Interfaith Services: On Common Ground

This week, I attended a marvelous Community Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, in a Long Island suburb that has been gathering together each year since 1940. A dozen different Christian clergy members and a half-dozen representatives from three different Jewish congregations participated. A combined choir of Jews and Christians sang an elaborate setting of the synagogue favorite, Hiney  Mah Tov (arranged by Iris Levine), and American composer Virgil Thomson‘s poetic arrangement of the 23rd psalm, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need. And together, we sang America the Beautiful.

Townsfolk in yarmulkes and townsfolk in holiday sweaters packed the service. We all felt warm and fuzzy, and progressive, and patriotic, reading prayers and singing songs from both Jewish and Christian traditions, not to mention America the Beautiful.

I loved it. But I also kept thinking that for our family, the service felt strangely familiar. Every week throughout the year, we sing Christian and Jewish songs, and say Christian and Jewish prayers, led by Christian and Jewish clergy, in a community filled with Christians and Jews. Somehow, when a town gathers for this type of service once each year, it’s Norman Rockwell territory. On the other hand, when the Christians and Jews happen to be married to each other and gather every week, we make people nervous.

What’s the difference? At a community interfaith service, whether at Thanksgiving, or at a Freedom Seder in the spring, Jews and Christians come together but very clearly retain their separate identities. In our interfaith families community, a large proportion of the children and a growing number of the adults identify themselves as interfaith: a label that can provoke alarm and concern.

Another difference is that community interfaith services tend to tread carefully and deliberately on the most common ground, avoiding any mention of Jesus, for instance. Christians, understandably, agree to abstain from mentioning Jesus on these annual moments of togetherness, for the sake of making their Jewish neighbors more comfortable. Jews and Christians who are intermarried, and sing and pray together each week, ultimately must wrestle with Jesus rather than avoiding him. That doesn’t mean the Jews convert. It means they become comfortable talking about the historical role of Jesus, and the spiritual role he plays for Christians in our extended families. It means they no longer flinch when his name is mentioned.

Our interfaith community uses the Venn diagram of two interlocking rings to represent the three spaces we teach and explore together. The common ground in the intersection of the two rings is a space that feels good, feels safe. But as interfaith families journeying together, we aim to explore all three spaces: Jewish, interfaith, Christian. Sometimes, venturing away from the center, into the rocky terrain of religious particularities, feels difficult. But just as often, it feels exhilarating.

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