9 Hints for Making Your Gentile Friends Comfortable at Your Child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah
Putting together your guest list for your child’s bar or bat mitzvah, you realize you have as many or more Smiths, Johnsons, Williams, and Jones as you do Goldbergs, Kaplans, Cohens, and Friedmanns. Likely, many of these non-Jewish friends have never been to a bar or bat mitzvah, and have no idea what to expect. But that’s no reason to leave them off the guest list! With a few simple steps, you can make them feel as at home at your kid’s bar mitzvah as they do at a barbecue or ballgame. Here’s how.
- Hold the Bar Mitzvah on ‘Neutral Territory’
Don’t limit your venue options to your temple or synagogue, and don’t book that cheap, stuffy “party hall” a couple of blocks over, either. Modern bar mitzvahs are held in many different venues, and having yours outside the confines of a religious institution makes your non-Jewish friends feel more welcome. Plus, it’s a once in a lifetime event. Your kid goes to temple every week; shouldn’t you treat them to a party somewhere they don’t usually get to go? Consider a bar mitzvah cruise. Boats are very non-threatening for those who aren’t really comfortable with religious ceremonies. A cruise also gives you spectacular opportunities for photos you will cherish forever.
- Explain the Dress Code on the Invitations
Typically bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah dress is somewhere between formal and business casual. But most Gentiles don’t know this. They aren’t sure if it’s more like a birthday party or Christmas Mass. Instead of the usual “semi-formal” designation on your invitations, make it a little more clear. For example, “Gentlemen are wearing suits and ties, and women are wearing casual dresses and dress pants.” Obviously, if your affair is more or less formal, make it specific to your desired attire.
- Include a Few Expectations in the Invitations
Just as you might include a map in your invitations, you can also include a brief summary of the bar mitzvah service and a generalized timeline. This gives your non-Jewish guests a heads up as to what to expect. For instance, “A brief Shabbat service and reading of the Torah, followed by a reception with drinks and refreshments.” That’s enough to put them at ease about what’s going to happen. You can also indicate whether or not alcoholic beverages will be served, such as, “cocktails to follow,” or, “non-alcoholic beverages will be served.”
- Print a Program for the Event
It’s so helpful anytime you walk into a religious service to be given a program. Just like your kids’ school musical and the Methodist church you visited with your bestie from work, a program puts you at ease knowing you can just follow along. Not only will the program serve to help your Gentile friends navigate the bar mitzvah service, it will serve as a wonderful keepsake of the event.
- Use Signage to Help Visitors Follow Along
Whether you have your bar or bat mitzvah on a charter boat or in a party hall, you can take a cue from modern weddings and use well-placed signs to direct your guests. Unobtrusive little chalkboards and whiteboards marked with “No photographs during the service, please,” or, “Follow these signs to the refreshments,” help them to not embarrass themselves by breaching etiquette they don’t understand. You could even add a few signs explaining the Hebrew terms they’ll be hearing, such as “Kiddush,” “Shabbat,” and, “siddur.” This way, you’re helping them learn your culture instead of making them feel alienated from it.
- Let Your Rabbi (or Other Officiator) Know There are Non-Jews Coming
Modern rabbis are quite used to officiating bat and bar mitzvahs where non-Jews are in attendance, but there’s nothing wrong with mentioning it to him beforehand. He can often assist them in feeling comfortable by explaining things as they happen and giving a heads up about what’s happening next. For example, “Now the boy/girl will read from the prayer book.”
- Make it Clear When Photos Are/Aren’t Allowed
It’s an honor when your friends want to snap a shot of a special moment in the service, but they may not realize the sacredness of the ceremony. A well-placed sign or a quick mention by the rabbi is usually all it takes to keep folks seated reverently, even when they don’t necessarily understand the exact meaning of the various parts of the service. There will be plenty of time for photos after the service, during the Kiddush and while guests are waiting for the charter boat to return to the marina.
- Just Talk to Them!
Most people are naturally curious about religious beliefs other than their own. In today’s sensitive religious and political climate, it’s easy to assume that everyone is as radical as the fringe elements we see protesting in the streets around the world. But in reality, most people enjoy conversing with people of different lifestyles and viewpoints, and welcome the chance to learn about a different belief system or culture. Naturally, you’ll have to play this by ear, and there are folks who can get nasty. But definitely reach out to your non-Jewish friends with an invitation to your child’s bat or bar mitzvah. Follow up with a chat or phone call expressing your desire that they attend. Answer their questions. Offer explanations. All gulfs can be crossed with a bridge of mutual respect and understanding.
With some careful planning, you and your child can have most all of your friends and extended family members at the bar or bat mitzvah — regardless of their personal beliefs or religious affiliations. When it comes to a bar mitzvah on a charter boat, the more the merrier!