Recently, I was contacted by two students from the Columbia Journalism School. They were completing a “digital storytelling” project entitled “Being Interfaith,” in which they profile the Interfaith Community in New York City. The Interfaith Commuity (now in several regions and cities) grew out of the very first interfaith education program for interfaith children, an afterschool program that started in 1987 for students at New York’s Trinity School. In a coincindence one could describe as b’shert (Yiddish for destiny), the Christian half of the Jewish/Christian teaching team for that first interfaith religious education program was Reverend Rick Spalding, who happens to be my husband’s first cousin, and the minister who co-officiated with a rabbi at our wedding in that same year. But I digress.
The elegant and informative “Being Interfaith” website went live this week. It includes video segments on how interfaith families celebrate, how interfaith classes work, and what interfaith teenagers have to say for themselves. Of course, all of this is familiar to those of us in interfaith families communities, but it is gratifying to see our reality reflected in the media. The NY program and our program in DC have co-evolved, sharing ideas and inspiration, and advising each other over the years. The segment on celebrating Christmas and Hannukah is similar to a profile of my family broadcast on PBS, several years ago.
The logo for the project (above), while striking, uses specific Christian and Jewish symbols, limiting the scope. Going forward, the message I think of as “interfaith education for interfaith children” is beginning to reach intermarried Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, secular humanist and other families.
The most newsworthy and fascinating aspect of the “Being Interfaith” site is the talking-head segments with New York institutional and academic experts, acknowledging that interfaith families are raising their children with both, and that this trend is not going away. These segments are essential viewing. Sociology professor Samuel Hellman puts interfaith identity in the context of “the post-modern world” of “multiple identities.” Sheila Gordon, a founder of the Interfaith Community who continues to lead and expand the program, talks about the shift in just the last five years to greater recognition and acceptance of interfaith communities from clergy, in particular Jewish leaders. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Exectuvie Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, describes the official policy forbidding families to join synagogues if they are raising their children in both religions. But he then goes on to describe a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in many congregations on this issue. Although he also insists on a distinction between interfaith Jewish children who have Christmas trees, and children raised with fully interfaith identities.
As intercultural and interfaith marriages become more and more common, the appeal of allowing children to gain knowledge about both religions and cultures is not going to diminish. It is encouraging to finally witness this reality beginning to sink in, and to gain tentative acknowledgement.