Planning My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah as a Jew-by-Choice

By Paula C. Yablonsky


“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Originally written by Dickens about the French Revolution, these were the feelings I had approaching my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

Years ago, after much discussion, my husband and I had decided that we would bring our daughter up in her father’s faith–Judaism. After choosing Judaism for my daughter, I then chose Judaism for myself.

Now, as our family had chosen to commit ourselves to Judaism, I worried about whether my mostly Catholic family of origin–you know, those people I grew up with and those who were involved in my creation–would come and celebrate this life-cycle event with me and my husband and daughter. Like all parents, I worried about the details: caterers, photographers, clothing, invitations and more. And like many Jews, I wondered about and pondered the meaning of this ceremony, wanting to make it as spiritual as possible, to make sure God was present.

As I have done in the past, I fretted and worried my husband with all my fears and desires. One year before the actual Bat Mitzvah service, I sat with my rabbi and asked for his help in handling family members, especially my very observant Roman/Ukrainian Catholic father. Since my father expected us to spend Easter with him, I wondered whether this would this be an appropriate time to discuss the Bat Mitzvah that would be held the following year. Under no circumstances, said the rabbi, should I discuss my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah with my dad on Easter. Go and enjoy a time with family, without adding stress to the day. It would be best to go by myself and visit with my Dad after Easter, he advised.

Acting on that very good advice, I visited my dad a few weeks later to discuss the upcoming Bat Mitzvah and its importance, not only to Erica but to her parents. My dad, with all the wisdom of years and the love that only a grandfather can have for a granddaughter, announced that he would be there to celebrate this day with his granddaughter. He said that Erica is his grandchild, that this is an important time for her, and that he wouldn’t think of not being there.

Next, I had to approach the subject with my siblings. At the time, there were very bitter feelings between my older brother and myself, which stemmed from religious differences regarding my mother’s funeral. As often as I had tried to reach out to him, to open a door, he kept slamming that door in my face. In tears, I described to my rabbi how I was afraid to send an invitation to my brother, that he might not respond to it or might respond very negatively, and that my daughter might take it as a rejection of her faith and of her personally. But how could I invite all my other siblings and not invite him?

Letting me vent all my fears, worries, and anger about this brother, my rabbi advised me to send the invitation. Let it be another door, he said, and if my brother chose not to walk through that door–that would be his choice. If he chose to exclude himself from family, then I would have to explain to Erica that this was between her uncle and myself, that it had nothing to do with her. I followed this advice and added my own twist by also inviting my brother’s girlfriend to attend, feeling that perhaps he would be more comfortable if she joined him. My brother and his girlfriend both attended.

As an interfaith family, another worry was how to assign the honors that B’nai Mitzvah (Bar and Bat Mitzvah) families are accorded during the service, while also honoring everyone’s beliefs and maintaining the integrity of the service. Following the custom of our synagogue, both Jewish and non-Jewish family members were invited to participate in the service. Finding honors for our Jewish family members was easy. But another concern was the strict Jewish Orthodox family members: would they even come to a Reform synagogue for a Bat Mitzvah? Would they accept the honors we wished to give them?

Wanting to include both Jewish and non-Jewish family members meant another conference with our rabbi. Looking at my daughter’s Torah portion, he was able to add another aliyah (blessing before or after reading the Torah) for my husband’s three sisters. Other Jewish family members would dress and undress the Torah, say particular blessings, and so forth.

But what about my younger siblings and brothers-in-law? Their support and love for my family made them an especially important part of our lives. We came up with a simple solution: my siblings read the English translation of the Torah and Haftorah portions. Then, the two brothers-in-law (very coincidentally, both Hispanic Catholics) opened the doors of the ark (where the Torah is kept) during one part of the service. For another part of the service, our Orthodox Jewish nephew, two interfaith Jewish and Catholic nieces, and our Roman Catholic niece were invited to open the doors of the ark.

As we prepared for this most holy life-cycle event for my family, sometimes I seemed more concerned with flower arrangements, with whether or not my daughter studied her Haftorah portion adequately or wrote her d’var torah (interpretation of the torah portion), than with anything spiritual. Where is God in all this, I wondered?

Well, God was present in my father’s very gracious reply to my invitation to attend my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

God was present when a group of friends announced that they would help with the preparations–baking for the oneg Shabbat (light refreshment) after the Friday night service, making centerpieces for the teen’s tables, and helping stuff favor bags for them.

God was there when my father-in-law shyly asked if I would let him offer Erica the tallit (prayer shawl) he was given on his Bar Mitzvah, more than sixty years earlier.

God showed up when the cherry blossoms outside our synagogue bloomed the day before my daughter’s service, and when the sun shone as our rabbi took Erica by the hand, brought her outside, and told her the blossoms were especially for her.

God was present when my older sister, whom I hadn’t seen in a year, embraced me, exclaimed that she loved my new hairdo, and embraced me again, both of us with tears in our eyes.

God was especially there when I, angry at my husband who kept disappearing during the picture taking, asked him if he could be where he was supposed to be, and he smiled and answered “obviously not,” making me laugh at the absurdity of it and defusing a tense moment.

God was there when my college friend came in early from New Mexico–to help with final details and to keep me focused and sane.

God was there when we saw all our nieces and nephews, all the parts that make up our family tree, ranging in age from two to fourteen years, up on the bimah (podium) together.

God was there not only during the prayers and blessings, but also in all the small moments–letting us see the wonder of family and friends, and the love and pride we all shared that day.

Of course, every day has its bumps, and this day was no exception. Some family members arrived late. My father, feeling the loss of my mother, became tired and ill, and walked off the bimah to sit with my older sister, prompting some temple members to ask if he was making a political statement regarding Judaism. Some family members who strictly observe the Sabbath wouldn’t arrive for the party until after sunset that evening (which, being the first evening of daylight savings time, was rather late), and so forth. But nothing detracted from the joyful emotions I felt that day. As I look back to that day in April and all the days leading up to it, I find it difficult, sometimes, to express in words the emotions I felt–and then, at other times the words come quickly. All the worry, anxieties, and fears disappeared, and a sense of wonder and joy came upon me.


About Paula C. Yablonsky

Paula C. Yablonsky is the co-editor of TechKnowledgies. Paula lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband, Mark Gibbons.