Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Posted May 14, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith community, interfaith families, Judaism

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Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar itzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

New Pew Data on Interfaith Marriage. And Coming Soon, on Interfaith Identities

Posted May 13, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith families, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith marriage

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Pew 2014 Intermarriage chart

For as long as I have been writing about interfaith families, for decades now, it has been hard to get good data on the overall increase in interfaith marriage in America. This week, Pew Research released the most comprehensive report on religion in America since their 2007 report. The new report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and much of the subsequent news reporting, focused on two angles: the rise of the “religious nones,” and the interlinking shift away from traditional forms of Christianity.

But of course, my first response was to comb through the report, looking for signs of those us who live in the complex, fluid, flexible, interfaith world. Pew began describing that world in a very good 2009 report on multiple religious practitioners (people celebrating more than one religion). And after speaking to one of the researchers today, I have exciting news to share on upcoming research on those raised with, or practicing, more than one religion.

“Interfaith Marriage Commonplace” –Pew Research, 2015

But first, let’s look at the important data on interfaith families in the new report. The researchers write that “people who have gotten married since 2000 are about twice as likely to be in religious intermarriages as are people who got married before 1960.” They found 28 percent of Americans living in an interfaith marriage or partnership (when we consider Protestants as one religion). That rises to 33 percent if we consider evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and historically black Protestant denominations, as separate religious groups.

For those in partnerships, rather than marriages, Pew found that interfaith relationships are much more common, at about 49 percent. And they are more common in younger generations. Overall, 19 percent of people married prior to 1960 reported that they were in an interfaith marriage, as compared to 39 percent of those married after 2010. (Although the researchers note that the low percentage of pre-1960 interfaith marriages may be skewed by the fact that those who divorced, or those who converted and now have one faith in the marriage, were not counted as interfaith marriages).

Here are some additional findings on interfaith families from the study:

  • The apparent rise of interfaith marriage is driven “in large part” by marriages between Christians and religiously unaffiliated spouses. Fully 18% of people surveyed who have gotten married since 2010 are in marriages between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse.
  • Buddhists are the most likely in this study to be in a mixed-faith relationship, at 61%.
  • The least likely in this study to be in an interfaith relationship were Hindus (9%), Mormons (18%) and Muslims (21%).
  • The interfaith marriage or partnership rates were 25% for Catholics, 35% for Jews, and 41% for mainline Protestants.

What About Interfaith Identity and Multiple Religious Belonging?

In this study, Pew asked respondents for the religion in which they had been raised, present religion, and the religion of the partner or spouse. So of course my first question was (as it is for every study of religious identity), “Could respondents claim more than one religion for their upbringing, or for their current identity (or the identity of their spouse)?”

The answer to my question was not obvious in over 200 pages of report and appendices. So I contacted Pew, and ended up in conversation with the very helpful sociologist Besheer Mohamed, a Research Associate who worked on the report. I learned a lot about how this survey recorded and classified people raised in, or currently claiming, more than one religion. The answers were intriguing.

First, the researchers did write down the verbatim responses of those practicing or raised in more than one religion, although less than one percent identified themselves this way. Mohamed agreed with me that some people who practice or were raised in more than one religion might not have identified themselves that way in the survey. After a lifetime of being faced with “only pick one box” religion surveys, we really do need specific permission in order to claim more than one religion. We need to hear, “You may choose one or more religions,” before it occurs to us that this is finally an option. I know those who practice more than one religion, who will self-identified as “nothing in particular,” or “agnostic,” or just pick one religion, when the reality is that they claim two.

In this initial report, although Pew did record them, the existence of these double-religious or multiple-religious practitioners was hidden. Because those claiming two religions including any form of Christianity, were counted by Pew in the “other Christians” category. So whether Jewish and Catholic, or Buddhist and Methodist, they were coded as Christian. This is a dramatic example of the Christian lens through which we see all discourse on American religion.

Even stranger, those who claimed two religions not including any form of Christianity, for instance Jewish and Buddhist, were counted in the “other world religions” category. This category was designed for single-faith practitioners including Sikhs, Baha’is, Jains, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians, Confucians and Druze. It does seem an unlikely place to park the many people I know who are Jewish Buddhists, or Buddhist Hindus.

