Finding My Voice

By Debbie Burton

May 5, 2010


When I first heard that my Jewish congregation did not allow spouses who aren’t Jewish to speak from the bima at a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, my oldest child, Rachel, was several years younger than that age. I had participated actively with my family in our warm and accepting Jewish congregation since Rachel was a toddler, but I was not Jewish when I heard about this rule, nor was I when she became a bat mitzvah.

Even though our congregation was independent and not officially affiliated with any Jewish movement, it relied on Conservative Jewish legal opinions. This meant that our congregation did not consider either of my children, Rachel and her younger brother, Joel, to be “Jews by birth,” even though their father is Jewish, because I, their mother, was not Jewish when they were born. We formally converted both children when they were young, so the congregation accepted them both as Jews eligible to be called to the Torah at bat and bar mitzvah age.

It had not really bothered me before my daughter’s bat mitzvah that as someone who wasn’t Jewish I could not have any kind of ritual role in my congregation. I could not have an aliyah, the honor of reciting the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah, or even the simple honor of putting the cover back over the Torah after it is read. In our small congregation of only about 90 families, any guests and all members are offered various honors from time to time. Even very small children are given the honors of opening the Ark (the cabinet containing the Torahs) or leading the songs “Ein Keloheinu” or “Adon Olam.” But since I wasn’t Jewish, I was not even allowed to be an official minyan member, and although some liberal Jewish congregations give honors to spouses of other faiths, ours does not.

Our minyan is lay-led, meaning that we have no paid or official clergy, although some members are rabbis or have served as cantors for other congregations. So at every service, members lead the traditional liturgy, chant from the Torah or haftarah, or give a d’var Torah sermon. As a perosn of another faith, I wasn’t allowed to do these things, but I didn’t have the skills to lead services or chant anyway, and I was happy to listen to the more knowledgeable minyan members give the sermons.

But I felt differently about not being allowed to speak at a celebration for my own child. It was the first time that I had ever felt that I was excluded from a minyan activity because I was not Jewish. I was hurt to feel prevented from publicly sharing my thoughts on the occasion of a Jewish milestone of my child.

After all, even though I wasn’t Jewish, I had played an important role in my children’s Jewish education and upbringing. Not only had I driven my children to and from many of their three-times-a-week Hebrew school classes, but I had pushed for greater Jewish observance in our household. I was the one, not Joshua, my Jewish husband, who suggested that we should always say the appropriate food blessings before eating together as a family at home. I was also the parent who wanted to establish the weekly habit of always doing the Havdalah rituals that mark the end of Shabbat.

I did not feel that speaking at my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be speaking on behalf of the congregation, thus requiring me to be Jewish. I would have been speaking for myself as a mother of a Jewish child whose bat mitzvah was being celebrated with the congregation that we felt privileged to be a part of.

We provided a kiddush luncheon in the social hall after the services, so I probably could have spoken during the meal since it would not be from the bima. Because our minyan strictly observes Sabbath prohibitions, we also had an evening event so that we could have klezmer music and dancing, and that was held in the bigger social hall of another synagogue. I’m sure I could have spoken then.

Another alternative would have been for Joshua, as the Jewish parent, to speak on behalf of both of us. Josh even likes to talk: I’m proud of the fact that he is known in the minyan for giving interesting and insightful divrei Torah sermons. But in solidarity with me, he did not give a speech either.

Even that night when we hosted dessert and dancing, I had not decided whether or not to say something. But the restriction on my speaking from the bima left me feeling cowed, so I chose to busy myself as I had at the synagogue in the morning with hostess duties since I had been the one to make all of the catering arrangements and all of the non-ritual logistical plans. My daughter was just as happy that her parents did not share some embarrassing stories from her childhood.

Joel’s bar mitzvah is coming up in less than two months. This celebration will be different, but not because my minyan has changed its policies. Rather, the difference is that I finally converted, so I am Jewish now. I still plan to suggest that the minyan ought to revise its policies concerning spouses and parents of other faiths, but I’ll do that after the bar mitzvah.

At Rachel’s bat mitzvah, my husband read a Torah portion. Interestingly, I learned to read Torah by sitting in on my son’s bar mitzvah tutoring lessons and then drilling him on the musical notes and melodies for chanting. In this past year since converting, I have read Torah regularly once or twice a month, so now I am more skilled at chanting Torah than my husband. But my son will celebrate his bar mitzvah with a weekday morning service when there are only three short readings, so he will chant all of them himself.

However, I’ll get an aliyah for a Torah reading and I will give a (short) speech. I’m looking forward to using the opportunity to embarrass both of my children!


About Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).