Interfaithfamily.com has published a very disturbing personal essay by a mom who wasn’t allowed to speak from the bima at her daughter’s bat mitzvah.
The essay by Debbie Burton doesn’t say how long ago the incident occurred, but the gag rule for gentiles remains in place at her Chicago congregation, which she describes as an independent lay-led minyan that relies on “Conservative legal opinions.” (To learn more about independent minyanim, which vary tremendously in their overall outlooks as well as their approaches toward interfaith families, read my colleague Rivka Oppenheim's excellent recent article or go to the Mechon Hadar Web site.)
My understanding of Conservative legal opinion is that, while a gentile can’t say the blessings associated with having an aliyah, nothing prohibits him or her from standing on the bima and speaking to the congregation. Also, I know of many Conservative shuls where non-Jewish family members can and do receive honors at life-cycle events. J.J. Goldberg, the former Forward editor and a onetime Jewish Week columnist, recently wrote about a Conservative bar mitzvah in which gentile family members participated. At my niece’s upcoming bat mitzvah, at a Conservative shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my lapsed Catholic husband will help open the Ark.
A few months ago, I attended a Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs workshop for the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary students, where the Federation’s executive director, Rabbi Charles Simon, noted that the restrictions many synagogues debate about where non-Jews can stand or if they can touch the Torah are “minhag,” or tradition, rather than Jewish law.
“It’s about perception, culture, how do you create a sacred space,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a halachic issue. How you handle this is up to you, but don’t get stuck” thinking that Jewish law prohibits things it does not actually prohibit.
So, I don’t know why the leaders of Burton’s minyan feel the need to stick to such a hard line, especially since, as she writes:
...even though I wasn't Jewish, I had played an important role in my children's Jewish education and upbringing. Not only had I driven my children to and from many of their three-times-a-week Hebrew school classes, but I had pushed for greater Jewish observance in our household. I was the one, not Joshua, my Jewish husband, who suggested that we should always say the appropriate food blessings before eating together as a family at home. I was also the parent who wanted to establish the weekly habit of always doing the Havdalah rituals that mark the end of Shabbat.
Also, she later adds, “I did not feel that speaking at my daughter's bat mitzvah would be speaking on behalf of the congregation, thus requiring me to be Jewish. I would have been speaking for myself as a mother of a Jewish child whose bat mitzvah was being celebrated with the congregation that we felt privileged to be a part of.”
Not allowing non-Jewish parents, particularly ones who’ve been supportive of their children’s Jewish upbringing, to participate in their children’s bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies just seems mean-spirited to me. Do people think it will actually discourage intermarriage and encourage gentiles to convert in hopes of getting better treatment?
Amazingly, despite being treated so poorly, Burton continued participating in the minyan and chose to convert to Judaism. I have to wonder how many people in her situation would have thrown up their hands in frustration and left the Jewish community, or at least that particular Jewish community, altogether.
The happy ending to this story is that Burton’s son’s bar mitzvah is coming up and as a full-fledged Jew not only will she be able to speak from the bima, she’ll be one of the Torah readers. According to Burton, she learned to chant Torah by helping her son prepare for his bar mitzvah and “now I am more skilled at chanting Torah than my husband.”
Once the bar mitzvah is over she plans to suggest that the minyan revise its policies. Best of luck, Debbie, welcome to the Jewish people and kol hakavod (way to go/congratulations) on your many accomplishments!
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