To add to the complexity, the study had a separate category for “other faiths,” which Pew somehow distinguished from “other world religions.” The “other faiths,” included Unitarian-Universalists (UUs), those who practice Native American religions, and Pagans. But it’s not clear to me whether a Pagan UU (and there are plenty) was also coded under “other faiths,” or coded under “other world religions” because they claimed two non-Christian religions.

The excellent news is that Pew did get much more detailed data on people raised with or identifying with more than one religion. And a report on these folks (my interfaith people!) will be forthcoming from Pew, before the end of 2015. As interfaith relationships continue to become more common, interest will continue to grow in the relationship between interfaith relationships, the growth of the religious nones, and the new ways in which people are engaging (and disengaging) with traditional religious practices and institutions.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Being Both vs. Jews For Jesus

Posted May 6, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, interfaith community, interfaith families, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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Being Both M&Ms

Let me be very clear. Raising interfaith children with interfaith education is not the same as being part of the Christian movement known as Jews for Jesus. Sometimes, I describe interfaith family communities as the opposite of Jews for Jesus, since many of both the Jewish and Christian parents see Jesus as a teacher or rabbi, rather than as a messiah. This is in marked contrast to Jews for Jesus or Messianic Judaism, both forms of Christianity that accept Jesus as the Messiah.

This week, a Reform Jewish rabbi wrote a post that conflates Jews for Jesus with interfaith families celebrating both family religions. I don’t usually respond to blog posts written by those determined to undermine interfaith families who choose interfaith education. But in this case, I am going to respond point by point, since this is not the first time that interfaith family communities have been confused with Jews for Jesus.

First, some points of agreement with this rabbi: I am aware that Jews for Jesus sometimes target interfaith families. I find this evangelization or missionary work deeply problematic. I am not sure how successful it is, but I think it would have less success if interfaith families felt more welcome in Jewish communities. But that’s a side conversation.

I agree that if you believe Jesus is the Messiah then you are, theologically speaking, a Christian. And I agree that presenting Jewish texts through the particular historical Christian lens of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity “completes” Judaism) is deeply problematic from a Jewish point of view. I also find supersessionism problematic as a universalist who believes each religious system is a product of a specific time and culture with specific value. And finally, I would agree with the author that Christianity is “distinct from and different than Judaism.” That is what we teach our interfaith kids in interfaith education programs. We don’t blend or mix the two religions together.

On the other hand, I strongly object to the author’s implication that Jewish people in interfaith families tend to be ignorant about their own religion and therefore naively ripe for evangelization. My research documents interfaith families “doing both” in which the Jewish partner is in fact deeply knowledgeable about Judaism—went to Jewish Day Schools, ran Hillel chapters, and in some cases would have become rabbis if they hadn’t been excluded from seminaries because of their interfaith relationships. These Jewish parents are not about to become Jews for Jesus. But they do want to teach their children about both their Jewish and Christian heritage.

The author writes, “There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.”

Of course, the idea that you “need” to choose one religion for your interfaith family is the author’s opinion. There are more than just “a number” of families celebrating two religions. According to Pew Research, 25% of all intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” (I do not like or use the term “partly,” but this is their term, not mine). So trying to minimize or marginalize this choice, the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education, is no longer practical or reasonable.

I surveyed hundreds of parents who chose interfaith education for their interfaith children. I asked which other religious communities they had considered or tried. Some of these families had belonged to, or still belong to, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, and secular humanist communities. None of these families expressed any interest in Jews for Jesus.

Rather than Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children that Jesus was the Messiah, families “doing both” are Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children about all of the various ways of looking at Jesus. They are teaching their children that they are not born into any one theological state. Rather, they are born into two religious cultures, and have the privilege, as human beings living in a country with religious freedom, to choose for themselves what they believe, how they will practice, and how they will affiliate. Some of these children grow up to be Jews who respect Jesus as a great Jewish thinker. Some of them grow up to be Christians with a deep knowledge of and affection for Judaism. None of them, in my research so far, have grown up to be Messianic Jews, or Jews for Jesus.

