Rabbi Barbara Penzner is a Reconstructionist rabbi serving Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, Mass. She is also the mother of two children who teach her every day.
Creating a Comfortable Bar or Bat Mitzvah for Intermarried Families: Some Thoughts
Originally published April, 2000. Republished April 20, 2011.
When it comes to Jewish celebrations, every family is an intermarried family. That is, every family combines different backgrounds, expectations, memories and baggage. Sometimes the gap between the two families is narrow and hardly noticeable; other times it looms and threatens to become another family member to be placated.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah are the kinds of celebrations that appear to feature the child first and the family second. Whether preparing for the service or the party, the child ought to be at the center, but at the center of what? The center of a synagogue community, ideally, in which she or he suddenly receives recognition as a member who "counts" — counts in the minyan (number of people needed to read from the Torah), counts as a skilled reader of Torah or service leader, counts as a voice in the congregation, an individual with needs beyond child care. From a rabbi's perspective, that is the "achievement" of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony, not a performance, or a show, but a welcome to a new young adult who is ready to take on more Jewish responsibility as a caring and contributing member of the community.
But we also know that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah event brings families into focus, highlighting joys and sorrows, those who attend and those who are absent, those who feel "comfortable" in the service and those who don't. Attending to family needs, from hotel rooms to place cards, can enter the foreground, often overshadowing the message and the meaning of the simcha (celebration).
There are two sets of people to consider, the immediate family and the guests (everyone else). The immediate family, including parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah should, wherever possible, have special roles in the service. First, find out what parts non-Jews can play in your synagogue. Remember, every synagogue is different, even within a particular Jewish movement or denomination (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist...). For example, in many Reconstructionist congregations, non-Jews can take non-speaking parts, like opening the ark or wrapping the Torah, or can lead English readings, but may not lead the congregation in the Torah blessings or other prayers that assume a commitment to Judaism.
The key is what is appropriate, both from the synagogue's point of view, and the point of view of someone who has not declared membership in the Jewish people. Sometimes, a parent is simply a proud parent and doesn't need to play a religious part, just a family part. In many synagogues, a non-Jewish parent will join the family group on the bimah (platform) for the rabbis' blessing. In other cases, one parent participates in the ceremony while the other takes the limelight at the reception.
Ask the rabbi how the family can be treated as an organic unit — as much as the synagogue will allow, and as much as the non-Jewish parent is willing! For example, often parents are offered an opportunity to speak to the child, and one does not necessarily have to be Jewish to do this. In some synagogues, both parents can come up to the bimah for an aliyah (honor of reciting a blessing before the Torah reading). The Jewish parent may recite the blessing, which is an affirmation of Jewish commitment, while the non-Jewish parent may stand by their side.
Most Bar or Bat Mitzvah services today will have non-Jews as guests. In an intermarried family, many of the non-Jewish guests will undoubtedly be close family. Here are a few ideas for trying to help them — with the understanding that different people will respond to your efforts in different ways.
- Give out as much information as you can to non-Jews who attend. You can explain the service, the Shabbat and prayer customs, including the kippah (yarmulke) and tallit (prayer shawl), standing and sitting. Find out the customs of your synagogue that might not be obvious to someone who is not Jewish, such as not taking photographs or writing in the synagogue. Ask the rabbi if the synagogue has a booklet with explanations. Jeffrey Salkin's bestseller, Putting God on the Guest List, contains an explanation of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service specifically for non-Jews, with permission to photocopy and distribute.
- Some synagogues allow families to create a supplement that includes creative English readings, the Torah portion, and explanations. You might also consider asking friends to serve as greeters at the door if the synagogue does not have this custom already, to hand out the prayerbook and supplement, kippah and tallit where necessary, and to point out where they are in the service.
- Let the rabbi know who's coming and whom you want to involve, if possible. Perhaps he or she can add explanations during the service, or help individuals fulfill their tasks without embarrassment.
- If non-Jews can't take leading parts in the service, find ways to acknowledge them appropriately and authentically — at the party, at home, by mentioning them in a speech.
- Don't feel you need to change the service to accommodate non-Jews (or even Jews) who don't know what's going on. Have respect for the choices you and your family have made: the synagogue, the rabbi, the kind of service, and help your family and guests appreciate what you have found meaningful in your Jewish community.