The topic: “Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?”
Where to start? Let’s start with the sample.The Forward published answers from 22 rabbis, and half of them are Orthodox. Only two are Reform. According to Pew Research (2013), 10% of American Jews claim Orthodox affiliation, and 35% Reform (by far the largest denomination). As I read through the first five rabbinic responses, all of them Orthodox or Conservative, my mind was blown as I noted each rabbinic affiliation. Why would The Forward skew the sample so radically away from the reality of the American Jewish landscape?
Next, there’s that word, intermarriage. This is not a word used by most people in interfaith families to describe themselves. Among the 72% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor Conservative, you are rarely going to hear anyone call themselves “intermarried.” Less than a year ago, The Forward published my piece, “Four Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Intermarried.” I hope more of the rabbis in this Roundtable will read it, and talk with real life interfaith families about how they feel about this term.
Also problematic: giving the rabbis a stark choice of “problem, or opportunity.” I don’t experience my family as a problem, or as an opportunity for the Jewish community (or any other community). Interfaith family members are taking leadership roles in religious communities across the spectrum, and we may be your best hope for understanding and engaging with the unaffiliated. But we don’t experience our families from the perspective of Jewish market share. We see our interfaith families as embodying and celebrating boundary-busting ritual and liturgical creativity, and spiritual inspiration, and interfaith bridge-building, and cross-cultural peacemaking.
And finally, I must speak to the corrosive content of many of the rabbinic responses. In today’s Roundtable, rabbis call interfaith marriage “a sin,” “tragic,” a way “for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave,” something we “must work harder to combat,” and the “high price for acceptance” that is leading to Judaism being “hugged and kissed to death.” Of course, many of these rabbis, even some of the Conservative and Orthodox ones, also spoke to the importance of trying to be more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, the extreme bias in the survey sample in this case means that interfaith families will feel neither welcome nor included after browsing through these Roundtable opinions. Today’s piece in The Forward badly misrepresents the experiences of interfaith families, and minimizes the important reality of shifting rabbinic opinions on our existence.
September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.
The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.
Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.
What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.
The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.
In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.
In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.
Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community, to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!
But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta
Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.
How do we educate interfaith children about the various religions in the family tree? These days, a child may have a Jewish father, Hindu mother, Buddhist uncle, and Christian step-grandparent. Such children benefit deeply from understanding the religions they encounter at home and at family gatherings. And many interfaith parents are on the lookout for supportive tools for interfaith education.
PJ Library, a program providing free Jewish children’s books, turns out to be a great educational resource for any family with Jewish heritage. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2005, PJ Library has now delivered more than 10 million free Jewish children’s books to homes in the US and Canada, with 88 new book titles each year. And a survey of PJ Library subscribers, released in May of this year, found that 42% of the families in the program had a family member who did not grow up Jewish. “I think it’s a very welcoming program,” explains Foundation president Winnie Sandler Grinspoon. “The books we select and the reading guides that are part of the book flap are accessible to any family.”
The PJ Library survey sought to measure, among other things, the Jewish engagement of subscribers. The first marker of engagement was whether a family is raising children as either “Jewish or Jewish and something else.” The second marker was whether parents “believe it is very important that their children identify as all or partially Jewish.”
It is encouraging that a major Jewish funder such as PJ Library understands that families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are engaged with Judaism. The program does not screen out families based on how they should engage with Judaism, or whether or not they are exclusively or “authentically” Jewish. PJ Library’s approach is inclusive, and I hope that other Jewish funders and institutions will begin to appreciate that many of the families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are serious about engaging with Judaism, even if this engagement is not exclusive.
But I was also curious about how many interfaith family subscribers identify as Jewish only, and how many identify as “Jewish and…” So I asked, and PJ Library went back to their survey data and provided me with this rather stunning breakdown: 50 percent of interfaith families in the survey were raising children “Jewish and something else,” while 45 percent were raising children Jewish only.
So, fully half of the interfaith families surveyed were raising kids “doing both.” This is important for a number of reasons. For one, Pew Research in 2013 found 25% raising kids “Jewish and…” So the question is why, just four years later, PJ Library found double that percentage. One reason could be a large increase in interfaith families choosing interfaith education. Another reason could be that families choosing interfaith education are finding their way in large numbers to the very welcoming PJ Library program in order to access Jewish content for their children. And this, in turn, may be related to the fact that some other Jewish institutions (notably, many synagogues) exclude children who are “doing both.” I suspect all of these factors may be contributing to the large number of “Jewish and” families subscribing to PJ Library.