The author concludes, “I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life.” I realize, once again, how hard it can be for people born into one religion to understand that for many of the interfaith children I interviewed and surveyed, bothness is not something we choose. Rather, bothness is a deeply felt identity, resulting from the beneficial reality of having extended family from both religions. And for some of us, it does indeed lead to living a Jewish life, for others it does not.

Jews for Jesus may see their role as persuading interfaith families to accept Jesus as the Messiah. And many rabbis still see their role as persuading interfaith families and children to be “exclusively Jewish.” However, a growing number of rabbis, ministers, priests, and clergy of all religions are beginning to understand that persuasion may not be the best way to support interfaith families, or the survival of religions. And they understand that we cannot simply ignore the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Pagan, or atheist) members of our interfaith families. Instead, they see the benefits of working together with clergy from other religions, to support interfaith families who want to pass on love and knowledge of both family worldviews.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Growing Interfaith Family Communities: Atlanta and Beyond

Posted April 21, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith Identity

Charlottesville Mosaic, photo Susan Katz Miller

Not a melting pot, but a mosaic…

Last week, we launched the Network of Interfaith Families Groups (NIFG), a facebook group to connect families celebrating both religions. The object was to help these families to find each other, and to chat with leadership from the established groups. For the cover of the group page, I used my photo of a mosaic sun. As interfaith families, we are not melting pots or smoothies, whisked or whirled together, but intricate and careful juxtapositions of many vibrant elements of practice and belief and text and history, creating something whole and beautiful.

So far, the NIFG project is a success. We connected five families from Atlanta, and they have already formed their own facebook group. And news of the Network is rippling out. In an uploaded file of people willing to be contacted in new regions, you can now find a point person for Atlanta, Los Angeles, Nashville, Raleigh NC, Richmond VA (Christian/Jewish), Richmond VA (Christian/Muslim), San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul, western MA, Wheaton IL, and the north woods of Wisconsin. So if you’re living in any of those places, or know someone who is and might benefit from meeting other families “doing both,” join us on facebook.

To be honest, for years I have been talking about creating an independent national organization for interfaith families raising children with interfaith education, but publishing Being Both took precedence. Meanwhile, every week, I would hear from families that needed to find each other. Finally, I realized I could make this happen, quickly, on facebook. (The idea is the legacy of the former Dovetail organization, which used to have an electronic bulletin board for interfaith families to find each other, before the facebook era). I still plan to help create a more formal organization. Among other things, we need to have a national conference, so that we can support and learn from each other, in person. But in the meantime, we can use social media and the DIY (Do It Yourself) spirit to reach more families who plan to give their interfaith kids an interfaith education, and want to find community. I remain convinced that most human beings need community. And that all human beings would benefit from more interfaith education.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Launch! The Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG)

Posted April 13, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith children, interfaith community, interfaith families, Interfaith marriage, Unitarian-Universalism

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Fireworks, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG, prounounced “niff-gee”). This network will help interfaith families who want interfaith education for their children to find each other, across the country, and the globe. For now, you can find NIFG in the form of a facebook group created by and for interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion.

It’s all very well to live in one of the big American cities with a vibrant community of interfaith families providing interfaith education for interfaith children. But what if you are an interfaith couple in New Hampshire or Nevada or Alabama, or Europe or Latin America or Asia? What if you just want to find one or two or ten other families in your region who are celebrating both family religions?

I hear regularly from people who don’t have the support of formal interfaith family groups like the ones in Washington, New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. We know (from the 2013 Pew study of the Jewish American landscape) that 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Some of these families have found two houses of worship to support them (often a church and a synagogue) either publicly, or quietly. Some families find homes in “third space” communities that do not promote a particular religious dogma (such as Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or secular humanist communities). But such families still might want to connect to other interfaith families doing both. In fact, I would argue that it is good for interfaith kids being raised with both religions to get to know other kids on that pathway, even if it is only at an occasional social get-together.

Many interfaith families seek me out because they would love to have a community designed by and for interfaith families, like the ones described in Being Both, but don’t know where to begin. In the book, I outline several ways to start a new interfaith families community. But the first step, finding a few other interfaith families who want to join you for a Shabbat meal or a holiday celebration, can seem like a big hurdle.

