Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.
Dear Wendy: A Question about My Daughter's Bat Mitzvah
InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
Readers can contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about interfaith issues. Of course, Wendy will not be able to respond to every question, but she will try to respond to as many as she can and sometimes may combine questions on similar topics and address them in one article. She will use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect people's privacy.
I am a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man. We have two daughters eight and ten who are being raised Jewish. Our decision to raise our children Jewish has been particularly painful to my mother and father. After we told my father of the decision, he told me I have to do what I have to for my children and that he would support us, but do not expect them to participate in my children's religious upbringing. We have maintained a very warm relationship with them as long as we do not discuss religion. We live 1200 miles apart and only see them two to three times per year. We avoid visits around holidays, which seems to keep the peace.
Thus far I have respected their wishes. But as my daughter's Bat Mitzvah is approaching, I am rethinking my actions. This is not about me or them, it is about my daughter. It is her day. She doesn't yet quite understand . . . this division. My question is, should I invite them? Should I send a letter to them months in advance asking them if they want to be invited? Or should I just ignore it with them. Should I ask my daughter what she wants to do?
What advice do you have?
Mother of Two
Dear Mother of Two,
I am very impressed with your respect for your parents and the tactful balance that you have been able to maintain over time regarding your religious differences. Now comes an occasion that has you re-thinking the status quo. The key question to me is whether you would like for your parents to be present for this significant lifecycle event.
Yes, technically it is your daughter's day. However, the "division" that was created when you decided to raise a Jewish family came about because of you and not your daughter. You may decide that it is too risky to rock the boat in terms of the original agreement you made with your parents. On the other hand, such a important marker in your daughter's life offers an opportunity to bring your parents into a closer connection with your children. Certainly a talk with your daughter is in order to explain the history of how you and Dad arrived at your decision to create a Jewish family, how you think that decision has affected your parents, and why you are choosing to include them (or not) at her Bat Mitzvah. You will also want to prepare your daughter for the possibility that your parents may reject the invitation not because they do not love their granddaughter, but because it goes against their principles.
If you do decide that you would like for your parents to be at the ceremony, then by all means begin laying the groundwork now. A letter is a lovely idea. First you will want to express what their support has meant to you through the years. Then you probably will want to explain the purpose of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish religion and why this overture is coming at this particular time. You might want to talk about the tradition of honoring one's parents. Just as your daughter will be honoring the contributions of her own parents to her growth and development thus far, you would like to acknowledge your parents' contribution to your life (and your daughter's) by having them present at this very important event. You were not raised in a vacuum, and neither has your daughter sprung from one side of the family only. While you may not be choosing to continue the Catholic customs of your family, you are still a product of the values and morals that your parents instilled into you--values and morals that have become a part of your daughter's makeup as well.
I also suggest that you tell your rabbi about your plan to communicate with your parents. S/he might be able to suggest some resources that you could share with your parents to de-mystify this ritual as well as other aspects of Judaism. I have known some especially sensitive rabbis who offered to conference with non-Jewish extended family members and even to include the family priest as part of the dialogue.
When all is said and done, your parents may still feel that helping to celebrate this occasion with your Jewish family is more of a stretch than they can tolerate. It is possible that they may decide that they cannot participate in this ceremony on any level without feeling that they are somehow endorsing your decision to create a Jewish family. My hope is that with enough lead time and some thoughtful education, your parents can respond positively to your invitation.