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Involving Both Sides of Our Family in Tzedakah Projects in Preparation for My Son's Bar Mitzvah

June 2002

My son Joshua became a Bar Mitzvah (assumed the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew) at the end of February. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life, and I am sure my husband's, too. Joshua's younger sister would call it one of the most irritating days of her life, thereby openly admitting to her ten-year-old jealousy, yet grinning so you know she is just teasing. But it was no joke getting ready for this event, because I was in charge for the most part, and I am the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage.

Getting my husband's family ready for the Bar Mitzvah was really a matter of calming them down. Their excitement and pleasure were cause for great joy. They rallied around Joshua and supported him all the way. They gave him gifts of traditions, stories, keepsakes, and of course, a beautiful tallis (prayer shawl) and kippa (head covering) I just had to remind them that a portion of the people attending would be friends and family who had no idea what to expect. It became my job to siphon off the enthusiasm from one side of the family and share it with the other.

Getting my family ready for a my son's Bar Mitzvah was a process I knew I had to start early. We had about fourteen months to get organized, so I used this to my advantage. To educate myself, I went to the rabbi to learn what the service would be like and how family members would be allowed to participate. I asked him directly if he had any idea how I could make my family comfortable with what would occur. He was very specific and offered clear explanations about the service, which helped me explain to my family what would happen, and why. I also consulted other families in our synagogue, read as many books as I could find, and copied several pages from one book to share with my family so that they would have some solid information.

I invited my family to read and learn if they wanted, well in advance of the event. I explained that this was a celebration of my son becoming a more mature and thoughtful person. I reassured them that I had spent twelve years helping Joshua understand both religions and that he would be expected, no matter how old he became, to continue to respect and love all his relatives. I wanted them to understand that my son was choosing a moral life and religious identity for himself, not rejecting them.

As a Christian Mom, I wanted to be a part of this process, too, so my son and I began a thirteen-month tzedakah (charity) commitment together. The idea was to use each of the thirteen months until his Bar Mitzvah to do thirteen small charity projects. Each project was dedicated to and accomplished with one special family member, regardless of that person's religion. It was my son's job to contact that family member, choose a small charity project with them, do the project for or with that family member, and then record his efforts in a scrapbook. We displayed his scrapbook at the reception after the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The scrapbook became a symbol of the things that both sides of my son's families had in common--commitment to charitable works. This was by far the best thing we did in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah at home. We now have a permanent set of pictures and stories about each family member working with my son, and it's all in his own handwriting in the scrapbook. By connecting with each relative, discussing that person's choices for tzedakah money and volunteerism, the relatives were then able to feel a part of my son's life and share a special, sometimes private part of their own lives with him: the charities they care about and support on a regular basis.

On the big day, we distributed a special booklet I put together that included background on the synagogue and information about the traditions, symbols, and order of the service. One last thing I did, which was very important to me personally, was to include a song in the service that was sung in Hebrew but was simple enough so that everyone could sing it together. The song, "Hinei Ma Tov," had an English translation which was a verse that I had heard at church every Sunday during my childhood, and I knew my family and friends would recognize and find comfort in the words: "Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters join in unity."

My daughter began the service by singing the first verse of "Hinei Ma Tov," and then read the following in English, from our synagogue's Children's Torah Service: "Long ago, it was written in Torah: 'Assemble the people — men, women and children, even strangers — to hear the words of Torah, to learn to love God, to do what Torah teaches.' Torah is a tree of life we planted and cared for. In this scroll is everything that has made the Jewish people special, from Mount Sinai until today. Torah teaches us love and justice, goodness and hope and freedom. Let us declare God's greatness and give honor to the Torah."

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." 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." Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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.
Debi Tenner

Debi Tenner is Afterschool Enrichment Program Coordinator at her children's school. She is a member of the New Haven Area Interfaith Families, which met monthly for ten years, but no longer actively meets. This same group gathered for Sunday school classes, where her children learned about both Christianity and Judaism. At all times, children's right to choose a religious and spiritual style they were comfortable with was respected, while they were also helped to learn about the other religion.

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