I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.
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