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  • What are THEY doing on the Bimah?:How Intermarriage Changes Jewish Ritual
  • Patricia Keer Munro (bio)

It is a typical moment during Deborah Berkowitz’s bat mitzvah service at Sukkot Shalom, a Reform congregation of 300 families located in the San Francisco Bay Area: passing the Torah. Rabbi Doron calls up Deborah’s parents, Jake and Christine, along with Jake’s grandparents. He hands the Torah to Jake’s parents; they pass it to Jake; he gives it to Christine to place in Deborah’s arms. After Deborah has carried the Torah through the attendees, family and friends recite the first three sets of blessing before and after reading Torah while Deborah chants from the scroll. Then Rabbi Doron calls Jacob and Christine forward, saying, “We call Yaacov ben Herzl v’Leah, accompanied by Christine Berkowitz, for the fourth aliyah.” Jacob recites the blessing, while Christine stands beside him. Deborah chants from Torah, Christine reads the English translation, and then Jacob recites the blessing that follows.1

Bar/bat mitzvah is arguably the principal ritual for American Jews, symbolizing Jewish continuity for each Jewish family, as well as for the American Jewish community. Certainly, that was the case for the Berkowitz family: as Deborah recited the final blessing and Torah reading, her parents and grandparents wiped away tears of joy. Yet the Berkowitz family is not the typical Jewish family of the past: while Jake is Jewish, Christine is not. In the twenty-first century, intermarried families raising Jewish children are fast becoming the norm in Reform congregations, where they comprise between 26 and 70 percent of congregational membership.2 However, the synagogue remains—by definition—a Jewish space. As a result, congregations have developed new understandings of Jewish identity as non-Jewish parents—particularly mothers—participate in communal life, model Jewish life at home, and support their Jewish spouses.3 In particular, because of b’nai mitzvah’s role in American Jewish life, rabbis work to find a place for the non-Jewish parent while still maintaining the legitimacy of this quintessentially Jewish ritual. As rabbis balance these goals, there are consequences for families, for the content and enactment of the service, and for how American Jews understand Judaism. The bar/bat mitzvah service thus provides a useful perspective from which to understand how Jewish identity is being reinterpreted and redefined in the twenty-first century. [End Page 95]

Through considering the key points where boundary issues arise in these services and examining how decisions are made around participation, this paper explores how rabbis and lay leaders do the cultural work of reconstructing the boundaries of “Jewish” through balancing Jewish law, individual family desires, and the expectations of other congregants.4 I argue that this negotiation is leading to a new consensus around Jewish identity marked by claims of language and peoplehood.

The vignette from Deborah’s 2009 Bat Mitzvah service illustrates the two central issues shaping these decisions: the Jewish status of the child and non-Jewish participation in the ritual.

Rabbinic Judaism codified a policy of matrilineal descent: regardless of other elements, the child of a Jewish mother was considered a Jew. In the latter half of the twentieth century, many liberal denominations (Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, and many unaffiliated or independent congregations) redefined who is a Jew using an “equilineal” approach: irrespective of which parent is Jewish, children of intermarried parents are considered Jewish, provided these children are raised as Jews.5 Using this definition, it is no longer sufficient to have a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish; the parent (or family) has to enact Judaism in some way. Deborah’s parents did this by joining a synagogue, enrolling their children in religious school, observing some Jewish practices, and having their daughter accomplish her bat mitzvah service. By the standards of liberal Judaism, Deborah is considered a Jew. By contrast, Conservative and Orthodox congregations adhere to the matrilineal definition of who is a Jew. Since Deborah’s father is Jewish and her mother is not, these congregations would not consider her to be Jewish without formal conversion and would not allow her to enact her bat mitzvah ritual without that conversion.

For liberal rabbis, Deborah...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1946-2522
Print ISSN
1939-7941
Pages
pp. 95-115
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-17
Open Access
No
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