I celebrate the profusion of conferences, workshops, and organizations dedicated to interfaith couples, interfaith families, and those who experienced “growing up interfaith.” Unfortunately, some of these efforts do not provide resources and equal support for both religions or partners in the family. So I have drafted a list of tips for creating inclusive interfaith family programming. While most programs focus on Jewish and Christian families, these guidelines could apply to programs for any two religions, or for families with a mix of religious and secular members.
- Balance the Funding. Programs sponsored by a single religion (or worldview) often have an agenda aligned with outreach, rather than with the needs of interfaith families. When all of the couples on a panel just happen to be raising children “exclusively” in one religion, this is very transparent to interfaith families. Such funding bias will inevitably affect the ability to build trust with families.
- Hold the Program in a Neutral Space. Programs for interfaith families held in a church or synagogue or religious community center will not feel equally welcoming to both members of an interfaith couple. If renting a neutral space is prohibitive, try alternating meetings between a church and a synagogue. Also, be aware that interfaith families may be wary of any meeting in a space affiliated with a denomination or movement that does not accept co-officiation at interfaith marriages, clergy members in interfaith marriages or partnerships, full participation of interfaith family members in religious rituals, or the acceptance of interfaith children without conversion.
- Invite Clergy or Experts from Both Religions. A program that only provides support for one member of the interfaith partnership risks alienating both partners. If the workshop is for “Interfaith Families Who Have Exclusively Chosen (Our) Religion” then by all means, staff it with clergy from your religion. (Actually, even then, it would be helpful to provide experts from the “other” religion to help that partner navigate this pathway). But what if the aim is to help undecided interfaith families discern a way forward? Or to support all families no matter which path they choose? Or to provide space for adult interfaith children to understand the rich complexity of their experiences? Or even, to encourage a deep and affectionate connection to your religion, even if it is (inevitably) not the only religion practiced in these families? In all of these scenarios, the best strategy is to provide clergy, experts, or therapists with a variety of different religious identities, bringing a variety of viewpoints.
- Handle Interfaith Statistics with Care. Many statistics on interfaith families come from studies funded by people from a particular religion, or organizations with a particular agenda, and conducted by academics or authors with a particular viewpoint on this controversial subject. For instance, some studies on “interfaith marriage” include very few Jews or Hindus or Buddhists, and instead reflect the much more common incidence of evangelical Christians married to mainline Christians or Catholics. Such statistics are not particularly relevant if you are a Hindu married to a Jew, or a Pagan married to an atheist. In using statistics, it is always essential to note the source, determine how the sample was obtained, scrutinize the definition of “interfaith” being used, and decide whether or not the study is relevant for your purposes.
- Avoid the Term Intermarriage. The word “intermarriage” in a program signals a “tribal” perspective: the implication is that the organizers are on the inside, worried about people marrying “out.” Also, interfaith families include those who are married and those who are not—an interfaith family could be a single parent or grandparent raising children, or a couple who are not married but raising children together–so putting the emphasis on marriage excludes families. Related bonus tip: don’t assume an interfaith family centers on a white, heterosexual, married couple.
- Let People Label Themselves. Use of the term “non-Jew” clearly signals that the programming is designed from a Jewish perspective. Avoid defining people by what they are not. The more inclusive term is “people of other religions” although even here, you are establishing a Jewish bias and “othering” the Christian (or atheist, or Buddhist) partners. Also, be aware that the label “Half-Jew” (or “Half-Christian,” but does anyone ever even say that?) is offensive to some people who grew up in interfaith families, even while others have attempted to reclaim the term. As a general rule, when describing racial, ethnic, gender, or religious identity, it is always better to let people choose their own labels.
- Include the Voices of Interfaith Family Members. Workshops for interfaith couples will be more successful when led by experienced interfaith couples. Programming for interfaith parents (or grandparents) will be more compelling when designed by seasoned interfaith parents (or grandparents). And a conference for adult interfaith children will be more relevant when organized by people who grew up in interfaith families. In short, nothing about us, without us.
Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.