In order to better understanding how and why the program works for families raising kids “Jewish and something else,” I spoke to two locals mothers who subscribe to PJ Library. Lis Maring is Jewish, and her husband was raised Lutheran. They are educating their boys, ages 8 and 13, in both religions as members of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. The Maring family has spent time in India, and their shelves include books on Christmas and Easter, but also on Hindu deities.
Lis Maring signed up for PJ Library several years ago, and says she “highly recommends” the program. Both the Jewish and the Christian grandparents have enjoyed reading the books to the boys. Says Lis, “The books call attention to Jewish holidays I might not be paying attention to, and that helps me. They’re always fun and engaging stories. And they often have a social justice theme to them.”
Lindsay Bartley was raised Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. They have two boys, ages three and one, and are also raising them with both religions. They have been PJ Library subscribers for nine months now. “What I like is that when you go to stores, it’s easy to find Christian holiday books. It’s mainstream. But Jewish books are harder to find,” says Lindsay. “If we didn’t get the PJ Library books, we would definitely have more Christian books.”
A handful of PJ Library books have featured interfaith families. But both Lis and Lindsay note that they are seeking Jewish content from the program, not affirmation of their family choices. They are not concerned with seeing more interfaith families represented in the books, as long as the spirit of the program is inclusive. “I have generally been impressed that the books are not judging or telling you that there’s only one way,” says Lindsay.
PJ Library’s Sandler Grinspoon makes clear that they are happy to send books to “being both” families. “This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”
Meanwhile, interfaith parents teaching religions beyond Judaism and Christianity will need to consult librarians or booksellers, and check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks on twitter or Pinterest. Bharat Babies, a children’s book subscription service on Indian culture including both Hindu and Muslim topics, was inspired in part by PJ Library. And Noor Kids creates books on Islam for subscribers. Such programs may well thrive and proliferate as millennial parents, many of them unaffiliated with traditional religious institutions, continue to seek out tools for interfaith education.
As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.
Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.
Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children.
In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.
In the most recent round of wrestling over interfaith marriage, we have heard from rabbis, academics and community leaders. As someone in the middle generation of a three-generation interfaith family, one founded in 1960 when my Jewish father married my Protestant mother, I thought it might be useful to weigh in. In doing so, I draw not only on my own experience, but also on the experiences of over 300 interfaith family members across the country who were surveyed for my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.
As a Reform Jew, and a “patrilineal Jew” to boot, it could be (and has been) argued that I do not have standing to comment on what seems to be a watershed moment in the Conservative (and possibly even Orthodox) movement. But from my perspective, we still need to make progress on engaging with interfaith families in all the movements, and in post-denominational Judaism(s).
My interest lies in trying to explain what we, the interfaith families, want from Judaism. Of course I cannot speak for all interfaith families. Some have turned away from Judaism altogether, for any number of reasons — including longtime systemic exclusion. Others want to be quietly incorporated into Jewish communities without being called out as different in any way. They may be happy to put aside the other religion in the family, with the intention of creating “exclusively Jewish” homes.
But according to the 2013 Pew study, only 20 percent of Jewish parents in interfaith partnerships are raising children “Jewish only” by religion, whereas 25 percent are raising children “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else.” These are my people. We are not “doing nothing,” we are “doing both.” But we cannot do it alone.
So here is how you, the rabbis and academics and community leaders, can support us and help us stay connected to Judaism, if you so choose:
1. We ask rabbis to help us to celebrate our weddings, welcome our babies, usher our children into adulthood and officiate at our funerals. We want to engage with the history and culture and liturgies of Judaism, and forge bonds of affection for Judaism in our children. Watching the loving relationship of my children (who only had one Jewish grandparent) with Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing, was one of the greatest gifts of being part of a community of interfaith families led by a rabbi and a minister. (Rabbi White left the Conservative movement over the interfaith marriage issue decades ago. He should be remembered in the current struggle as the pioneer that he was.)
2. We ask rabbis to co-officiate at these life-cycle ceremonies. Our partners and spouses want to feel represented as equals in these key transitional moments. We are not afraid to have our extended families, including our children, see that we honor Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism, or Catholicism. If we cannot have co-officiating clergy, many of us will choose secular celebrants.
