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A Secular Welcoming

I adore officiating at baby welcoming ceremonies. They are so full of joy, heightened emotion and deliciously noisy children. In Humanistic Judaism we honor the birth of children with a celebration--usually, but not necessarily, within the first six months of a child's life. It may take place at home or in a congregational setting, at any time of day, and lasts from five minutes to about half an hour. A shared meal, as in most celebrations, is part of the festivities. The food served depends on the time of day and location of the event. This celebration is referred to in myriad ways, most commonly as a baby-naming ceremony. I tend to refer to them as welcoming ceremonies.

In Humanistic Jewish ceremonies we strive to make sure that the stated beliefs and feelings of the individuals involved are consistent with the acts being performed. The main purpose of the ceremony is to welcome and name the baby. In creating the ceremony, we want the people involved to feel that the event is an authentic reflection of their values, philosophy and deepest feelings. We also want the connection to family, to the Jewish people and to the human community expressed in a meaningful and relevant way. Since so many of the families we serve are intermarried, these ceremonies also honor the families' multicultural backgrounds.

In Humanistic baby-welcoming ceremonies, we follow a series of guidelines. They are flexible and are meant to do exactly what they say--guide. They are as follows:

  • Female and male children are treated equally.
  • Circumcision is not required to welcome a baby boy as a member of the Jewish people.
  • Circumcision surgery is typically held separate from the baby welcoming ceremony.
  • Inclusivity of both families and their traditions is important.
  • Ancestors deserve to be recognized and honored.
  • Reflection on the name, its meaning and why it was chosen is a central part of the celebration.
  • Guideparents (our term for godparents) are part of the ceremony.
  • Siblings are identified and included in the celebration.

Humanistic baby-welcoming ceremonies are not uniform, and differ in content and style from one rabbi or leader (non-rabbinic clergy) to another. Each of us has adapted ceremonial aspects from the traditional Jewish ceremony and added new ones. Consistent with Jewish tradition, a part of almost every ceremony is the giving of a Hebrew or Yiddish name. And typically there is a baby blessing that includes the sipping of wine, possibly by all those attending.

Grandparents may be honored during a candle lighting or flower presentation. They may have the chance to say something to the child, often a very moving and tender part of the ceremony.

Generally, circumcision is not part of the ceremony. Parents decide whether or not they want to circumcise their sons independent of the decisions they may make regarding a ceremony. Most circumcisions are done in the hospital, but, on occasion, they are done on the eighth day as part of the baby naming. Humanistic Judaism affirms the rights of parents to choose whether or not to circumcise their sons. We recognize the Jewish identity of a child whether he is circumcised or not.

We have also created some new ceremonial elements. Some families have planted a tree outside, or seeds or flowers in a pot, to symbolize the potential of the newborn child and the nurturing role of the community in raising the child.

To give a clearer idea of what our ceremonies are like, what follows are some examples of the kinds of things we say and do.

As part of the welcome and introduction to a welcoming ceremony for an intermarried couple, I have said:

(Names of parents) have chosen this birth celebration for (name of child) to honor both his Jewish and Christian heritages. These seemingly different traditions have in common the values of community, family, and love and respect for one's fellow human beings. These values are the values that (names of parents) commit to impart to (name of child). This ceremony acknowledges that the process has already begun and will be a foundation of their parenting.

In naming the child, we want to describe the reasons for the choices and celebrate those connections. Sometimes the meaning of the name in English or in Hebrew provides its own unique challenge. Here is an example of how a negative meaning can be both acknowledged and transformed.

(Name of parents) chose the name Maia to honor Grandpa Max. They hope Maia shares his qualities of peacefulness and inner strength. Maia shares her middle name, Ann, with her mother and Grammy Carol. She also carries her mother's family of origin name, (name inserted). These names connect Maia to (mother's) family. In Hebrew, we have named Maia, Miriam (name is pronounced and written in Hebrew). Miriam comes from the Hebrew word that means bitterness from the sea. In knowing the bitterness in the world, may Maia be spared personal bitterness and be full of empathy for those who are inflicted with it. The biblical Miriam is the sister of the great prophet, Moses. It was Miriam's ingenuity that saved Moses from certain death as she placed him in the bulrushes to be discovered by the princess of Egypt. Miriam, a leader in her own right, led the Israelites in dance, brandishing her tambourine, after they successfully crossed the Red Sea. Today, modern feminists have acknowledged her status as a prophetess and created Miriam's cup that now sits beside the cup of Elijah on the seder table. May the heritage of the Biblical Miriam and the meaning of her name provide her with a balance of the characteristics of empathy, joy, compassion and leadership in her life and help her appreciate and know the fullness of all that life will bring her way.

In including an older sibling and also giving her a Hebrew name, we said:

(Name of child), this is a special time for you too. You are now a big sister. You can teach (baby brother's name) the things you know and help him learn about life. When a new baby comes home, your parents have to spend a lot of time feeding and taking care of the baby. Mommy and Daddy want to thank you for your patience and understanding, and your help. They want you to know how much they love you today and every day. Today, we are going to give you a Hebrew name: Yael, which means "deer." When we think of a deer, we think of something that is quiet, strong and swift. We hope that these qualities also will be with you throughout your life and will bring you strength and confidence as you travel along your life's path.

Including the idea of godparents for Humanistic Jews, who focus on human relationships rather than a connection to a supernatural being, provided an interesting challenge. The solution was to create a category that we call, "guideparents."

In accordance with both Christian and Jewish traditions, (name of parents) have selected (name of guideparents) as Jacob's godparents. (To the guideparents), (name of parents) have chosen you as godparents because they believe you share similar life values and trust that you will play a significant and guiding role in (child's) life. For this reason, we will call you guideparents.

Humanistic Jews seek to be philosophically consistent in their life ceremonies, while respecting, honoring and retaining the connection to both families and their traditions. The welcoming ceremony is a Jewish-focused ceremony created in a way that is inclusive and embracing of other cultures and traditions, an authentic reflection of the child being celebrated.

Some of the ideas in this article were originally published in an article entitled, "Welcoming the Humanistic Jewish Child," in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1988.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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.
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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris

Rabbi Miriam Jerris is the rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis. She has been supporting intermarried couples and their families for more than 22 years. Jerris has been married to her Humanist, born-Catholic husband for more than 16 years. Contact her at miriamjerris@shj.org or through her website theweddingconnection.net.

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