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Interfaith Families and Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Questions and Opportunities

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 parents and relatives who are not Jewish 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.

  • Talk with your rabbi early to know what the opportunities might be. Each synagogue is different. There is only one way to know what a congregation and a rabbi will permit family members to do: ASK! Most parents who are not Jewish are relieved just to know what they and their “side” of the family can do in a religious service. Rabbis and congregations owe it to their interfaith families to share openly the policy for participation of someone who is not Jewish in Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Some practical questions to ask include:
    • Can both parents be on the bimah (pulpit) as the child is called to the Torah?
    • Can relatives who are not Jewish participate in any of the honors given out Friday night or Saturday morning (such as  opening the ark, dressing the Torah, reciting prayers or blessings)?
    • If the Torah is passed down through the generations, can parents and grandparents of other faiths share in that passing?

    Remember: Synagogues are in the business of helping Jewish families live Jewish lives. Each community has its limits and privileges. Just as someone who is not Christian would not take communion, so, too, synagogues have frameworks within which family members of other faiths can participate.

  • Teach family members who aren’t Jewish about the upcoming ceremony of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Take the time to let them understand why your child is preparing so hard for their special Shabbat (Sabbath). Help them learn what Torah means, how Jews understand Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Among the books available, I recommend two in particular: Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics: A Practical Family Guide to Coming of Age Together, edited by Cantor Helen Leneman, et. al., and Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin.
  • Show family members from other faiths what being Jewish means to your family and to your community. Invite them to join you when you celebrate a holiday or Shabbat in your home. Allow them to experience another child becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, so they will be more comfortable when their relative stands on the bimah.

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:

  • As the parent who is not Jewish, what has been my commitment to my child’s Jewish life? Have I helped to instill Jewish values and traditions? Will my participation in the ceremony be a natural extension of who I have been all along?
  • As the Jewish parent, will my spouse be comfortable participating in rituals that they may not believe in, or may not feel apply to them?
  • Has our extended family been supportive and nurturing of our decision to raise our child as a Jew? Will they be comfortable participating in a Jewish service, when they themselves do not choose to be Jewish?

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).

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.

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.