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Orthodox Jews at a Reform bat mitzvah

Denomination clarifications

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

We have some relatives who are Orthodox. Will they be able or willing to attend our daughter’s bat mitzvah? Should I even invite them?

—Liberal and loving it

Dear Liberal,

Yes — definitely invite them! Then the decision to attend or not will be theirs to make.

This can often be one of the trickiest areas to negotiate. We seem to have no problem inviting non-Jewish friends to a Jewish religious service, and yet we get nervous about including guests who are well versed in traditional services and rituals.

Yet, there are a few things to keep in mind when reaching out to your guests who are Orthodox Jews.

First, keep in mind that no one will get offended by receiving an invitation.

Be aware that the most likely situation is that they will not be able to travel on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. One of the most basic prohibitions in halacha, or strict Jewish law, is the one against driving or riding in a car on Saturday. So if the bat mitzvah is scheduled for Friday night or Saturday morning, which of course is the most common scenario, then Orthodox members of the family who are planning to attend will have to stay somewhere within walking distance from the synagogue. Remember that “walking distance” may mean two radically different things depending if it’s 15-year-old Cousin Jeremy or 95-year-old Uncle Izzy doing the walking.

Sometimes, when families have a large contingent of relatives who are Orthodox, they will schedule the bar or bat mitzvah for some day other than Shabbat, to make it easier for everyone to get there and take part. You can have a service on any day the Torah is taken out, like on a Monday or Thursday morning, or a Sunday when it’s Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month). That way Uncle Izzy gets to ride in comfort.

Now, let’s wade carefully into the issue of what the service will be like. In a Conservative and Reform temple, the entire congregation sits together, whereas in an Orthodox shul, men and women sit separately. Perhaps your Orthodox guests may not be at ease sitting in a mixed setting.

Maybe Uncle Izzy looks forward to his two hours of peace and quiet from Aunt Rose.

Fear not. If they’re attending services at your temple, then they already know what awaits them. They will be able to sit wherever they feel most comfortable, whether that means sitting next to others of the same gender, or taking one for the team and sitting wherever.

Finally — I saved the big picture item for last — will Orthodox guests want to attend a bat mitzvah for a girl at all? In traditional Judaism, only the males are allowed to lead services, read from the Torah, or recite a haftarah. Most likely, you’re afraid that there will be some level of disapproval.

Again, your guests make the decision to attend services. And they will if they feel comfortable. But make sure you check beforehand if you were planning to assign someone an aliyah to the Torah or some other honor. It’s definitely possible that guests who are Orthodox may feel perfectly happy sitting and participating from their seats, but not want to get up on the bimah and take part in the service.

The bottom line: go ahead and invite everyone you want to be at your daughter’s special day.

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

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Gil Jacobs from Park Slope says:
I would add the following:

Don't take it personally if Orthodox Jews don't attend your function. Some orthodox rabbis cateogrically forbid even setting foot into a nonorthodox synagogue. (Not all that long ago, a Catholic would not set foot in a Protestant church for any reason - it's the same idea.)

Your friends and family may love you to pieces but feel that it is not permissible to attend services at a non-orthodox temple or to eat at a venue where the food is not strictly kosher. I once read that Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, felt that it was important that all Jewish functions be kept strictly kosher so that all Jews can feel free to attend them.

Some strictly orthodox Jewish men would not listen to women singing or reading from the Torah, again, for halachic reasons, not because they don't share in the joy of your daughter achieving her bat mitzvah status.
June 23, 2013, 7:48 am
Sarah from Middle America USA says:
My daughter and I were invited to an Orthodox N' Not Mitzvah of one of her classmates. As a Reform Jew, I am offended by the tradition of a "ladies section," that females can not read out of the Torah, etc. Should my daughter attend? Should I? Can we just attend the dinner? What do you think? I have a strong opinion about the exclusionary aspect to their religion.
May 9, 2014, 12:45 pm

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