According to the National Jewish Population Survey, there are approximately 1.5 million non-Jews helping to raise Jewish families in the United States.
Certainly, this reality is prevalent in the Southern Jewish communities I work with, and we often face the question: “To what extent can these non-Jews participate in the rites of Judaism?”
This question becomes front and center as a family prepares for a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. With its focus on the “transmission of Torah,” this event is full of symbolism. Recreating the Mt. Sinai moment, the rabbi often will take the Torah from the ark and pass it to the grandparents, who then pass it on to the parents, who finally give it to the child.
But, which family: non-Jews, or just Jews?
Obviously, this question is highly charged, religiously as well as relationally, both for the family and the officiating clergy. Because, how can one honor a child’s entire lineage while maintaining our unique Jewish legacy? Recently, officiating at a Bat Mitzvah held in a 100 year-old Mississippi Delta congregation, I approached the challenge in this way, attempting to honor both family and history:
“Here stand the generations of this Bat Mitzvah’s family. Though all may not be able to trace their lives back to Sinai, surely all have transmitted Torah to this child. For some, it was done through the written word. For others, it was done through action, as they maintained a life in accordance to the eternal values of our faith. There are those who say this is odd; our Sages disagree. For, they questioned, ‘Why was Torah given to the people on Mt. Sinai and not in the land of Israel?’ Because, they answered, ‘had God delivered Torah in Israel, the Israelites may erroneously think it as their sole intellectual property. But, as Torah was given in an ownerless place (i.e. the wilderness), it is and should always be open and available to all.’ [Numbers Rabbah 1:7]”
Thinking and acting as if Torah belongs to Jews and Jews alone would have been a mistake then, and now. Sure, it is our honored responsibility to ensure Torah’s existence from generation to generation, but we do so in order that others may have the opportunity to freely live by its lessons. That what’s occurring in this family, and so many others throughout the Jewish world, where non-Jews are actively molding the next generation of Jews.
So, we all must ask ourselves: how are we ensuring that the blessing of non-Jews within the Jewish community is being celebrated?
How do you (or your congregation) work to include non-Jewish community members in your midst? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
When we brought our baby son home from the hospital nearly 27 years ago, we imagined many things for his future.
The Army wasn’t one of them.
The Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that there are currently around 10,000 active duty men and women known to be Jewish. My son, Sergeant Harrel Carlton Kimball, is one of those active duty Jewish soldiers.
I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise – from a very young age, he insisted on running outside every time he heard a “hoptercopter” in the sky! We got really lucky after basic training; he was assigned to his individual training at a base that had a retired Rabbi serving as a Chaplain. It gave him an opportunity to connect to something familiar and normal during this big transition in his life. Then he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, for his home base. He attended synagogue for a couple of Shabbat services and the high holy days in Nashville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes away, and the congregation was very happy to accommodate him!
And then came his first deployment in 2010 to Afghanistan. How does a Jewish mother bless her child before an event like this? The only thing I could think to do was the priestly blessing over him. Much to my surprise, he did not stop me, or even seem embarrassed when others passed us by at the airport. It was a moment I will never forget.
While in Afghanistan, he celebrated the High Holy Days privately, without any service attendance; Chanukah, too, came and went during this deployment, but it was a sheer delight! His buddies rallied around him as he opened his gifts, played dreidel and lit his tiny Menorah.
Since that first deployment to Afghanistan, he spent a year-long deployment in Honduras, and is now considering one more tour in Afghanistan if he reenlists for another year (he is nearing the completion of his six year enlistment). The most common question I get from others is how I cope with the worry. My faith helps. I do not believe my son or I are any more important to God than anyone else, but my faith gives me strength to deal with life.
My hometown rabbi, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, gave a sermon once that really stuck with me. It was titled “The Jungle is Neutral.” “The jungle” could be the universe, a war zone, mother nature, a bad cell inside a body, a stray bullet, a car accident; his sermon’s thesis was that these things do not happen to bad people as a punishment, they just happen. This is my faith, this is my Judaism, and this is my strength.
Of course, I pray for my son’s safety and the safety of all of our troops. I pray because my connection in prayer with God gives me strength, and because my son knows that I pray, and that gives him guidance and strength.
