This weekend, my thirteen-year-old son officially began his Coming of Age (COA) year by going whitewater rafting on the Potomac River. The trip fosters bonding among the teens and other “COA kids” from the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I suppose this kind of rowdy, outdoor adventure kicks off the year in all sorts of teen groups–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular humanist. What makes this trip unique is the fact that these particular kids are coming of age surrounded by and supported by other interfaith teens.
Most religious institutions struggle with keeping teenagers engaged. After formal religious school ends, parents ease up on attendance, and it can be tough to compete for time with the AP classes, the high school sports programs, the college searches. But in our family, our kids know better than to take our interfaith community for granted. They know that many interfaith kids do not have such a community nearby. And they know that both of their parents have dedicated a lot of time and thought to building and maintaining this community for them.
So yesterday, my 16-year-old daughter woke up and spent her last morning of summer, her last day before starting her junior year, singing Hinay Mah Tov and even dancing with me under a spreading oak tree at our first IFFP Gathering of the year. Some folks traveled up to an hour to celebrate the start of the year with other interfaith families. This pull, the desire to be with those who fully share our interfaith experience, is strong indeed.
During the hour-long Gathering, my daughter did whisper at times with a friend, and crammed in a little bit of last-minute summer Spanish homework. But she also smiled over at me during favorite songs and at moments when a phrase or thought resonated with her. She may have been half-listening, but she was also continuing to soak up good stuff, including the sense of support from a multigenerational community, and intellectual content including a reflection on the pre-Judaic origins of the Sabbath among the ancient Sumerians.
After the Gathering, a hundred interfaith families potlucked together, and silkscreened gorgeous T-shirts in rainbow colors with our logo: the Venn diagram that represents our interlocking religions. A couple of teens helped with the silkscreening. The teens also met briefly under a tree about the Yom Kippur service they will lead next month. Then my daughter went to a planning meeting with the two dads (one Jewish, one Christian) who will teach the kindergarten class in our interfaith Sunday School this year. They are new to the classroom, and she is the old-timer now in her third year as a teen assistant, advising on which craft projects will be successful, and classroom management.
This year, my son will join his big sister in giving back to our community. On the Sunday mornings when the Coming of Age class does not meet (because sometimes it meets in the evenings, to make it more exciting), he will wake up anyway, and accompany the rest of the family to IFFP. There, he will work in the nursery, following in his sister’s footsteps, being a cool interfaith teen role model. Both my children have a lot of competition for their time: heavy academic workloads, and active social lives. But they also understand how lucky we are to live in this time and place, pioneering an interfaith community.