3. We ask religious institutions and clergy not to force us to make promises about how we will raise theoretical future children. We have no way of knowing whether we will feel exactly the same way about religion five or ten years down the road. We may well shift in our thinking about single-faith religious education, or interfaith education, or no religious education. Often, these decisions have as much to do with what kind of welcoming communities are available geographically as they do with theology. What we know is that religious beliefs and practices are intensely personal, and many of us do not maintain the same religious affiliations throughout a lifetime.
4. We ask Jewish institutions to educate our interfaith children, whether or not we are raising them in monofaith households. (In truth, we believe that all people can benefit from interfaith education in order to become better bridge-builders.) Reform Judaism, for example, needs to overturn the policy excluding these children from Jewish education, as Edmund Case has bravely stated in a recent column. Every interfaith child, no matter how they are labeled by parents, knows that they have extended family members from more than one religion. We do not do any great service to children in denying them basic religious literacy, or segregating them and keeping them ignorant about the religions in their family trees. Because, as the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, all children grow up to make their own choices in life: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.”
For Being Both, I interviewed Ivan Kruh about his Jewish and Christian and Buddhist family. Today, more than five years later, Ivan updates us on how his family goes beyond both, to being all, in the context of interspirituality. Not all interfaith families become interspiritual families, and not all interspiritual people come from interfaith families. But, there is an overlap. Ivan sees his family as part of a larger circle encompassing all three of the family religions represented in the Venn Diagram above. Here’s his guest post:
It is funny how some things that feel so organic to one family can be so radical within the larger society. My wife and I found that people thought we were nuts when we both went half-time at work after our son was born. And they thought we were even crazier when we told them we planned to raise him as a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian. But my family has three traditions – I am Jewish and also a Buddhist (what some people call a “Jew-Bu”), and my wife is a Christian. The decision to raise him “all” – connected to all three of these traditions – feels so natural to us. As Susan’s book and blog attest, the number of interfaith families choosing to raise their child with connections to more than one religion is growing. But we are also raising him “all” in a deeper way. Because beyond being an interfaith family, we consider ourselves an interspiritual family.
The term “interspirituality” was coined by the Catholic monk Brother Wayne Teasdale to reflect our human potential to see and be transformed by the shared spiritual truths that form the core of all great religious traditions. For example, my wife and I believe the following truths are at the core of the practices, rituals, songs and traditions of our three religions, and that they form the heart of what we want our son to understand:
“See yourself clearly in order to forget your self;”
“Love and serve all beings and your world;”
“Live with simplicity;”
“Walk humbly with your God.”
Interspirituality does not equate all religions, but sees each as a particular way of expressing these kinds of truths in much the same way different languages could be used to explain the same experience. Clarifying that religions are each merely fingers pointing to the proverbial moon, interspirituality allows individuals to live with strong, deep connection to one or more traditions, yet open from traditional boundaries to include, hold, respect, and benefit from the full family of human spiritual traditions.
My wife and I discovered we were interspiritual early in our dating relationship, though neither of us knew there was a term to describe what was unfolding. As we talked about our religious study, spiritual practices and the insights that came out of both, we found (once we each did a whole lot of explaining of vocabulary) that we believed many of the same things and had a very similar vision about what it takes to live a good life. We began to share our spiritual practices with one another and discuss our experiences. And through these practices and conversations we each developed a true appreciation for the other’s religion while deepening our relationships with our own religions. We each experienced great spiritual nourishment in this process. It became obvious that we could each be devoted to our own different spiritual paths and simultaneously devoted to one another. We were married by a Rabbi and a Minister in a ceremony that joyfully reflected all of this.
And now we have a four-year-old son. Raising him within our interspiritual relationship means that we seek to raise him to also see the universal truths that form the core of his Jewish, Christian and Buddhist heritages. We hope to raise him like a strong tree – firmly rooted in the sacred ground of our three traditions, but with branches that open to all religious and spiritual paths so that he can find his own way toward truth and sacredness.
We know that this is not the view or intention of most interfaith parents. But it works well for us. Take, for instance, the painful conflicts some interfaith parents experience during holiday seasons, like the approaching Easter/Passover season. Some couples worry about whether to host a seder and dye easter eggs in the same home, or how to talk to their children about the Israelite Exodus at the same time they are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. The interspiritual family does not see the confluence of Easter and Passover as a dilemma at all – but a fortuitous opportunity to explore two different expressions of a universal spiritual message – that moments of all-encompassing hardship and fear can give way to unfathomable transformation when one trusts the sacredness of reality. When we approach the holidays in this way, I feel no conflict greeting my wife and her Coptic Orthodox family, ““Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen),” and my wife feels no conflict singing “Dayenu” around my Jewish family’s seder table. And my son just absorbs the joy and the power of these rituals and songs, growing into each holiday story with no need to rigidly adhere to either as true or false.
