Posted tagged ‘Interfaith children’

Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community

December 15, 2013

As I head off this morning to the annual Lessons and Carols service with our interfaith community, I thought I would repost this essay from 2010…

On Sunday, our community of more than 100 interfaith families held our annual Lessons and Carols service, in anticipation of Christmas. The fifth-graders tied toy stuffed sheep and donkeys to their heads, and acted out the nativity scene. My son played djembe, my daughter sang with the choir while dandling someone’s baby on her knee. Together, we pondered the story of the the angels, the wisemen, the star.

As always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

But also, our clergy, and our members, speak from their interfaith experiences, putting each holiday into our interfaith context. For instance, this week, our rabbi spoke of what Christmas means to him as a Jew. He hears the universal message of Christmas as the existence of God in the poor, the oppressed, the excluded, the “holy other.” He sees God in the pregnant girl, the baby born into poverty, the lowly shepherds, the mysterious travellers who came bearing gifts from afar. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the only human incarnation of God to be inspired by this narrative.

For many of our members, being part of an interfaith community gives them an opportunity to connect to family traditions and history, rather than suppressing them. At our service this week, Jonathan Brown spoke of his great grandfather, who was Head Chorister in the original “Nine Lessons and Carols,” created 130 years ago in Truro, Cornwall. Jonathan explains, “The service was designed to be as inclusive as possible: non-denominational, no creeds, no ceremonies or communion.” Of course, at the time, virtually everyone in Cornwall was Christian, but the idea of expanding this tradition to include Jonathan’s Jewish wife, his interfaith son, feels somehow organic and true.

As an interfaith community, we encourage families to take children to church, to synagogue, to celebrate with extended family, to maintain their connections to ancient traditions. This week, Jonathan and his family will return to his birthplace in Cornwall, and his son will be the fifth generation to take part in the Lessons and Carols service there.

But we also know that by providing a space and time to celebrate together, as an interfaith community, we help each other through the moments of dissonance and alienation that inevitably come along with the exuberance and thrill of our pioneering cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Children Speak Out, #3: David

November 7, 2013

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the third in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms in these portraits (although the book itself is full of real names). However, these portraits are all of real people: they are not composites. 

David is an example of a child of interfaith parents, raised with both religions, who ultimately chose Judaism. Raised in Chicago by a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, he had both a bris and a baptism. He writes, “Not knowing what the future held, I am glad that I was welcomed into both religious communities at birth.”

In Chicago, interfaith families raising children with both religions receive extraordinary support from both churches and the Jewish communities there. David started in the Jewish and Catholic religious education program for interfaith children at Chicago’s Family School when he was five years old, and stayed in the program into his teen years. He had a First Communion, a Christian Confirmation, and a Bar Mitzvah. Looking back, David writes, “The coming of age rituals were extremely instructive. It was the preparation and completion of these that guided me to the path I am on today.”

Given the opportunity to create or choose all kinds of complex religious identities for himself when he took the survey at age 20, David chose one word: “Jewish.” Asked how he developed his Jewish identity, David writes that he “chose it for myself” at age 17. He explains further, “The work and personal responsibility involved in Bar Mitzvah proved to be extremely gratifying. It drew me closer to the Jewish traditions than I had ever been, and I cherished it. I also went through a Catholic Confirmation, but upon completion, I knew that it was not for me.”

Theologically, David has made a clear choice. He does not view Jesus as a messiah, although he has great respect for the historical Jesus as a result of his interfaith education. When asked who Jesus is for him, he writes, “A very wise man, or even a prophet, who sent a message of peace in a time of struggle. His message was, and is too often, ignored.”

David reports that he feels comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but having made a choice, he now attends only synagogue. Asked whether he found his education in two religions confusing, he says no, and explains: “It really isn’t all that confusing. It does require some thought, but isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? It is our responsibility to be informed about our decisions. How can we do so without being given all the facts?” And when asked how an interfaith education affects his worldview, David replies, “It has really helped me to be accepting and helped made me so eager to learn about the past and futures of both religions.”

In fact David, like most of interfaith children raised with an interfaith education who took this survey, wants to raise his own children someday with an interfaith education. He sees being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage, and he believes his parents made a good choice in raising him with both religions, in a community that allows children to feel positive about their interfaith status.

In college, David reports that he attends Reform Jewish services, Hillel events or community service every week, is involved in interfaith dialogue, and took a class in Eastern religions. On campus, he writes, his Jewish identity “has grown substantially. There is a great wealth of knowledge to be learned, and such a warm community to get involved with.”

People sometimes challenge David’s right to claim Judaism, because of his interfaith education, but he writes, “I am very proud of my background. If anything, it gave me a wider perspective than is conventionally possible. I am what I am, I chose this path because I believe in it. There is nothing to debate.”

