The smallest of changes had a huge impact on the Schneider family.
On May 29, Monica and Jeffrey Schneider of Belle Mead came up together to the bima of The Jewish Center of Princeton and stood beside their son Derek as he was honored with an aliya and read from the Torah on the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzva.
That wouldn’t be unusual at many such ceremonies at the Conservative synagogue, but Monica is not Jewish, and it took an adjustment of the usual bar mitzva “choreography” to give both parents an equal role.
“Nearly all our families have interfaith marriage in their families,” said Rabbi Adam Feldman, who orchestrated the change just a few weeks before the event. “This change pinpoints parents, but it’s a statement we make to all families that there are two kinds of Jewish families: those with one Jewish parent, and those with two Jewish parents.”
The Conservative movement follows Jewish law, or Halacha, which says that only Jews may be honored with an aliya, the blessings that precede and follow a Torah reading. At most Conservative synagogues, b’nei mitzva parents are usually given the penultimate seventh aliya, so they can remain on the bima as their child is called up for the aliya reserved for the bar or bat mitzva. (According to Jewish law, b’nei mitzva must have a Jewish mother or have been converted; the three Schneider children were converted as babies or toddlers.)
For interfaith couples, that means the Jewish spouse recites the aliya alone, and only afterward is joined on the bima by the non-Jewish spouse. That may seem inconsequential to outsiders, but for the parents it can be awkward or worse.
“To me it was so noticeable. I didn’t want to do that. We raised Derek as a Jew together,” said Schneider.
Feldman didn’t care for the practice either.
“I know it’s important for the families to be there together,” he said. “So we figured out a way to do it that meets halachic standards and parental needs.”
Feldman’s innovation was to reserve the fourth aliya — instead of the seventh — for the (Jewish) parent(s). After the blessings, the Jewish parent or parents can return to their seat. Later, the couple — interfaith or not — is called up to the bima together to attend their child’s aliya.
“When we joined the Princeton Jewish Center seven years ago, we could not have imagined that we could [walk] up there together,” said Jeffrey.
‘A full experience’
While Orthodox synagogues tend not to accommodate interfaith families and Reform synagogues have liberal policies toward intermarriage, the centrist Conservative movement is feeling more and more pressure to address the issue. The Jewish Center has 680 member families of whom an estimated 35 are interfaith. Feldman said he knew of no other synagogue to have addressed the aliya issue the way he has, although many congregations are examining their policies about the participation of non-Jewish spouses.
Before she heard about the change, said Monica, she was anticipating being somewhat “uncomfortable with the fact that we would not have an equal role in the service, because raising our children as Jews is something we agreed to. It was an active decision to raise Jewish children, and for their sakes, I wanted them to see that it was both of us on the bima with them.
“I had anticipated sadness, but walked out feeling it was such a full experience for the whole family.”
Derek has two younger brothers, age nine and seven. Raising Jewish children was a particularly poignant choice for Monica, who was raised Catholic and spent 13 years in Catholic school.
“For someone whose first bris was her son’s bris, it has not been an easy path all the time. She has been so supportive, and an equal partner raising all three of our boys as Jews,” said Jeffrey.
Monica added, “I’m the one who makes the latkes, and we hold Passover seders at home. And I’m the one who listened to Derek practice his Torah reading over and over again.”
She has not converted, she said, out of respect for Judaism. “I’d never convert just to make life easier. That would be disrespectful. I take religion seriously and would have to believe to convert,” she said.
Monica is particularly pleased with the synagogue’s policy change and how it may affect her middle child. “He is very close to me and my family, and he has trouble understanding that he’s different from Mommy and her family,” she said. “It will be important for him to see that I am fully behind him and part of the process.”
For all of her sons, she said, “it’s a wonderful feeling of acknowledgment that I have taken this journey with my sons.”