June 24, 2009
Navigating Interfaith B’nai Mitzvah
“Rabbi, my parents and siblings have never been to a Jewish service before. I don’t want them to be uncomfortable at Darci’s bat mitzvah. What should I do?”
“My husband is Catholic and really never comes to anything at the synagogue. He has always left the kids’ religious education up to me, but now suddenly he is really nervous that either he will be put on the spot and not know what to do or be left out altogether from the service at Ryan’s bar mitzvah. Help!”
“Rabbi, I looked at the list of service honors and I have asked my wife’s sister and brother who are Evangelical Christians to open the ark at Morgan’s bat mitzvah. Is that OK?”
“I am really excited about the ceremony of passing the Torah from one generation to the next at Jake’s bar mitzvah. I already told my Lutheran parents that they will get to pass the ‘Old Testament’ to their grandson, and they are thrilled.”
Welcome to the world of synagogue life in the 21st century.
I had many foolish preconceptions about being a rabbi when I was first ordained 33 years ago. Perhaps the most foolish of all was the assumption that whenever I would teach or preach in a synagogue it would naturally be to a congregation of Jews. Maybe rabbis in the distant past could make that assumption, and perhaps most Orthodox rabbis even today have a similar experience. But for the majority of rabbis who serve the majority of synagogues in America (and certainly in Los Angeles), every single time we stand in front of a congregation we know for sure that we are addressing Jews and non-Jews of all kinds at one and the same time.
In the 23 years that I have served Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Evangelicals have all been members of my congregation and community. They are married and partnered with Jews who themselves were raised in every stream of Jewish life across the entire spectrum of observance and Jewish knowledge. It sure isn’t your parent’s Judaism or Jewish community anymore. To maintain the balance of inclusion and affirmation of Jewish identity, which seems so crucial to the continuing evolution of Judaism as a religious civilization, complex, demanding and often delicate synagogue negotiating is called for.
Week after week I sit with the children and parents of interfaith families and discuss their upcoming bar or bat mitzvah service. They are almost always nervous about how their non-Jewish family fits into the celebration, how the many non-Jews who will be coming will experience and understand the service, the Hebrew, the rituals, the very idea of what a bar or bat mitzvah as a Jewish rite of passage is all about. And in the end, it is often those very families who are most moved, inspired and proud to be able to share such an important Jewish lifecycle moment with the non-Jews in their lives.
I could never have known so long ago that as a rabbi it is precisely these moments, when successful, that often bring the most personal fulfillment and sense of accomplishment in being a teacher of Judaism. Rabbis I know throughout Los Angeles regularly receive notes like this one I received just a couple of weeks ago: “As you know, many, if not most, of the attendees were not Jewish. Many had never been to a [bar or bat] mitzvah before, so they were getting a new experience. So many said that they wished their child could have a ceremony like this in their religion. They loved the feeling of ‘welcomeness’ that they got, too.”
How do you, as a rabbi, make interfaith b’nai mitzvah successful?
Strive to make sure that everyone in the family feels validated for who they are, regardless of their particular religious identity. We include non-Jewish parents in every aspect of the ceremony, affirming that they, too, have made the choice to have their children raised with a Jewish identity as well as learn and celebrate their Jewish history, rituals, holidays and lifecycle moments within the loving embrace of a nonjudgmental and accepting Jewish community.
The keys to success for most synagogues that wrestle with interfaith lifecycle challenges seem to be these:
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades and author of “There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate — Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage” (Praeger, 2008).