Fifteen years ago, four friends–two of them Jewish (Stacey Katz, Laura Steinberg), two of them Christian (Mary Joel Holin, Irene Landsman)–got together and dreamed of educating their interfaith children in both family religions. The idea seemed so obvious, so natural, that they wrongly assumed at first that such a program must already exist in the Washington DC area. This was before the age of the internet, so they began working the phones, calling any telephone book listing with “interfaith” in the title. Irene Landsman recalls that they were told either, “Some of our best friends are Jewish” (by the churches) or, “You have already made a big mistake, but we’ll help you raise your kids Jewish” (by the synagogues).
The idea of an interfaith Sunday School was new to DC, but already percolating in a few other cities. Stacey Katz read Lee Gruzen’s seminal book describing the first interaith religious education program for interfaith kids in New York. Then she found Dovetail, a national network for interfaith families, and talked to the creator of an interfaith Sunday School in New Haven. Encouraged, the four “founding mothers” in Washington created the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). This week, we celebrated the 15th birthday of IFFP with them, and with some of the “founding children,” now college graduates.
In the first year, the four families simply celebrated holidays together in their own homes. Next, they networked, going through school directories and cold-calling families with promising name combinations like “Kelly/Rabinowitz” or “Levine/Degrassi.” A dozen families signed on for the first one-room interfaith Sunday School. By 1998, the year my family joined, IFFP had grown to 30 families and hired a Sunday School director, the very progressive and visionary Reverend Julia Jarvis. Five years later, there were 90 families and IFFP could afford to balance the minister with a staff rabbi, the very progressive and visionary Rabbi Harold White. Today, there are 120 families in the community, and more than 140 children in the Sunday School.
On Sunday, the founding mothers and children, and founding father Ron Landsman, seemed overwhelmed by the two cakes, the balloons, and the fuss, but mostly by the sea of hundreds of young couples, parents, toddlers, teens, and grandparents who turn out most Sundays to sing and reflect and discuss Judaism and Christianity and the joys and challenges of being an interfaith family.
In front of this vast and grateful community, the founding families explained their creation process, and what the group means to them. “I was in deep denial about my daughter’s religious education,” recalls Ron Landsman, remembering the period before IFFP. His spouse, Irene, explains it this way: “Ron said he didn’t care, but the day our babysitter took our daughter to mass, he realized he did care.” Looking back now, Irene concludes, “IFFP brought peace to our home…it was a healing force.”
The guiding principle of balance, of equal weight for both religions, was important from the outset. “We’re a very balanced set,” Stacey Katz noted of the four founding mothers. “In the early years, we had a very strong rule that the Board had to be a balance of Christians and Jews, because we realized people reallly did have hot-button issues.”
When asked about the choice of the word “Project” rather than a more official or permanent-sounding identity, founding mother Laura Steinberg spoke out strongly in favor of the do-it-yourself nature of IFFP. Even with hired staff, dues, and a full program of activities, the group continues to run on volunteer power, with parents teaching in the classrooms, and members brainstorming new events and forging new directions each year. Says Steinberg, “In the beginning, IFFP was an idea. I hope it always remains an idea–something growing, dynamic, without boundaries.”