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InterfaithFamily.com was pleased to offer "Dear Dr. Paula," written by Dr. Paula Brody, the nationally prominent specialist on interfaith family issues. Dr. Brody's monthly advice column responded to email letters submitted by our readers.
Dear Dr. Paula,
I am writing as a concerned sibling whose brother is in an interfaith marriage. My sister-in-law is a wonderful woman, raised Catholic, who has raised both my nephews within Judaism. She has been tentatively supportive of my brother's religion, our family holidays and traditions. Their oldest son is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah this year.
Something happened recently which upset her greatly and has also upset me. At a recent meeting of Bar Mitzvah families, the rabbi referred to the parents and children as "members of the tribe." My Catholic sister-in-law found this incredibly off putting. I also find this term offensive and insensitive to interfaith families. Help! She is so disturbed, she said, that she doesn't want to go back to the synagogue. What can I say to change her mind?
Dear Concerned Sister,
It sounds as though you have a close relationship with your sister-in-law. I am glad she felt able to talk to you about her feelings regarding this incident. Your communication and consolation will be important to her as this issue is resolved and throughout the coming year as well, when, inevitably, she will have feelings as a Catholic mother experiencing a significant Jewish life-cycle ceremony for her son and family.
The term "members of the tribe" has biblical origins. The descendants of the sons and grandsons of Jacob were referred to as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jewish people descended from these tribes. It is important to note, however, that historically, "members of the tribe" have come from many diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. This young religion, Judaism, had begun only two generations prior, with Abraham, Jacob's grandfather. Many of the wives, the mothers of the Jewish people, were Canaanites and members of other "tribes."
Interestingly, were the word "tribe" used by non-Jews to describe the Jewish community, most Jews would find it very offensive. Similarly, for someone like your sister-in-law and the other parents in that gathering who were not Jewish, the use of that term feels not only offensive, but excluding. It was an unfortunate choice of words by the rabbi, and I hope your brother and sister-in-law will communicate directly to the rabbi how they felt when the term was used.
Whereas Judaism may be described as one of the oldest surviving religions and civilizations, Jews today are not a "tribe" and Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not a tribal initiation ceremony. This approaching Bar Mitzvah is an important rite of passage, not only for your nephew, but also for your brother, sister-in-law, and entire family. Catholic parents and those of other faiths are apt to feel excluded from some aspects of the Bar Mitzvah experience despite their years of commitment to raising Jewish children, and the expression "members of the tribe" may rub in these feelings. Use your relationship, and your caring, to be supportive to your sister-in-law during what may be an emotionally difficult time.
Your Catholic sister-in-law is deserving of much appreciation by her Jewish family and her Jewish community for the commitment she has demonstrated in raising her Jewish sons. I hope that the rabbi realizes this and expresses his gratitude to all the parents who have nurtured a Jewish identity in their children, especially those who did so without being Jewish themselves. I hope you and your family, as well as the rabbi and synagogue community, will express gratitude for your sister-in-law's commitment, which has enabled her son to reach this life-cycle moment. It will be important, as your sister-in-law returns to the synagogue, that opportunities for meaningful inclusion in this celebration be made available to her.
Dr. Paula Brody, Ed.D., LICSW, is director of Outreach Programs and Training for the Northeast Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), where she develops and coordinates a wide range of programs and services to welcome interfaith families into Reform congregations.