Interfaith Children Speak Out: Ethan

October 29, 2013

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication last week of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the second in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although the book itself is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

The son of a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, Ethan had a combination baptism, bris and baby-naming ceremony as an infant. At age six, his parents enrolled him in the dual-faith religious education program at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. There, he learned Judaism and Christianity in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Christian teachers, in a program filled with over 100 other interfaith children. At the time he filled out the survey describing his experience, Ethan was 17 years old.

When asked whether he found learning about two religions confusing, Ethan replied, “I always enjoy getting two perspectives of a story before I decide what I believe. This provided a unique opportunity to do just that.” And when asked how his education in two religions has affected his outlook on the world, Ethan wrote, “I feel that I have a broader view of things than most single-faith persons do…I believe that being exposed to multiple faiths allows one to look at the big picture, rather than remain narrow-minded.”

Ethan had a First Communion, and later, became a Bar Mitzvah. At 17, he was attending Church, Synagogue, and Quaker meetings, and said he felt comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but described his religious identity as Quaker. When asked about his belief in God, Ethan wrote, “Being somewhat Quaker, I believe that there is that of G-d in everyone. I speculate as to whether or not there is one supreme being, or if that being is brought to life by fellow humans.”

Overall, Ethan saw being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage. He thinks his parents made a good decision to teach him both religions. And he planned to raise his own future children with an interfaith education. The greatest disadvantage he saw of being an interfaith child was that “It can be difficult to get along at times with conservative or orthodox groups because they don’t believe in multiple faiths.”

Traditionally, clergy and religious institutions have worried that interfaith children raised with two religions would be unable to choose one religion in adulthood, and end up with no religion. But Ethan has found a religious home, at least for now, with the Society of Friends, and will be able to find Quaker meetings in most geographic areas as he heads out into the world.

While he has chosen a primary religious identity as a Quaker, clearly his interfaith education has had a profound effect on Ethan. He writes that the greatest advantage of being an interfaith child is that he believes he has a “broader outlook on life.” And he adds, “People use the term ‘open-minded,’ so I like to think of interfaith as being ‘open-souled’.”

Interfaith Children Speak Out: Cara

October 22, 2013

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate today’s release of my book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I am launching a new series on teens and young adults raised in interfaith family communities. These portraits are drawn from interviews and from my survey of 50 young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although I am proud to say the book is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

Cara: Educated in the Earliest Interfaith Classroom

Cara attended the very first dual-faith education program designed for interfaith children (the program that evolved into The Interfaith Community) in Manhattan in the late 1980s. The daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, she was 8 years old when she started afterschool classes in Judaism and Christianity, co-taught by a Jewish and a Christian teacher. Cara explains that she did not find learning about both religions confusing because “they were taught to me as one emerging from the other chronologically, and the parallels in the religions were presented.”

In college, Cara, like many children in my research who were raised with a dual-faith education, went on to study some of the other religions of the world. She also, like many of these children, attended Jewish services on campus and took part in Jewish social activities through Hillel, the nationwide program for Jewish college students. Often, Cara has had to defend her claim to Judaism, because she would be considered a “patrilineal Jew,” and traditional Judaism holds that the religion is passed only through the mother. She explains, “Conservative Jews tell me all the time I’m not Jewish. They have their rules–that’s fine. I’m culturally Jewish and that’s enough for me.”

Now in her thirties, Cara describes her religious identity as “interfaith.” She is not married, and does not see any particular reason to choose a single faith. She writes that she felt “no need to choose at 8, or 12, or 18” so “why now?” When asked why she chose an interfaith identity, Cara credits both her interfaith education, and her liberal arts education in college. She writes, “once you see the range of religions and ways people live their lives” she felt she could “no longer see any need or purpose to commit or define myself to one.”

Cara continues to attend church on Christmas and Easter, in part because she loves the music. She reports that she also feels comfortable in synagogues, and attends a Reform Jewish synagogue on the High Holy Days. When asked about her concept of God, Cara writes, “there is no god–god is yourself. The mind is a powerful tool, and the power of belief can achieve a lot.”

Cara says she did not experience any disadvantages in being educated in two religions. As for advantages, she appreciated the “double dose of exposure and education” and the fact that she “got to learn twice as much about the world as other kids.” When asked how her interfaith education affects her general outlook on life, Cara writes that it “makes me open-minded to anything, interdisciplinary in a lot I do, open to lots of new cultures, traditions, religions, values.”

Overall, Cara reports that she thinks her parents made a good decision to raise her with both religions. And when asked how she might raise any future children, she writes, “Interfaith—hopefully with strong Jewish exposure.”

“Partly Jewish”: The Study, and the Book

October 8, 2013
A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

You may be wondering what I thought of the new national study from Pew, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which found 25% of intermarried Jewish parents raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” In short, I was not surprised. In researching Being Both, I found data on many individual cities (including Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia) where 25% or more of such parents are raising kids with two religions. The Pew study confirms that our grassroots movement is important on a national scale. And now, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family will provide the first glimpse of the first generation of teens and young adults to grow up in dual-faith education programs.

