Dispatch from the Institute: Less “Bar,” More “Mitzvah”

By The Jewish Outreach Institute


The Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) was originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to study the phenomenon of interfaith marriage. JOI’s services have since grown to include training outreach professionals and sponsoring innovative outreach programs throughout North America–part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). JOI’s primary mission is to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community and to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried and unaffiliated. This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah has stood the ultimate test of a meaningful ritual: survival. It’s just one of those ceremonies that we can’t seem to get rid of–nor get enough of! The Reform movement tried to do away with it about a generation or two ago, rightfully arguing that kids at twelve or thirteen years old are really not ready to take on adult responsibilities. But it soon came back with a vengeance, with added meaning as an affirmation of equality for women (and girls).

Originally, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah functioned as a relatively simple marking of time (much like the drinking age in contemporary society functions, whether you act on it or not). In the Middle Ages the lifecycle event developed into a ceremony that more closely resembles what we know today, providing a powerful experience for children and their parents when it is handled correctly (not the familiar “go in your room and practice and don’t come out until you’re done!”). It didn’t become an over-the-top, schmaltzy event until the late 1960s.

Looking beyond today’s lavish celebrations–where the “bar” seems to be more important than the “mitzvah”–there is real potential for a spiritual family experience. And while, unfortunately, few synagogues offer our children much in the area of true adult responsibilities after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah (ironically, the children are “taking on the commandments” of adult responsibility that most of their parents have chosen not to model!), it can be an important rite of passage for the children of interfaith parents, particularly as a way to affirm Jewish identity.

Since the interfaith family is usually forced to contend with a variety of ritual and family challenges, they tend to take it more seriously than do other families, and have invested themselves more in modeling for their children and participating in the ceremony–even when they have not been welcomed to do so. Thus, there is an added opportunity for interfaith families to re-invest the Bar/Bat Mitzvah with meaning.

Some parents and/or children choose to use the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as an occasion to convert to Judaism. And children who have converted may use the ceremony as a way to affirm their conversion (something that Jewish law also requires).

While searching for the spiritual, many interfaith families are unfortunately forced to contend with the ritual policies of synagogues: who can participate in what and where. This can be very frustrating, even for those who understand that the intermarriage phenomenon is relatively new to the Jewish community and that many institutions are still feeling their way. For example, in some congregations ritual decisions (particularly regarding the pulpit) are left to the sole discretion of the rabbi. Many of these decisions are more about the culture of the synagogue than they are about Jewish law. There is no law that prohibits non-Jews from standing on the bimah (raised platform in the front of the sanctuary), yet there are congregations that maintain such a policy. Others limit the participation to “pulpit honors” that are neither historical nor include a blessing. Hopefully the interfaith family has found a congregation that helps them to feel comfortable despite policies that may seem exclusionary.

If a large number of non-Jewish relatives are attending the ceremony who may not be familiar with the customs of a particular synagogue community, you may want to include a separate note in the invitation about various “do’s and don’ts” in order to prevent any embarrassment on the day of the event. Some families prepare small booklets that guide guests through the prayer liturgy and the ceremony itself, as well as general Sabbath policies at the synagogue. People always feel more comfortable when they know what to expect and what is expected of them. Children spend a great deal of time preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and it is a shame when family issues threaten to eclipse these accomplishments, especially when they could have been avoided.

The most important advice: plan ahead–don’t wait until the last minute to work out family details. Remember how powerful the Bar or Bat Mitzvah can be as a spiritual experience in the life of a child and his or her family, and use this critical opportunity to cement bonds with the members of your extended family.

About The Jewish Outreach Institute

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.