Interfaith Family Community, Chicago Style
In writing Being Both, I set out to chronicle the rise of a grassroots movement centered on three great cities with vibrant interfaith family communities: New York, Washington, and Chicago. Each of these cities has a program with over 100 interfaith children being educated by paired Jewish and Christian co-teachers. Recently, I was in Chicago to celebrate the publication of Being Both (just out in paperback) with interfaith families there. Both interfaith parents and grown children from Chicago filled out the surveys that form the backbone of my research for Being Both. Most of them were from The Family School, the pioneering program for children in Jewish/Catholic families, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. (The video they created for the occasion features powerful, moving testimony from parents, children, and clergy, about the benefits of interfaith education). The school is so successful that families in the northern suburbs of Chicago used the curriculum to launch a parallel program, the Union School for Interfaith Families.
But I had not anticipated what an emotional experience it would be, to return to Chicago and stand before these interfaith communities, with my book in hand. Over the past year, I have spoken in churches and synagogues, bookstores and libraries, universities and community centers. Usually, I face an audience including listeners who are deeply skeptical. And I’m fine with that. My goal in writing this book was not to preach to the choir, but to document our experiences in order to shift the thinking of those who harbor grave doubts about the wisdom of interfaith education. So usually, when I prepare to speak, I line up my anecdotes, hone my arguments, memorize my data, and gather answers to tough questions. As an adult interfaith child, I have spent my entire life facing these tough questions, and I am not easily shaken.
Except that, at Old St. Pat’s, I stood looking out at a gathering of about a hundred interfaith family members, from both the Family School and the Union School, and I was verklempt (in Yiddish, overcome with emotion), unable for a moment to launch into my book talk. For suddenly, I realized I was in a room full of people who already understood everything I wanted to say, who had already experienced the benefits of interfaith family life. I arrived suited up in my usual book-talk armor, and instead felt completely disarmed by the love of these families, for each other. I was faced with a great big roomful of love transcending boundaries.
Over the course of four days in the Windy City, I also had time for long talks with David and Patty Kovacs, two of the original founders of The Family School. Their children are grown and flown, but they still to put their hearts and souls into The Family School. (Patty continues to develop and update the school’s Jewish and Catholic curriculum, in a huge stack of spiral-bound notebooks). Patty Marfise-Patt, the current school coordinator, presented me with an “I am an Interfaith Ambassador” button: a button inspired by a phrase from Being Both, and given out to all their students at the beginning of this school year. And I got to meet Barbara Mahany, a teacher in this year’s Family School eighth-grade, who brought her entire class to hear me speak. (Barbara, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, just published a book of essays, in part inspired by her own Catholic and Jewish family, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door).
While in Chicago, I also did outreach work, describing how interfaith family communities work to a Humanistic Jewish congregation, to a group of interfaith-curious Chicago rabbis, and during a podcast taping for Things Not Seen radio at the WBEZ NPR studios on the Navy Pier. But it was the inreach work that really fed my soul: reconnecting with my sister communities in Chicago, and especially with the interfaith teens there, who all “get” my interfaith identity in a natural and intuitive way that adults, even interfaith parents, sometimes cannot. Now, I wait with great anticipation for those who grew up with interfaith education to go out into the world, take leadership roles in interfaith activism, and write their own books. The world needs to hear their voices of the next generation of Interfaith Ambassadors.
Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!