, but it has enabled us to take a deep breath and not be as anxious; he, too, will be prepared.
In the months to come, I will keep reminding myself that the whole process is to be celebrated, not fretted over. Just as every interfaith family is unique, so, too, is every b’nai mitzvah, but the basic service and prayers are the bedrock for us and something wondrous to share with all our family and friends.