The new NIFG facebook group is designed to help any and all of these families find each other, or find existing groups. (Note, this network is for groups that are either independent of religious institutions, or have links to institutions and clergy representing both religions, not for groups sponsored by one religion only). One uploaded file has a list of links to existing groups (this list is also on my blog and on my author website). The other uploaded file has a new list of people willing to be the contact person in geographic areas that do not currently have active interfaith family communities—so far, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle.

So, if you know anyone in those three cities that might be interested in meeting other interfaith families interested in interfaith education, please forward them this post, and the link to the facebook group. If you live in a different geographic area and want to meet other interfaith families doing both near you, let me know and I will add your name and email to the uploaded file at the NIFG group.

Remember, by adding your name to this file, you don’t have to commit to running a new organization all by yourself. You might just connect to a few other couples (with or without children), and get together for brunch to talk about interfaith life, or share resources about which local congregations are the most welcoming. While most interfaith couples in formal interfaith family communities are Jewish and Christian, maybe you are looking for other Hindu and Jewish couples, or atheist and Christian couples. Maybe you need to find local clergy to help with a wedding or baby-welcoming. Maybe you just want to make some new friends who understand your interfaith approach. Or maybe you want to launch a one-room interfaith education schoolhouse in the fall. The idea is that the NIFG facebook group can facilitate all of these conversations and connections.

P.S. If you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to join me on Sunday at 6:30pm at Busboys and Poets, Takoma, for a very special Generation Interfaith event. I’ll be in conversation with one of the young adults portrayed in Being Both, a graduate of the interfaith education experience.

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

Interfaith Families, The Today Show, The Back Story

Posted April 9, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith Identity

Today Show, Sue Hoda Ben Kathie A week before Easter and Passover, out of the blue, I got an email from a Today Show producer. She was interested in putting together a segment on interfaith families celebrating both family religions, as part of a week-long series on faith. Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb would host the segment. I agreed to go on the show, of course. Over the next few days, we spent hours discussing my interfaith family and the research I did for my book. And at her request, I scanned and sent in old family photos for possible use during the segment.

As the day approached, the producer suggested I put aside my habitual black wardrobe, get in the spirit, and wear some springtime colors. So I spent an afternoon at Nordstrom’s and Macy’s, dashing the hopes of multiple salespeople who wanted to be able to say they had “styled” me for the appearance. I was urged to buy an $845 St. John dress I knew I would never wear again. I tried on numerous pastel spring dresses, all of which made me feel like an Easter egg. In the end, I came home empty-handed, and wore a dress already sitting in my closet.

Just two days before I was due to take the Acela to New York, the producer was looking at the great Bar Mitzvah photos of my son Ben (taken by my friend Stephanie Williams of @stephaniewilliamsimages). She picked up the phone and called to ask if Ben could be on the show too. He’s in the spring of his senior year, and missing a day of school didn’t seem like the end of the world, so I said yes. Actually, since he’s 18, I said the producer should ask him, which she did. Ben has led a successful indie band (Ladle Fight) for years, so I knew he would be poised and confident. Which he was.

Ben Miller, Bar Mitzvah

One of the photos that flashed on the screen during the segment. All four members of the Miller family. @stephaniewilliamimages

For the next 24-hours, we put aside the stress of choosing a college, and went off on a surreal New York adventure. We have always had family in New York, so we never had a reason to stay in a hotel in the city, let alone a hotel one block from Rockefeller Plaza. We checked into our tiny room, and wandered in the night through throngs of spring break tourists at the Plaza, under trees strung with fairy lights. We admired Paul Manship’s 1934 gleaming bronze sculpture of Prometheus, hovering over the skating rink, and the flags of the nations lining the Plaza.

In the morning, we left the hotel early for more exploration of the art deco facades on the block. 30 Rockefeller Plaza was already mobbed by 30 Rock fans wielding selfie-sticks. As we approached the Today Show studios, we stopped in a souvenir swag emporium called the NBC Experience Store, with stuffed peacock logos, and mugs and T-shirts from The Today Show, Seinfeld, and The Office. I realized Ben and most people under the age of 25 have no idea which shows are on NBC. They watch them all online. I waxed nostalgic about the primitive era when there were basically only three channels on three distinct networks, and felt old. Rockefeller PlazaOutside the Today Show studios, tourists were standing and waving at the barricade outside the plate-glass windows, screened by black cloth that allows the cameras to film the onlookers outside the set, while those on the street can only dimly make out the live broadcast activity inside. We walked past them, into the great hall of 10 Rockefeller Plaza, dominated by murals of the History of Transportation, painted in 1946 as a tribute to Eastern Airlines, the original tenant. Then we glided down a great curved staircase in the center of the hall to the Today Show’s main green room (the hospitality suite where guests wait).