Meanwhile, the publication day for Being Both is just two weeks away, and the first big box of books just arrived on my porch. As I make final preparations for the book tour, you can help spread the word by posting the Facebook event pages for the readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, and at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in New York. I’ll be continuing on to Boston, Connecticut and California. Stay tuned for more book tour stops, coming soon.

Here’s how the American Library Association’s Booklist, a resource for librarians, described Being Both last week:

Beginning with the story of her family of origin, Miller surveys the burgeoning phenomenon of families who observe two religious faiths. Her Jewish father married an Episcopalian…So began a multigenerational interfaith reality, which Susan continued as another Jew married to a Christian, this time in a ceremony that honored both religions. Four years later, the couple joined the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Washington, D.C., whose mission is to raise member families’ children as Jewish and Christian. From the members, clergy, and teachers of IFFP and similar organizations elsewhere, Miller gathered the stories of how these families successfully raised children who are happily interfaith and intend to raise interfaith children themselves. Miller concludes this fine resource with a look at the next wave of, this time, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu interfaith families.

Ask Interfaith Mom: My Kids are Bored at High Holy Days. Help!

August 9, 2013

Shofar, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I love our interfaith families community and being a member has helped me, and my marriage. But I like to go to the synagogue that I grew up in for the High Holidays, and that’s what we’ve done for the past few years. I want my children to know what a synagogue is like–what it looks and feels like. I was signing up for tickets and told my six and four-year-old children that I was signing them up for the children’s service while I’m in the main sanctuary. They both said no, they don’t want that, they want to sit with me. Then my older son said he likes church better because synagogue is boring and takes a long time. As of now, I’ve told my kids that they don’t have a choice and they have to come with me and they’re going to the children’s program. 

How can I handle all this better?

–Hurt and Angry

Dear Hurt and Angry,

Every Jewish parent (intermarried or not) faces the issue of trying to help children have a meaningful experience of the High Holy Days, and of balancing that need with adult needs for deep spirituality. I understand your desire to introduce your children to your childhood synagogue, and to help them feel comfortable in a synagogue environment. I feel the same way. My kids (now teens) started going with me to full-length services when they were in upper elementary school. But your kids are really too young to sit through adult High Holy Day services, or even to go to children’s services without a parent.

When my children were little, I took them to the children’s Rosh Hashanah service held in the afternoon at a nearby synagogue because it was convenient, geared towards children, and both short and engaging, with apples and honey and lots of blowing of the shofar. No one expected kids to be there without parents (it was somewhat chaotic, even with parents). Then I would go on my own to adult services in the evenings and mornings.

It is asking a lot to ask small children go to a program without a parent. It’s also asking a lot to have them sit through adult services, and it probably won’t be the most spiritual experience for you if you are having to shush them and oversee crayons and coloring books. The risk is that negative experiences for them could create lasting negative feelings about these services, this community, Judaism, or religion in general. Frankly, a lot of adult Jews (and Christians) who are now non-practicing had this kind of negative experience, feeling forced to sit through “boring” church or synagogue services, without feeling any spiritual connection.

One suggestion I have is to take them to your childhood synagogue for Shabbat on occasion during the year—the service will be shorter, the crowds less intimidating, and they will enjoy the Oneg snack afterward. Oh, and rabbis tell us that Shabbat is the holiest of days. In all, this will probably be a more successful way to instill love for the synagogue. And they will become more familiar with some of the prayers, and recognize them when they do go to High Holy Days when they are older.

I am not advising you to ignore the Days of Awe. I understand your strong desire to have your children participate in some kind of observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Just try not to buy into the religious competition around this (or any) issue. Instead, work to make any and all religious activities they participate in meaningful on their level, until they are old enough to understand the intellectual content of adult services. Since they are in an interfaith education program throughout the year, they will be learning Hebrew literacy, and about Jewish thought and ritual, and this will help them become more interested in what happens at synagogue.

For now, I think your best options include sitting through a short part of an adult synagogue service or interfaith families service, or staying with them at a children’s service. You could then go with your parents to some full adult services at the synagogue, without them.

While they are small, the most successful strategy may be to also mark the holidays in more informal ways, by engaging their senses. Say the blessings at home and dip apples into honey. Many families go apple-picking after services: a reward for sitting still, with apples as a theme. Some families make a cake because Rosh Hashanah is the “birthday of the world.” Take it out into the night candles lit, let the wind blow them out, and then leave the cake in the backyard for wild animals to eat (check out this children’s book on the cake tradition). Most children find this thrilling. And do go to a local creek or river or beach for the tradition of Tashlich, in which you toss breadcrumbs representing sins into the water. You can do this on your own, on your own schedule, at any time during the holidays–maybe invite friends to come along. (The Jewish parenting website Kveller has lots of resources for children’s activities and books for Jewish holidays). These are the kind of multisensory experiences that inspire spirituality in children, and in adults as well. In other words, do what you can to make the holidays meaningful for them, rather than an obligation or competition. In this way, you will have a greater chance of instilling love in your children for these religious traditions and rituals.

–Interfaith Mom

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

July 29, 2013

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.


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