a generic image of a girl reading from the Torah
(Photo/iStock)

We haven’t raised her with any religion, but now she wants a bat mitzvah

Dear Dawn: My practicing Christian husband and I have two girls. Our oldest will be 11 in the fall and has announced that we must join a synagogue and give her a bat mitzvah. I was raised Reform and didn’t have a bat mitzvah, though I was confirmed. We haven’t done anything to raise them with religion, as it isn’t important to me, but I refuse to raise them Christian. This feels like a huge change and a giant step. My husband is open to the idea, but will this last? Should we humor her and look for a synagogue? Isn’t she too old to study for a bat mitzvah now, anyway? Stunned Jewish Mom

Dear Stunned: This is not the first, second or even third time I’ve heard this story, and in each case it has been the eldest daughter and a Jewish mother. You should be pleased she wants to be like you. She probably is aware that her parents “belong” to something bigger, your husband to his church and you to the Jewish people. She may want what you both seem to have: a community.

You must decide whether you are willing to support her, because you sound quite ambivalent. If yes, then contact a Reform synagogue and make an appointment to talk to the rabbi and the head of the religious school (with your daughter and husband). Take her to services, one that includes a b’nai mitzvah. Ask if she can sit in on Hebrew school classes for a day. She needs to see what is required.

Find out if the religious school would enable her to get up to speed in time to have a bat mitzvah at age 13. She may need tutoring. There may not be any open dates near her birthday if it’s a large synagogue. You need to have all the facts before you make your decision, as does she.

And don’t be stunned. Instead, reflect on how proud you can be of a daughter who isn’t asking for material things, one who is exploring the idea of living a life of meaning and responsibility surrounded by a caring community.

Yes, it will take time and money. But if she suddenly had an interest in ballet or horseback riding, would you be willing to support her with less consternation?

It sounds like the real obstacle here is your own issues with religion in general and your Jewish tradition specifically. What do you anticipate will happen in a Jewish environment? Were you bored as a child? Did your parents participate, or did they just send you to religious school? Were you teased for being Jewish?

Can you identify what it is about your daughter’s request that gives you the most discomfort?

There are many rabbis who would happily talk to you without trying to change your mind. Believe me, they’ve heard these issues before. Also, I would be happy to speak with you at greater length.

One more thing you need to consider is your younger daughter. Are you and your husband going to support your older daughter and simply wait to see if her little sister speaks up? Or will you enroll her in Hebrew school and give her the same skills and knowledge that big sis is pursuing?

I have seen families go both ways. From what they have reported back to me, choosing to be Jewish as a family is better than supporting one member of the family in being a Jew.

This is a lot to think about, so let’s go back over all of the steps you need to take. Begin by discussing this with your husband. Why is he open to the idea? Find out more. Does he want to share his spiritual side with your children? Is that OK with you? Why do you feel threatened by having religion in your home? It is best to identify what this is about. Don’t live with unnamed fears.

Then, if the two of you decide to move forward with giving her a Jewish identity, contact one or more local synagogues. Meet with the rabbi and educator at each. Find out what is possible and what would be expected not only of your daughter, but also of you as parents. Be sure your daughter has as much information as possible going forward.

If all lights are green, then talk to your younger daughter. Happily explain that you have decided to commit your family to embracing your/her mother’s Judaism, and that she will be a part of it all.

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.