As an “army mom,” three things have helped immensely:
- Avoiding constant worry.There is no advantage to constant worry. It only hurts the worrier and doesn’t help the child (in this case, a full-grown soldier) you’re worrying about.
- Remembering that anything can happen anywhere. Who is to say that on any given day someone is safer here or there? I wonder how many moms used to worry about their child’s job in a New York high rise. We just don’t know what the future holds.
My son, Sergeant Kimball, plans to finish his military career in early 2014 or early 2015, and then finish college and pursue a civilian career. I tease him that he must then give me GIRLY GIRL grandchildren that I can take to ballet and to get mani/pedis and buy lots of sweet pink things for, after all this army-boy stuff! I tease him that this is my reward for keeping a stiff upper lip, but the truth is, he has been my sweet reward all along. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Do you know any Jewish soldiers? How do their families navigate deployments and military life?
As a parent of teenagers, there are times when you make decisions for your kids and there are times when you empower them to make their own decisions. A recent conversation around the dinner table at our house included discussion of the upcoming Confirmation service in which my 10th grader Jacob will participate.
My youngest son, Eric, asked Jacob: “Why do you have Confirmation?”
Jacob’s immediate response, before explaining what Confirmation meant (which is probably what his younger brother was asking), was simply: “I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
I didn’t respond to that statement – at least, not first.
First, we discussed what Confirmation meant, perhaps not quite as eloquently as the explanation from MyJewishLearning.com: “The custom most commonly associated with Shavuot is the ceremony of Confirmation. The festival of Shavuot, because of its association with giving of Torah, has been linked with the study Torah. The ceremony of Confirmation was introduced by Reform Judaism in the early part of 19th century in Europe and was brought to the United States about mid-century. In this ceremony, the now-maturing student “confirms” a commitment to Judaism and to Jewish life. While boys and girls are considered to be spiritual adults by age 13, they are better prepared at age 16 or 17 to make the kind of emotional and intellectual commitment to Judaism that Confirmation implies.”
Then, we “discussed” the other issue.
“I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
That’s right – there was no choice.
When it was time to sign up for religious school, we completed the paperwork for Jacob. It was not even a consideration that he wouldn’t participate. My husband and I believe that it’s our job as parents to give our children opportunities for learning. It’s also a larger lesson in taking an active role in the community. I would like to think that Jacob would have come to the same decision. I mean, what’s so terrible about having dinner once a week with your friends, and then spending some time with the rabbi discussing current events and learning more about Judaism and other religions?
Tonight, May 10, Jacob will join his six other classmates as they lead the service, share in the Torah reading, and discuss what they have learned this year. I am proud of him, proud that he understands that this is just one more step in his Jewish learning and his participation as a member of his Jewish community.
We don’t take the commitment and participation in the Jewish community lightly. Our confirmation class has seven students – not because students that age opted out – that’s the total number of Jewish kids in our community that are Jacob’s age! Out of those seven students, two students live out of town – in fact, they live about two hours away. Although they have Skyped many weekly sessions, they (and their parents) have also driven 4 hours round trip in the middle of the week to participate whenever they could. This is truly a commitment to Judaism and the community.
As I listened to the confirmation students and the rabbi have one last practice of the Torah service on the bimah, I heard laughter, gentle teasing of each other, but also support of one another. They have created a wonderful community and they genuinely care about each other.
When I see the group in their white robes chant The Ten Commandments and discuss what they have learned this year, I know I will feel proud of Jacob and his classmates as they continue on their Jewish paths. I also feel confident that when he gets a little older, he’s not going to mind at all that we “made” him do this. In fact, I’m pretty sure tonight, he’ll be glad to be standing with the members of his community.
Mazel tov to all of you who have kids participating in Confirmation services this year!
Did you ever “make” your kids participate in Jewish communal life? Did your parents “make” you? How do you feel about it?
(Editor’s Note: the photos included in this post come from the archives of the ISJL’s museum department. From the top: Columbus, MS, Confirmation Class of 1937; Clarksdale, MS, Confirmation Class of 1963; Auburn, AL, Confirmation Class of 2008. Yasher koach to the Schipper family, and all of the students soon to be pictured in the Jackson, MS Confirmation Class of 2013, continuing the community tradition!)