A Christian Mom Makes a Bar Mitzvah

I've realized that helping my son become a better Jew has helped me draw closer to my Christian faith.

BY: Amy Cunningham


It's a thing good I've had thirteen years to prepare for what's coming: I will be the beaming Christian mommy of a bar mitzvah boy this May 26th. 


While my teen-to-be is memorizing his Torah portion, I'm gathering bar mitzvah tips from any Jewish mom I can stop on the street. I've been to only two bar mitzvahs in my life, so I don't have much experience.


Still, I have set some goals: I want the bar mitzvah ceremony to be memorable, meaningful, imbued with gratitude and love. I want the whole day to be authentically ours, as well as in keeping with what millions of Jews have done before us. I want to bring myself, as a supportive non-Jewish parent, to the table...or to the Torah, proud of my son and his Jewish heritage. I want to show that Jewish-Christian intermarriage won't complete what Hitler started, and that, at our house at least, faith breeds faith, and love is all that matters. 


For Jews, the bar/bat mitzvah ritual signals childhood's end and the beginning of a boy or girl's religious maturity and ability to perform mitzvoth (the obligations of Judaism). When the child is "called to the Torah" at age thirteen to lead a Saturday morning religious service, the Jewish community celebrates its continuation and survival.  By leading the service and reading from the Torah in Hebrew, Jewish children are welcomed into adulthood, and the entire tribe is reminded of its own commitments--to justice, peace, and repairing the world.  Writes Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin in the greatest of all bar/bat mitzvah guides, Putting God on the Guest  List:  "When Jews act admirably, their lives serve as living testaments for God. More than anything else, that is the goal of bar and bat mitzvah, and that is the goal for all Jewish life."


Or, as a lesser sage, Justin Timberlake, puts it, "What goes around, comes around." Indeed, I am feeling the wheel of life turn. While I happily drip English sealing wax on the backs of bar mitzvah invitation envelopes  (feeling as prim and non-Jewish as Jane Austen), my mind  is cast back to when I volunteered to raise our yet-unborn children in my husband-to-be's faith.  Though I knew the decision to have kids who went to Hebrew school instead of church would confuse  my old-fashioned Presbyterian parents, I felt that the world could not, should not, lose any more of its radiant Jewish people. I had, in earlier times, been uplifted and healed by Jewish friends and therapists, and I was so grateful for this--and so in love with my husband Steve to boot--that rearing kids who might not feel what I feel about Jesus seemed an acceptable agreement. In truth, I actually didn't (and still don't) see the two religious traditions as all that different.  And despite opinions to the contrary, I know it's not true that only Christians "get saved." How ridiculous.


From the Jewish side, however, I could be seen as a rather large problem, since Jewish identity—by tradition and Jewish law—is passed down to children through the mother. But conversion to Judaism never seemed a reasonable option for me. As much as I love the Jewish faith, my fidelity to Christianity is only deepening with time. It’s fine when an unaffiliated parent converts to a faith that strengthens the family. In my case, that wouldn’t have worked well for anybody.


In the months preceding our marriage in 1991, my husband and I met with a mixed Jewish-Christian couples group to discuss issues of a two-faith household.  Towards the end of that six-week process, our group leader strongly advised that if we ever had children, it was best to raise them in one faith or the other, not both. "Don't get into this thing where you let the children choose," she said. While others may disagree, what she said about "children needing to know who they are" rang true to me. 


When I became pregnant with our first son in 1993, my husband and I again sat down with the brilliant rabbi who married us-- Harold White, the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University (a Jesuit institution) in Washington, D.C. At that meeting we learned about a loophole in the matrilineal rule: our boy would be officially Jewish—without my conversion—if Steve immersed the baby three times in the waters of a ritual Mikvah pool (the Jewish form of baptism) in Rabbi White’s presence. We did this when our son could manage the dunking—at around five months. (Happily, he flailed his naked arms and sputtered much less than I thought he would.)


As I pondered how raising Jewish kids in theory would translate into action,  I told my husband, "If we're going to do this, then let's really do it."


At first, he seemed unsure of what I meant. "Judaism is a home-based religion," he told me. "You don't have to go to temple that much." 


"Okay," I responded. "Let's incorporate it into our home." We learned that the Sh'ma—"Hear, O Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is One"—was the appropriate prayer for bedtime, and we sang it nightly in Hebrew to both our boys.  


For the next 12 years, our household seemed much like any other American household, save for the fact Mom went to temple with the family and church by herself. We used what in other contexts might be seen as a fracture to our best advantage. We lit Sabbath candles and attended synagogue, but also decorated a Christmas tree every December, and sometimes had Easter egg hunts.  

Continued on page 2: I, the non-Jew, felt the pressure of turning the boys into Jews... »

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