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Double-Wrapped Simchahs

Abby Delouya

“What do you mean you can’t hug Uncle Mort? He’s 70!” “Of course you can eat this — look, it has a big K on it.” “We can’t wait for you to meet the new rabbi of our synagogue — she’s amazing.” Attending the simchah of a secular relative can be an emotional and halachic minefield for even the most seasoned baal teshuvah. How to navigate the bittersweet experience.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

“I’m engaged!” Jordana shrieked over the phone to her cousin. Baila was standing in the kitchen, holding her telephone in one hand and a child in the other. “Mazel tov!” she squealed back, a wide smile flashing across her face. At 30 years old, after narrowly missing getting married to a non-Jew, Jordana had finally met her bashert — a nice Jewish boy named Mike. As Jordana launched into details about the big day, scheduled to take place one year later, Baila’s excitement began to turn to dread. The wedding ceremony was going to be conducted on a beach. In the summer. Officiated by a woman ordained within the Reform movement. Hashem, please let me be in my ninth month! Baila silently implored, as it seemed the only conceivable way to escape attending the wedding. Her secular family had come to terms with the fact that, as a baalas teshuvah, Baila could no longer spend Pesach or Yamim Tovim in their homes. Family simchahs, on the other hand, were nonnegotiable. Baila made a list of sh’eilos for her rav and tried to set aside her anxiety. As the months flew by, texts came flying in from Jordana: I would love if you could say one of the blessings under the chuppah. I can’t wait to dance with you! Can you be a witness for my ketubah? Attending a non-frum family member’s simchah — be it a wedding, bar mitzvah, or bris — can be tricky for even veteran baalei teshuvah. Aside from the usual familial complexities that are an inherent part of any simchah, baalei teshuvah have the added stress of trying to adhere to strict halachah in a secular setting — while still creating a kiddush Hashem. The music, dancing, and timing (think Saturday afternoon) of these affairs pose problems, as do tzniyus and kol ishah. Complicating things further, as the religious ones of the family baalei teshuvah are often asked by secular relatives to be part of the ceremony — for instance, a baalas teshuvah may be asked if she would like the “honor” of having an aliyah or reading from the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah. Halachic questions arise due to the Reform or Conservative nature of the simchah, and when one of the “baalei simchah” is not Jewish.

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