For interfaith couples who choose a Jewish identity for their families — even ones who have shared holidays with their extended families and answered questions for years — a bar or bat mitzvah raises new questions.
Am I welcome? If I attend, what will be expected of me? Should I wear one of the little hats that the men wear? Can I participate in the prayers? Will they all be in Hebrew? Will I understand what is happening? Should I stand when the other people do?
Thus the b’nai mitzvah process will be another step in the Jewish journey of the family — immediate and extended. After all, congregations are increasingly full of Jewish families in which one of the parents has converted to Judaism or isn’t Jewish at all. And that means plenty of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who are not Jewish.
Rather than being an event that separates these different people, this sacred celebration can be a time to strengthen relationships between interfaith family members and to build Jewish identity for the family celebrating the simcha.
For each family, there are two categories of questions that usually arise. Some questions relate to participation in the service and others involve making everyone feel included and welcome. In terms of participation, each synagogue decides on its own specific policies. Be sure to inquire about them early on. They may or may not be covered at a family meeting at the beginning of the b’nai mitzvah year.
Many Reform congregations invite non-Jewish parents to be present on the bimah for the aliyot and the Jewish parent recites a blessing in Hebrew. Some synagogues invite non-Jewish parents to share blessings in English, either translations of Hebrew prayers or perhaps to share blessings in their own words.
The participation of non-Jewish grandparents may also vary from congregation to congregation. Some will invite non-Jewish grandparents to participate as the Torah is marched throughout the congregation. Other non-Jewish family members may be included to open or close the ark or stand with a Jewish family member during an aliyah.
As for issues of inclusion, most families want all grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who attend to feel welcome. This may be the first time that some of these people have been to a synagogue or attended a Jewish service of any kind.
To help, Temple Beth David in Westminster invites all families to write a program that is distributed along with the prayer books. Families can choose to explain the service, describe religious objects, introduce family members and share thoughts from the parents and bar or bat mitzvah.
The tradition was started by interfaith couples who wanted all of their family members to understand and enjoy the service. After a while, it became a tradition for all families in the congregation.
For congregations that do not have such a tradition, it is advised that the family talk with non-Jewish relatives members prior to the service. Tell them what to expect; let them know when and how they will be asked to participate. Some may not wish to take an active role — that’s OK; that is their choice to make and should be respected.
Some families will decide to include all family members in Shabbat dinner and the celebration after the service. Shabbat dinner can provide a time for all grandparents to give the child a blessing or share their thoughts of love and pride. Guests can be acknowledged at the party or reception, perhaps, if you’re really creative, through a medley of songs that acknowledges the cities that relatives have traveled from in order to be present.
Those of us who have been privileged enough to be guests at b’nai mitzvah services where non-Jewish family members attend often are impressed by the number who travel thousands of miles to attend. They are as moved by the service as Jewish participants — and the pride of the grandparents is unrivaled.
As it often does, the Torah provides a wonderful lesson when it comes to being part of extended interfaith families. In Exodus, we learn that Yitro (Moses’ father-in-law) was a priest of Midian. He brought his daughter Zipporah and his grandsons Eliezer and Gershom to Moses in the wilderness because Yitro “had heard what God had done for Moses and for Israel his people” (Exodus 18:1).
The Torah does not tell us more about this aspect of the Moses story. We do not know if Yitro ever saw his daughter and grandsons again or if he participated in the significant moments of their lives. What we do know is that Yitro supported his daughter’s choice of spouse and her choice to join with the Hebrew people.
As we look at the questions of non-Jewish relatives participating in b’nai mitzvah services, the specifics may involve new questions, but the issue of inclusion may go back to Yitro and his role in the lives of his grandchildren.
So remember Yitro and Zipporah, and remember that the questions about love and inclusion have always been a part of our story and that our goal is to build strong, loving Jewish families that honor all family members.
Arlene Chernow is an associate director for the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Expanding Our Reach Communities of Practice. Based in Los Angeles, she has worked for the URJ since 1984 in the field of Reform Jewish outreach, consulting with affiliated congregations on issues of inclusion for interfaith families and Jews by Choice.