Special Planning Issues for Interfaith Families

Interfaith families should ask the rabbi about synagogue policies and honestly examine both parents' attachments to Judaism.

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Interfaith families face unique challenges in raising their children, and many of these revolve around lifecycle events, such as bar/bat mitzvah. Every family responds to these challenges in its own way, and individual synagogues have their own rules on incorporating non-Jewish family members into the service. Most traditionalist communities forbid any participation by non-Jews in the prayer service and would only consider the child of an interfaith couple Jewish if the mother is herself Jewish or if the child underwent a halakhic (legal) conversion. Liberal communities tend to have policies allowing some participation in the services by non-Jewish family members, and the Reform movement considers a child Jewish if either parent, not just the mother, is Jewish, as long as the child was raised as a Jew. Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.

Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah is a wonderful event. The child stands before family, friends, and community and declares, "Being Jewish is important to me. I stand today--just as my ancestors did at Mt. Sinai--as a responsible Jewish (young) adult." 

How marvelous! How equally marvelous it is that non-Jewish parents and relatives wish to support this Jewish effort and commitment. So, how do interfaith families join together for this occasion?

synagogueHere are a few suggestions for interfaith families contemplating a bar/bat mitzvah celebration.

Talk with your rabbi early to know what the opportunities might be. Each synagogue is different. There is only one way to know what a congregation and a rabbi will permit family members to do: ask. Most non-Jewish parents are relieved just to know what they and their "side" of the family can do in a religious service. Rabbis and congregations owe it to their interfaith-married families to share openly the policy for non-Jewish participation in bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.

Some practical questions to ask include:

·        Can both parents be on the bimah (pulpit) as the child is called to the Torah?

·        Can non-Jewish relatives participate in any of the honors given out Friday night or Saturday morning, e.g., opening the ark, dressing the Torah, reciting specific prayers or blessings like the Prayer for the Country?

·        If the Torah is passed down through the generations, can non-Jewish parents and grandparents share in that passing?

Remember: Synagogues are in the business of helping Jewish families live Jewish lives. Each community has its limits and privileges. Just as a non-Christian would not take communion, so too, synagogues have frameworks within which non-Jewish family members can participate.

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Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio, has worked with interfaith families and on behalf of outreach for over 18 years.