Honor Non-Jewish Parents of Jewish Kids

Once the interfaith family exists, alienating families that are interfaith but committed to raising Jewish children is not good for Judaism.

Non-Jewish parents who commit to raising Jewish children are heroes. In the Jewish world, they too often are thought of as interlopers and threats. When Jewish clergy talk shop, we sometimes discuss how to navigate a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony when one parent isn’t Jewish. Depending on denomination and inclination, some clergy and congregations allow little or no ceremonial involvement, and as far as I am aware, all clergy and congregations that do allow ceremonial involvement place limits on that involvement.

Today I am speaking primarily about clergy and congregations that allow some level of ceremonial involvement by non-Jewish parents at a bar or bat mitzvah.

In my practice, there are some blessings and rituals that are appropriate for non-Jews to lead, and others that are not. For example, the Shabbat-morning blessing for creation, often called the yotzer, is pretty universal. We bless God our God, ruler of the universe, creator of all heavenly lights. As far as I am concerned, anyone who believes in God (and there is wide latitude about what that word “God” means) can recite that blessing, even lead it, with integrity.

Other blessings are for behaviors that are mitzvot, commandments, or they refer specifically to the person reading them as a Jew. A blessing that includes language indicating that the speaker him- or herself is commanded to do something, or saying that the speaker is a member of the Jewish people, can generally not be said sincerely by someone who isn’t Jewish.

In my synagogue, we do a ritual where, in recognition that a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is the next generation taking responsibility for the Torah, we pass a Torah scroll from generation to generation: from grandparents (if they are present), to parents, to the child. This, too, is a ritual I generally reserve for Jewish parents and grandparents, who are the ones passing their tradition on to the young person celebrating the bar or bat mitzvah.

So I have policies and rules about how a non-Jewish parent or grandparent can participate, as most clergy and congregations do. I also think it is very, very important to communicate to the non-Jewish parent that what they are doing is extraordinary, beyond the call of duty. The first person to teach this to me was my first rabbi, Rabbi Tom Weiner. Why should we expect that a person who is of another faith or no faith would commit to raising a Jewish child? And yet, every week in my synagogue, where at least a third of the children in our religious school family have a non-Jewish parent, people who aren’t Jewish bring their kids, participate, attend services and learn about Judaism. Sometimes these parents end up converting to Judaism, but usually, they don’t.

When it comes to a bar or bat mitzvah, I don’t think, “What is it okay to let them do?” I think, “How can we honor them as much as possible within our parameters?” I think of these parents the way Moses thought of his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro visited the Israelites in the wilderness, and Moses welcomed him with a feast. Jethro participated in religious rituals to Moses’s God (sacrifices, at that time). There is no indication that Jethro was considered suspect in any way.

I don’t think intermarriage is the dire threat to Judaism that so many of my colleagues do. That doesn’t matter here, though. Once the interfaith family exists, alienating families that are interfaith but committed to raising Jewish children is not good for Judaism. In my synagogue, there have been times when a non-Jewish parent has played an integral role in making a bar or bat mitzvah possible. She — and it’s been a mom, in my experience — has attended Hebrew lessons with her child, or otherwise made extraordinary contributions to her child’s Jewish life. In these cases, in our ritual of passing the Torah from generation to generation, I have included the non-Jewish parent, which I usually don’t do. But when a parent who isn’t Jewish does more than many Jewish parents to pass Judaism on to their child, they deserve to pass the Torah physically, because they really are doing it metaphorically too.

My approach maintains distinctions between those who are Jewish and those who are not. What the non-Jewish parent does in the service I lead is likely similar or the same to what he or she might be “allowed” to do in another synagogue.

But words matter. Words created the world. Let us let go of what it’s okay to “let non-Jews do” or what they are “allowed to do,” and move toward an attitude of “Here is what I can offer to give you the honor you so richly deserve.” It may seem subtle, but to families whom it affects, it matters. Let us desire to honor anyone who wants to build the Jewish people by raising and educating their children as Jews, no matter whether they themselves are Jewish or not.

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