Yes, we have found that when a family begins to creatively explore the underlying teachings of multiple traditions, beauty emerges. One of the weekly rituals in our home, for example, is to re-enact the Maundy washing of the feet and then offer tzedakah (charity). When we wash one another’s feet, we talk about how Jesus taught the importance of caring for one another – and when we deposit quarters in the family tzedakah box which will later be used to buy food bank donations we extend that same care. In this way, when our son gets older and I teach him about the Buddhist bodhisattva vows or he discovers the Hindu seva (service) tradition or Islam’s pillar of zakat (charity), I trust that he will see these, too, as unique expressions of the universal truth of compassion. I trust that he won’t worry so much about which ways of understanding or practicing compassion are “right” or “best,” but rather he will be curious about the songs, stories, rituals and practices each religion uses to support awareness of the truths. My hope is that no matter what paths he chooses for his own spiritual journey, the universal teachings will rest in his bones and rush through his blood from his Jewish-Christian-Buddhist interspiritual childhood.
I want my son to be gifted an interspiritual lens because I believe it is a true lens. But I also hope he will cultivate this lens because it is what the world needs. These are challenging times. Distrust between people of different religions is running very high. I firmly believe that children who have grown up in a situation that supports them seeing how religious differences point to spiritual commonalities will be in a unique position to help our world toward healing. One foot-washing and tzedakah ritual at a time, one Easter/Passover season at a time, one child at a time, this world can be healed.
Ivan Kruh is a juvenile forensic psychologist in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
Spring is here, and many interfaith families will be celebrating Passover and Easter at events with other interfaith families. Below, I share with you a round-up of spring celebrations hosted by interfaith family communities devoted to interfaith education for interfaith families. All are welcome at all of these events, just RSVP to the various organizers and see what you can bring. Some of these events are held before the actual holidays, such as a model teaching Seder, or a discussion of the various interfaith perspectives on Easter. Other events are held on the actual dates and are identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families who celebrate both Judaism and Christianity. And some interfaith family communities have partnered with churches and synagogues, and join those congregations for the holidays.
For all who are lucky enough to live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming Passover and Easter events:
In New York City, the original Interfaith Family Community (IFC), which helped pioneer the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families, now has both a Jewish and a Christian “home” to extend holiday observances. As a group, they will be joining St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for their Easter Sunday service and egg hunt on April 16th. And they are also allied with the innovative Romemu Jewish community, the only Jewish community I know of with a minister on staff to meet the needs of multi-faith families. You can join Romemu for an adult discussion of Passover and Easter this Wednesday, March 29th.
The IFC Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter had their Passover event last weekend. They will hold a family Easter celebration followed by an egg hunt and bunny hop race this Sunday, April 2 in Rivervale, NJ.
The Interfaith Community of Long Island, at the Brookville Church and Multifaith Campus, will host a discussion on Passover led by Rabbi Paris and Cantor Irene during Shabbat on April 7th. And their “Have a Seder/Need a Seder” program matches up families who offer to host or attend a Passover Seder. A Palm Sunday Service led by interfaith youth is on April 9th, and a Family Easter Service is on Sunday April 16th followed by an egg hunt.
And in central New Jersey, Faithful Families, a joint project of Congregation Beth Mordecai and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Perth Amboy, is hosting an Interfaith Jewish-Christian Agape Meal Seder, exploring the Jewish and Christian traditions steeped in the language of the exodus from Egypt. The event is on Thursday April 13th, which is the fourth night of Passover, and Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. A new interfaith families community for central New Jersey is also in formation, and will be meeting up at the Perth Amboy event. If you are a local family raising kids with Judaism and Christianity, join their facebook group.
Catholic and Jewish families from downtown Chicago‘s interfaith Family School, an interfaith education program for interfaith children, often celebrate Easter together at Old St. Pat‘s.
Not in one of the areas listed above? Your interfaith family has at least two options for finding community. One is to seek out progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now also welcome interfaith families (though they may not approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as well as synagogues.
The second option is to build a new interfaith families community to organize interfaith education and interfaith celebrations in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start. To find other families raising children with interfaith education in your area (whether your family is Jewish and Christian, or atheist and Hindu, or Pagan and Buddhist), join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups. New communities are forming all the time!