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Jewish Journal

Navigating Interfaith B’nai Mitzvah

by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

June 24, 2009 | 8:42 pm

“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:

  • Never assume anything. Make sure that everyone in the family, Jews and non-Jews alike, is given as much orientation and information as possible as to what exactly is expected of them, what the service will look like, feel like and who will be doing what throughout. Ignorance encourages anxiety, so you cannot over-communicate expectations clearly.

  • Create the opportunity for both Jewish and non-Jewish parents/partners to speak to you privately about their concerns, anxieties, insecurities and needs. People will often put up a stoic, brave front when together, but when alone will reveal powerful family issues and worries that the rabbi can proactively handle and be sensitive to at the time of the service if warned in advance.

  • Encourage families to communicate with their non-Jewish relatives and friends in advance about what the service will look like, when they need to be there, what they will be expected to do, what to wear and what the minhag hamakom, or the specific customs of your particular synagogue, might be so they know what to expect. Do all males wear kippot? Do women as well? Are they expected to wear a tallit if they are part of an aliyah to the Torah? Are there things that only Jews can do in the service? Are they expected to recite words of the Torah blessings or other readings in Hebrew? In English? The more they know in advance the better and more secure everyone will feel.

  • Encourage couples to see the experience through their spouse’s/partner’s eyes. We are often so caught up in our own experiences — our own lifetime of expectations and excitement about fulfilling dreams we have had of raising our own children — that we don’t stop to imagine an entirely different range of feelings, attitudes and experiences. If differences can be seen as opportunities, they can bring couples, families and whole communities together in ways that remind us there is more that unites us than divides us in the things that matter most in life.

  • Remind yourself what matters most ultimately. This is a life-transforming moment for the child, and it is his or her experience that matters most. The greatest successes I have had when issues are difficult and emotions tend to be on edge is to help parents and sometimes extended family remember where their priorities need to be. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes more time than I would like. Sometimes you simply have to keep showing up with each family in the way they need most, give support to each child and each parent, provide an emotionally and spiritually safe way for everyone to feel included and valued before everyone can come around to putting the child first.

  • In the end, as the rabbi, it is my job to communicate clearly about my own priorities as well. The principles that have made the most difference in my own rabbinic work are simply these: People don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care, and people are more important to me than rules. When I sit with any couple, any family, any issue, it is putting people first that has most often allowed the negotiating around bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies or any other challenge to find its way to ultimate resolution and shalom (peace).

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).

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