The North American Jewish community is more diverse than ever before. This is due in large part to the increasing number of intermarried families and children of intermarriage.
So when it comes to lifecycle events, long-held traditions about the role of interfaith parents and children of intermarriage are beginning to be amended to reflect the new realities of interfaith.
In this respect, it’s important to separate Jewish law from synagogue culture and instead focus on what we can do to welcome these families and bring them closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.
Each synagogue and congregation will address these changes in its own way. We have identified a few common challenges surrounding the role of intermarried families in b’nai mitzvah and have a few suggestions for ways in which we can open our doors to all in the Jewish community.
Challenge: Many synagogues and congregations don’t have well-defined roles for the non-Jewish spouse during b’nai mitzvah ceremonies.
Opportunity: While there may be some limitations concerning non-Jews and Torah honor, there are certainly no laws prohibiting a parent from standing with his/her child and offering a prayer or blessing. An effort should be made to honor both parents for raising their child in the Jewish community.
Challenge: Interfaith families have lower affiliation rates. If a family approaches and wants to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, most synagogues require that the family belongs to the congregation for several years before the ceremony and the child has to enroll in a program of religious education, as well.
Opportunity: Studying for b’nai mitzvah is a time-consuming process. If a synagogue is going to invest its time in education, it’s fair to ask a family to do the same. But there is no reason the commitment can’t come after the lifecycle event. Many unaffiliated families won’t start thinking about b’nai mitzvah three years ahead of time. It’s just as easy to accommodate these families by asking them to stay involved after the ceremony.
Challenge: On the day of the bar or bat mitzvah, many non-Jewish relatives will be in attendance. Some might be attending a Jewish service for the first time.
Opportunity: People will feel more comfortable if they know what to expect during the ceremony. Families can either send a small guide with the invitations or provide them at the event itself. By taking the time and care to introduce non-Jewish relatives to the rituals of the ceremony, you are displaying the warmth inherent to the Jewish community. This has the potential to cement bonds with members of your extended family while affirming the Jewish identity of the one celebrating the bar or bat mitzvah.
Challenge: Many components of the b’nai mitzvah service — such as carrying the Torah in a procession around the synagogue while people kiss it — will be foreign to those in a synagogue for the first time.
Opportunity: A synagogue service should speak to everyone in attendance, whether they are newcomers or long-time members. During the b’nai mitzvah, the rabbi or the child being bar or bat mizvahed can offer explanations for the particular ritual. They can even try to tie it in to the events in other religions to help facilitate understanding.
Challenge: Many synagogues and congregations don’t allow the non-Jewish spouse to say a blessing over the Torah.
Opportunity: There are numerous opportunities for the non-Jewish parent to participate in if they can’t say a blessing over the Torah. The parent could offer a prayer at the beginning or conclusion of the service, or read a passage from contemporary literature that explicates the theme of the Torah and Haftorah readings. The parent could also offer a reading prior to the Kaddish, specifically to honor the memory of those not in attendance who contributed to the Jewish identity of the child. A b’nai mitzvah ceremony provides plenty of room for both parents to engage in the celebration.
Challenge: The non-Jewish relatives — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — want to participate in the b’nai mitzvah.
Opportunity: If including numerous non-Jewish relatives becomes too complicated, it’s important to remember that the reception after the b’nai mitzvah is a Seudat Mitzvah, a commanded and festive meal. During the reception, family who couldn’t participate in the service can share family recipes and stories, strengthening the connection between themselves and the community they are now a part of.
When a person is called before the Torah for a b’nai mitzvah, it should be a celebration not of just that person and their family, but a celebration of the entire community. Finding ways to engage intermarried families — and people of all backgrounds — will show that everyone is welcome to stand under our big tent.
Levi Gibian Fishman is the communications associate for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which promotes inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews. For more information, visit www.joi.org.