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Bar and Bat Mitzvah Planning for Interfaith Families

July 28, 2010

It looked like an innocuous letter from her temple. Perhaps a dues bill, a flyer for an upcoming sisterhood event, or maybe the latest youth group news. But when she opened it, she discovered that this was unlike any other letter she had ever received.

Dear Beth and Mark,
The date that has been assigned for your daughter Sydney’s Bat Mitzvah is …
TWO YEARS FROM NEXT SEPTEMBER??!!

My friend Beth looked at her 11-year-old playing with her American Girl dolls and thought, "She won’t be 13 for two more years. Why are they telling me now?"

When Beth had agreed to raise their daughter in her husband's Jewish faith it occurred to her for a split-second that a bat mitzvah would be in the in the future. So far, in fact that she didn’t think of it again until the letter with the date arrived. "What’s the rush?" she thought, stuck the letter in a drawer and forgot about it.

Fast forward about a year and a half ...

Suddenly it was time for Sydney to start her bat mitzvah lessons. Beth, her husband Mark, and Sydney met with the cantor to discuss what Sydney would be expected to learn and set up a schedule for her lessons. This was followed by a meeting with the Temple’s bar/bat mitzvah coordinator who provided them with a mountain of information the resources available, including a "Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101" class they had to attend.

Planning a bar or bat mitzvah is a daunting project for anyone, especially the first time one does it, but even more so when one isn't Jewish. Beth had no idea where to start and what to do. Suddenly six months didn't seem like such a long time.

The "Bar and Bar Mitzvah 101" class left Beth feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. Before anything else was discussed, they were urged to remember that the spiritual aspect was more important than the party. That was a problem. Mark only went to Temple on the High Holidays and she had been raised Methodist.

From observing other bar/bat mitzvah families, Beth noticed planning for this event was usually the responsibility of child’s mother. How could she do this when she had such little experienced with a Jewish lifecycle event? She really didn’t even know what it meant to become a bat mitzvah.

Feeling panicky, Beth scheduled an appointment with the rabbi. She had so many questions: What was a bat mitzvah and what did it mean to a Jewish girl? Why did Sydney have to study for so long and learn so much? How could they make it a spiritual event? What would she and Mark be expected to do? And last, but far from least, how could she as a non-Jew participate as well as include non-Jewish family members and friends?

Beth had never met the rabbi and felt intimidated. She apologized for her lack of knowledge of Jewish traditions. She assumed that every Jewish person knew what to do and because she wasn't Jewish, she might do something to offend people. When the rabbi told her that many born Jews also needed the same information, she felt better. The rabbi welcomed her questions, told her where to go for more information and assured her that non-Jews could be incorporated seamlessly into the service. This made her feel better.

Having supported many Interfaith and same-faith families through the process, the bar and bat mitzvah coordinator was the go-to person for everything. She answered Beth's questions about the logistics of the service and options for the celebration afterward. She directed Beth to the synagogue library where there was an entire section dedicated to b’nai mitzvah planning. There, Beth was able to draw on the experience of other families who had been through the process. She found ideas for traditional and non-traditional ways to celebrate. There were reviews of caterers, photographers, and other vendors. Reading the sample bar/bat Mitzvah service programs that families had submitted provided more insight about Shabbat services and how to explain them to inexperienced friends and relatives

Perhaps the best advice Beth received from Nancy was to take a step back and consider how she wanted to remember the day of Sydney’s bat mitzvah. Would it reflect their family’s values? Would it be meaningful and inclusive for everyone, regardless of faith? Would Sydney remember anything other than the party?

With that in mind, Beth began planning Sydney’s bat mitzvah. She and the other mothers of Sydney’s classmates, both Jewish and non-Jewish, became an informal support group. Sydney, with her father’s help, began her mandatory mitzvah project, reading to residents of a local nursing home. Beth blinked and suddenly it was two months before the bat mitzvah.

Just before she mailed the invitations, Beth became worried about the reactions of her non-Jewish family and friends. Would they feel alienated, uncomfortable and conspicuous--if they even came? A friend, also part of an Interfaith family, suggested that Beth include with the invitations some information on the meaning of a bat mitzvah, synagogue etiquette, and what to expect at the service. She had found that doing this had gone a long way to alleviating her guests’ anxiety. Beth took her advice.

With a month to go, they met with the rabbi again to discuss the specifics of the service. He went over the honors and identified those that required the participation of a Jew and those which a non-Jew could perform.

It was important to Beth that her parents take part in their Jewish granddaughter's bat mitzvah, but wasn't sure how they would feel about participating in the Shabbat service. Beth decided to offer them ways in which they might participate and let them choose what, if anything, they wanted to do. She was thrilled when her parents chose to pick out a tallit and present it to Sydney at the service.

Beth never once felt excluded. Although she couldn't bless the Torah, she stood next to Mark on the bimah as he chanted the blessings. She was at Sydney's side when Sydney blessed the Torah for the first time and chanted the portion she had been studying for months. She read with Mark the speech they had written.

Sydney was terrific. She was poised and articulate as she was welcomed into the community of Jewish adults. In his remarks, the rabbi honored Beth for her selflessness in supporting her child's Jewish education and expressed the gratitude of the entire Jewish community.

When I met Beth for coffee a couple of weeks later, we talked about how in no other religion is there anything equivalent to a bar or bat mitzvah in terms of the length of the child's preparation and how much participation is expected from the child and her family. Beth said that even her most uptight relatives told her that they found the experience fascinating. I told Beth that she deserved all the credit for making Sydney's bat mitzvah meaningful, inclusive and fun for everyone. I also told her that she should become a bar and bat mitzvah planner for other interfaith families. She would be an inspiration to those families who thought, as Beth had, that only a Jewish person could make a proper bar or bat mitzvah. She declined, but is always available to interfaith families for advice and to show them that just as she did, they can and will make it to "The Date."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Lois Rubin

Lois Rubin has a BA degree from Simmons College and MS degree from Northeastern University in Information Systems and teaches Hebrew and Judaica at Temple Emanuel of Andover, where she is a board member and chair of the Outreach committee. Lois is a proud graduate of the Schindler Fellowship Program in Interfaith Family Counseling sponsored by the URJ at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. She lives in Andover with her teen son and daughter.

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