“We’re an interfaith couple. We’ve raised our children Jewish and are planning our daughter’s bat mitzvah for next year. It’s important to me that my parents, who are nominally Christian, participate in the service to the same degree as my partner’s parents, who are Jewish. After all, we’ve been told over and over again that the service is the most important part of the day—not the party. Our rabbi, who’s been great in all this, has assured me that there are readings that would be appropriate for my parents, but my parents aren’t interested!”
Congratulations—mazel tov—on the upcoming bat mitzvah! It’s wonderful that you want your parents to be a prominent part of your family celebration, and that you are clear about what you desire for the day. First, thank them for coming to the bat mitzvah. Tell them that you are so happy that they will be there and how important this is to you and to their granddaughter. Ask your parents if you and your partner can set aside a time to speak with them about their participation in the day. Setting aside a time gives them time to prepare so they won’t feel ambushed by the conversation.
When you speak, in person, if possible, share with them why it’s important to you for them to be a part of the service. Is it simply because you love them so much and want them to take part in the service in any way that feels comfortable to them? Is it to honor them? To recognize the critical influence they have on your family’s values and, in particular, your daughter’s growth and moral development? Is their participation important to you because it signals their approval or acceptance of your decision to raise your children in your partner’s religious tradition? Could a more private role fulfill your needs? Any of these are powerful reasons for wanting your parents to participate. Share with them your thoughts and feelings.
Calmly and neutrally, take time to hear their thoughts and feelings. Try not to construe their lack of interest in actively participating in the prayer service as a measure of their love and devotion. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable participating in another faith-tradition’s prayer ritual. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with participating in prayer in general. Perhaps they are reluctant to stand up in front of a crowd. Just as you hope your parents will honor and understand your choices for your family, respect and understand their choices. They may want to show their support in a different way from what you had anticipated.
Invite them to think with you about ways to meet everyone’s needs. Acknowledge that this might not be possible. Consider continuing the conversation at a later time, so everyone has time to think about what they heard. Check in again with your rabbi for creative solutions in your community.
While you are absolutely right that prayer service is the religious focus of the bat mitzvah, the party—called a seudat mitzvah, a feast celebrating a sacred occasion—has religious significance as well as familial and cultural meaning. The best solution might be active participation in the celebration after the prayer service or creating a private moment, like writing a letter to their granddaughter expressing their love and blessings for her.
Trying to balance family members’ different needs and expectations can make even the most joyous occasion stressful. Milestone moments naturally prompt a reflection on our life’s journey, and can sometimes bring up old hurts and resentments. Try to remember that it is joy and love that brought you to this important milestone.
For families where parents maintain more than one religious tradition, InterfaithFamily offers resources and community.
Rabbi Julie Zupan is the associate director at Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, which welcomes interfaith couples and individuals exploring Judaism. She is also an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a program of Hebrew College.