10 Rockefeller Plaza, History of Transportation mural

1946 mural at 10 Rockefeller Plaza.

The green room was overrun with a rainbow of small children in Easter outfits, accompanied by a flock of anxious stage parents trying to keep the children from melting down. A Christian rock band passed through, and then a woman with turquoise hair and an entourage. “That’s somebody,” murmured my son. “She looks familiar.” In fact, it was actress and former teen idol Hilary Duff. In the adjacent make-up room, Ben and I sat next to each other, simultaneously getting foundation applied to our faces. Next, in a tiny wardrobe room, a motherly wardrobe consultant ran a lint-roller over us, and gave me advice on whether or not to wear the scarf I had brought as a concession to the spring colors theme. The verdict was yes, and she tucked it around my neck for me.

Today Show, fuzzy green room selfie

Fuzzy green room selfie with iconic Today Show sunrise logo.

Back in the green room, we met up with Trish Epstein and her daughter Hannah, a local family joining us for our segment. They belong to the Interfaith Community (IFC), the New York area community that is parallel to our Interfaith Families Project in DC. The children in Easter dress were herded out for their segment, and we continued to wait. In the kitchenette, someone had provided some extravagantly gorgeous spring flower cupcakes, but I didn’t want to risk spoiling my make-up by eating one.

Spring cupcakes

Now wishing I had eaten one of these.

When it was almost time for our segment, we went to a smaller green room adjacent to the set, where we met a handsome young man in a shirt and tie, who turned out to be the guy inside the Easter bunny suit for the segment with the kids. I have no idea what he does for the rest of the year, but I thought it would be funny to ask if I could take his photo with Ben. Ben was only slightly mortified by this. We watched the monitors as Kathie Lee and Hoda interviewed Hilary Duff about how she dyed her hair turquoise because she wanted to look like a mermaid.

When our turn arrived, we crossed the main set, where small children were still wandering beneath some fake cherry blossom trees, collecting Easter eggs. On a second set, six stools were set up, for Kathie Lee, Hoda, and the four guests in our segment. The hosts came in and hugged and kissed everyone, and we started an easy banter about interfaith families while waiting for the segment to begin. Kathie Lee talked about being born Kathryn Epstein, about her Jewish grandfather, and about celebrating Passover seders with her interfaith family. At age 12 she became an evangelical Christian. All of us, whether we’re from interfaith families or mono-faith families, grow up and make our own religious and spiritual choices. We talked about how the world has gotten easier for interfaith families as we become more common. I said we represent Team Love. Kathie Lee and Hoda liked that idea. And then, the cameras began rolling. Click this link to watch:

http://www.today.com/offsite/today/57201875

The four minutes flew by, and while I didn’t get to say everything I should have said, I think the four of us clearly represented the idea, still novel in much of America, that interfaith families can raise kids with both family religions without screwing them up. When they turned the cameras off, everyone hugged and kissed again, and our producer got a shot of us with the hosts. As I was walking off the set, a cameraman stopped me to say that he had grown up with a Jewish mother in a Catholic neighborhood, and that being part of an interfaith family is not always so easy. And this is true. I wanted to hear more of his story, but someone else was shooing me along so that they could move on with the show.

On the grand staircase in the lobby on the way out, Ben walked past Hilary Duff and said, “You do look like a mermaid.” Apparently, she said “Thank you.” I’m glad he inherited Judaism, Christianity, and chutzpah. This extraordinary day together, as fellow adult interfaith children and equals on some level, seemed to mark a transitional moment in our family. A few minutes later, a town car provided by NBC whisked us back to Penn Station, and we each boarded a different Acela train, heading in opposite directions.

Town Car

The getaway car.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Posted April 5, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, holidays in interfaith families, interfaith community, interfaith families

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Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul that must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.


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