Sam and Mary had an appointment with the rabbi. Their daughter, Rachel, was scheduled to become a Bat Mitzvah in less than a year. Mary was nervous. Sam did all the talking.
“With all due respect, rabbi,” Sam began, “we want to know what we are getting into before Rachel starts her Bat Mitzvah studies. You see, rabbi, Mary is not Jewish. And we want to be sure that she can be a part of our daughter’s celebration. We really want the whole family to participate.”
Becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a wonderful event. The child stands before family, friends, and community and declares: “Being Jewish is important to me. I stand today–just as my ancestors did at Mt. Sinai–as a responsible Jewish (young) adult.
How marvelous! How equally marvelous it is that non-Jewish parents and relatives wish to support this Jewish effort and commitment. So, how do interfaith families join together for this occasion?
Here are a few suggestions for interfaith families contemplating a Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration.
Remember: Synagogues are in the business of helping Jewish families live Jewish lives. Each community has its limits and privileges. Just as a non-Christian would not take communion, so, too, synagogues have frameworks within which non-Jewish family members can participate.
Such preparation can begin a few months before the ceremony or even before a baby is born. But there is another type of preparation. The challenge of an interfaith family raising Jewish children is balancing each parent’s own religious tradition and the Jewish tradition in which the child is raised. Emotional and religious dynamics come to the forefront during this time. Questions parents should ask of themselves include:
If the answer is no to any of these questions, this can be a wonderful teaching moment, where parents help their child understand that values and actions go hand-in-hand. Clearly, most children desire their parents and family all to celebrate. They want to be “like everyone else.” This is an opportunity for parents to teach about the statement one makes when leading Jewish worship (by accepting an honor during services). And the statement is: “I support my child’s Jewish choices, my child’s Jewish identity.”
The parent (or family) who has been uninvolved Jewishly can still celebrate authentically and participate fully in the “secular” aspects of the celebration (party, etc.) and in those aspects of the service which involve “presence” but not “participation.” In this manner, the child is honored by both parents (and family) and the child understands the privilege of “being Jewish and behaving Jewishly.”
Honest answers will help each family know what level of participation is appropriate for this “coming-of-Jewish-age” ceremony for the child.
It is an extraordinary opportunity for learning and growing when interfaith families approach the time when children become B’nai Mitzvah. Asking a few questions–both of self and of synagogue–and sharing one’s Jewish heritage in advance can make the event one of true celebration for every member of the family who attends.