December 18, 2013
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Including non-Jewish guests in your bar mitzvah service

Style over substance

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

I had a crazy idea. I have a lot of guests that I want to invite to my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Some aren’t Jewish and others are co-workers or neighbors. I think they will be completely bored with the service, but I really want to have them at the party and include them in the celebration. Can I only invite a smaller circle of guests to the service and then everyone just to the party? I think that would be a perfect solution.

— No Service Provided

Dear No Service,

You’re absolutely right. That is crazy.

OK, nice idea. I get it. You’re understandably concerned that the people who are invited to the bat mitzvah will have to sit through a long and sometimes incomprehensible service. Even more so if the guests aren’t even Jewish — they will be sitting through hours of prayers and rituals that have no meaning to them. However, if you encourage so many people to skip out on the service and just arrive for the “fun stuff,” then you will be sending the wrong message about your daughter’s bat mitzvah and what it really means.

The service is the culmination of months and even years of preparation. Your daughter has probably been learning about the prayers throughout her entire religious school education. She also had to master a set of melodies and trope symbols in order to read from the Torah or chant her haftarah. It’s nice for your relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to get an idea of the amount of work that goes into the service.

Furthermore, if a lot of people only attend the party, then you will be unwittingly sending the message that a bar or bat mitzvah is only about the celebration, without any spiritual or religious aspect. Sure, you know what the whole thing is about, but when your non-Jewish colleague only attends a fancy reception, how is she supposed to understand that there’s so much more that’s involved?

Why not take a different approach and make your non-Jewish guests feel comfortable by slightly adapting the service so they can participate? Here are just a couple possible suggestions:

• Depending on your synagogue, you may be able to include a bit more English in the service. You might be able to have some prayers recited in English or else insert one or more English readings that you and the rabbi feel are appropriate. Again, this will greatly depend on your temple’s policies.

• You could prepare a short handout for guests to take as they sit down. It’s very common for out-of-town or non-Jewish guests to receive a brief written explanation of the service. Even if they can’t follow along with every page, they will have a big-picture understanding of the major points of the service.

In your desire to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable, don’t underestimate your friends’ desire to feel included in your traditions and to appreciate what your daughter has learned. Rather than “sparing” them the tedium of a long service, you will actually be providing a wonderful advertisement for Jewish ritual and the importance of your daughter’s and your family’s Jewish commitment.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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Reader Feedback

Tehilla S. from Springfield says:
I don't think it's just non-Jews who don't fully grasp the concept of what it means to be a bar/bat mitzvah...
May 7, 2014, 2:13 am

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