In many congregations, there are opportunities for involvement of parents, relatives and friends, although the number of opportunities varies from movement to movement and synagogue to synagogue.
In many cases, the congregation will not allow those who are not Jewish to say particular prayers or perform particular rituals, but will allow those who aren’t Jewish to stand on the bima while other Jewish family members say the prayer or perform the ritual. It is important to discuss this with the rabbi.
Here are some main ways in which family members are allowed to participate:
1. The parent(s) are called for an aliyah.
The Jewish parent is typically called for an aliyah. Many congregations will allow the parent who is not Jewish to come to the bima for the aliyah but not say the prayer because it refers to the Jewish people as “us.”
In some Reform synagogues, the partner who isn’t Jewish reads the translation while the Jewish partner recites the blessing.
A ruling of the Conservative movement’s authority on Jewish law does not allow those who aren’t Jewish to receive an aliyah, but there may be exceptions in some synagogues.
In some congregations, parents who aren’t Jewish are not allowed on the bima.
2. Relatives are called for an aliyah.
Very few congregations allow relatives who aren’t Jewish to be called for an aliyah. Also, every congregation has different rules about how many of the aliyahs the bar/bat mitzvah family can assign. Some synagogues attempt to split the aliyahs fairly evenly between the bar/bat mitzvah family and the congregation at large.
3. The parent(s) say a blessing over their child.
Often, after the child has read the Torah and Haftarah readings, the parents will recite the Shehecheyanu blessing, which thanks God for the opportunity to celebrate the occasion. Some congregations may not allow the parent who is not Jewish to say the blessing, but will allow both parents to say an English blessing.
4. The parent(s) hand the Torah to the child.
This relatively new ritual is meant to symbolize how the Torah, the holiest book of the Jewish religion, is passed from generation to generation, and has been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years.
Some congregations allow the parent who isnt’ Jewish to participate in this ritual, although they may restrict that parent from touching the Torah. According to rulings from the Conservative moment’s authority on Jewish law, those who aren’t Jewish are not allowed to touch the Torah.
5. Relatives open and/or close the ark (the holy area that holds the Torah).
Before the Torah is read, the doors or curtains to the ark are opened and the Torah is removed from the ark. This is considered a very holy moment. After the Torah is read, it is returned to the ark.
The privilege of opening or closing the ark is often reserved for a revered older member of a family. Conservative congregations typically do not allow those who aren’t Jewish to open or close the ark, while many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations do.
6. A relative carries the Torah around the congregation.
Before the Torah reading, the Torah is carried around the congregation and people are given an opportunity to “kiss” the Torah indirectly, either by touching their prayer shawl to the Torah and then kissing the prayer shawl or by touching their prayer book to the Torah and then kissing the prayer book.
Few congregations will allow relatives who aren’t Jewish to carry the Torah because traditional Jewish law “prescribes that a gentile cannot touch the Torah,” according to Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and Michael Boekstal.
7. The parent(s) give a talk to the child after he/she reads the Torah and Haftarah.
This is an opportunity for the parent to publicly express their love and pride for their child. In the congregations that offer this opportunity, it is very likely that the parent who is not Jewish will be allowed to participate. This is a wonderful opportunity to speak about the choice you’ve made to raise a Jewish child. It’s also a great opportunity to recognize relatives (e.g., grandparents) who aren’t Jewish, whether or not they have not had a chance to participate in the service.
8. The parent(s) present the child with a prayer shawl (tallit).
The Jewish prayer shawl is a four-cornered shawl with knotted fringes that men, and some women, often wear during the Shabbat service. Because wearing a tallit is a sign of reaching adulthood, many parents give their child a beautiful new tallit as part of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. In the congregations that include this ceremony, it is likely the parent who is not Jewish will be allowed to participate.
9. Relatives read other prayers.
Depending on the movement and the synagogue, there may be other prayers that relatives can recite, such as the prayer for Israel, the prayer for the government, the prayer for peace or the prayer for the armed forces. Many congregations, including Conservative ones, will allow relatives who are not Jewish to read these prayers in English.
Some temples allow the bar mitzvah family to choose favorite poems or songs that family members, including those who aren’t Jewish, can read.
There are other ways that some congregations will allow relatives to participate. Ask your rabbi if you can include family members who aren’t Jewish in these practices, which include:
There may be other rituals that non-Jewish relatives can participate in. Talk to your rabbi about the opportunities and who’s allowed to do what.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families is also available as a PDF document.