The few studies on the Jewish affiliation patterns of children of interfaith families have consistently shown that children of intermarriage have stronger Jewish identities as adults if they are bar or bat mitzvahed.
This article and video from The Charlotte Observer tells the story of Paloma Wiener, 16, and her brother, Brandon, 15, who are studying for their bat and bar mitzvah together. Their mother is Mexican and their father is Jewish, and they moved to Charlotte from California recently, so they got a late start on studying to become b’nai mitzvah. The fact that they are going through the process at a later age reaffirms their commitment to Judaism, and makes it highly likely their religious identity will remain with them throughout their lives.
The same principle applies to adult children of interfaith marriage as well. Robert Rosenbaum of San Francisco, 45, was the child of a non-religious Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in a very Christian part of Florida. He was turned off to religion from a young age; the only connection to the Jewish religion he had was his father’s annual trek to synagogue for Robert’s grandfather’s yahrtzeit (annual memorial prayer). But after reconnecting to the Jewish side of his family in New York, he started a journey back to Judaism. First, he took an Intro to Judaism class; then, he converted; and two years ago, he had a bar mitzvah. That commemorating, culminating act likely insures that he will identify Jewishly for the rest of his life.
A bar or bat mitzvah can also serve to tie the non-Jewish member of an interfaith family closer to the Jewish community. In this wonderful column for the (Danbury) News Times, Brian Koonz relates how his son’s bar mitzvah filled him with pride but also left him feeling “disconnected”:
Despite belonging to the temple for over a decade, I often felt like I was attending services on a guest pass, albeit a guest pass with all the incredible warmth and privileges of full membership.
It was easy, almost convenient, to let other temple members volunteer for committees and projects. I was the Catholic spectator, after all, the reason Easter and Christmas were celebrated in our house.
I wasn’t qualified to conduct temple business. At least, that’s what I told myself.
But when his temple asked for volunteers to teach third-grade Hebrew school, Koonz felt he couldn’t say no. It was his way of giving back to the temple.
It’s easy to bemoan how the modern bar mitzvah has mutated into a garish display of conspicuous consumption, but the ceremony still retains a powerful, if not immediately apparent, impact on a child’s future identity–and his family’s relationship to Judaism.
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