#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Quilt of Belonging, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.   Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?

In the Red Tent, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.  Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day.  To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.

So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. This hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.

While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from on the Jewish and Christian worlds, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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Interfaith Kids in Conversation: Q&A with Tahil Sharma

Tahil Sharma and Susan Katz Miller
Tahil and Susan at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A.  –Susan Katz Miller

SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.

TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.

SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?

TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine as The One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.

I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).

The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.

SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage? 

TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.

SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?

TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She and Tahil Sharma are both interfaith activists, speakers, and consultants. You can find them on twitter at @susankatzmiller and @InterfaithMan.

 

Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

Susan Katz Miller 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.

 

Interfaith Family Lens: Obama at the Mosque

Persian Carpet, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

President Obama gave a moving speech about inclusion and preventing extremism at the Islamic Society of Baltimore yesterday. I saw this event, his first visit to a US mosque, through the lens of an adult interfaith child, a lens that President Obama inevitably shares. Every interfaith child (actually, every human being) has the right to choose a religious identity, and Barack Obama made a clear choice to be a Christian. As someone born into an interfaith family, as someone who has had to defend my own religious identity, I empathize with the constant battle President Obama must fight against those who try to mislabel him. My hope is that after he steps down, he will be able to speak more freely about the ways in which his interfaith family background has inspired him as a bridge-builder and peacemaker in the world.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following on this blog:

While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefited from it.

Listening to the speech yesterday, one phrase in particular caught my attention. Here is the slightly inexact quote as tweeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, the progressive Democratic congressman from Minnesota, who was there at the mosque:

Woodlawn, MD “We are one American family and when any part of it is made to feel separate or excluded it tears at fabric of whole American family” BHO

The point the President is making here is that we must counter the recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions. But note the metaphor: he describes America as a giant interfaith family. President Obama’s own extended interfaith family is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish in two different branches. And Rep. Ellison, who chose this sentence to tweet, is a Muslim-American from an extended interfaith family. He was brought up Catholic, has a brother who is a Protestant pastor, and raised his children as Muslims in the context of an interfaith marriage.

My point here is that we are all moving together into a world of greater religious complexity and interconnection. I see the formative interfaith family experiences of our elected officials inspiring more effective interfaith diplomacy, and the desire to reduce religious violence in the world. I heard this theme the very first time I heard Obama speak, in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. I look forward to hearing him speak out even more boldly after his term is over. And now, it looks like our next Democratic presidential nominee will be either a Christian woman with a Jewish son-in-law, or a Jewish man with a Catholic wife. Either way, it seems our nominee will see the world through an interfaith family lens.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Generation: Rev. Erik Martínez Resly

The Sanctuaries, DC.   Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

We are still fighting the myth that interfaith children grow up to be lost and confused. Rev. Erik Martínez Resly is an interfaith child who grew up to become an inspired community leader. I met Erik at the Parliament of the World’s Religions this year, and recently interviewed him about his work as Lead Organizer of The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC.–SKM

1. How would you describe your own religious family history and journey?

I grew up in a mixed religious family, Jewish and Christian, both practicing. My parents embraced the tension, encouraged me to experience both ritualistic worlds, find my own place of commitment and conviction. Living overseas in Germany, we attended the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde, a free-religious community that served mixed families like our own, some Muslim-Christian, others cross-cultural in non-religious ways. As a teenager, I was “religious but not spiritual,” in the sense that I attended services but didn’t necessarily identify with the beliefs and practices in an intimate and immediate way.

However, in my last years of high school, all of that changed during a particularly difficult struggle with chronic illness. I was stretched and shoved to my physical and spiritual limits, and forced to make a decision about how to face death. I chose life, in the sense that I came to appreciate the small moments of rupture and revolution, the seeds of the spirit that broke through the pain and hardship. I will never forget the one time I was in great pain wrapped in covers on my hospital bed, and I all of a sudden had this urge to pray. I don’t know where it came from! I neither really knew how to pray, nor whom I would be praying to. My illness didn’t magically heal, but I felt the power of something or someone holding me up, giving me the strength and courage and resilience to push on. “Maybe that’s God,” I thought to myself, intentionally leaving the question open. It was a question that I would carry with me for many years, and one that I continue to live with to this day.

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Rev. Erik Martinez Resly    Photo, Julio Jimenez

2. What inspired you to found The Sanctuaries? 

After flirting with a career in international politics, I came to realize that institutions are only as humane as the people behind them. So I decided to devote my life to supporting the people behind them — empowering people to live as their best selves. I sought graduate training in religious pluralism at Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

At the same time, I quickly realized that our inherited forms of organized religious community needed to shift to catch up with the changing realities of what it means to be a younger person in the economic context and cultural worlds that we find ourselves in. As an artist and activist, I found this to be even more pronounced within circles of creative and conscious people, who too often described organized religion as something that burned or bored them. Let me be clear: I have deep respect for more traditional religious communities. Nevertheless, there is an ever-growing population of younger people who do not feel connected to or well served by these institutions. And so, I felt that we needed to broaden the bandwidth on what a spiritual community could look like.

Towards the end of 2012, I spent six months meeting with people — at cafes, bars, gallery openings, music shows, and everything in between. I wanted to know what type of community they would value, what would be worth their time, what was missing in their lives. The Sanctuaries was born in 2013 as a collective response to those questions.

People told me that they sought a community that truly reflected the racial and religious diversity that exists in this city, and an opportunity to build lasting friendships with people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. People also told me that they yearned for a spiritual community that would welcome them as they are, without drama or judgment, and that would celebrate their questions, curiosities, and doubts. It would be a place where devout Muslims and committed Christians could grow spiritually alongside people who do not claim a specific tradition, but who still strive to live a life of meaning and purpose. Lastly, people told me that they wanted to help build a creative community that encouraged personal creative expression and artistic collaboration, across mediums, in service of a higher cause. A place where art and soul fuel social change.

3. So what does this work at The Sanctuaries end up looking like?

The Sanctuaries hosted more than 60 gatherings last year. One highlight was being invited to perform at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, a gathering of over 10,000 people from around the world, last fall. Another highlight was working with fifteen of our artists of diverse racial and religious backgrounds to record a seven-track album, “The Mixtape,” that sold out its first pressing. The album fuses hip hop and soul with folk and classical Indian ragas, incorporating spoken word poetry, thumping beats, soaring vocals. It’s raw, and sacred.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Sanctuaries at the Parliament.      Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

4. Where do you see The Sanctuaries heading next?

We’re about to launch our Collective, which will equip engaged citizens to harness the power of their creative and spiritual lives to promote social change in their own communities. We’ll host a three-month pilot this spring, free of charge, where ten creative people of diverse backgrounds and mediums will form a community, and receive studio space and supplies, tools for deepening their spiritual voice and artistic craft, and the opportunity to learn from and contribute to a local justice campaign. Applications are open now and will close on Friday, January 15th.

The Collective is part of our larger mission to bring new perspectives to the social problems that we face. The world desperately needs creative leaders of diverse backgrounds who are spiritually grounded and socially conscious.

5. What do you think makes this kind of community powerful for those from younger generations who have no interest in traditional religious institutions?

The Sanctuaries is an unapologetically inclusive and relevant community. It’s real and raw — a space to creatively explore what organizer Osa Obaseki, Co-Founder of our Collective, calls “spiritual gangsta shyt.” There’s an appreciation for the wisdom of ancient traditions, alongside a desire to figure out what it means to live well in the here and now.

Members of our community often tell me that this is the first community they’ve found that welcomes their whole selves — the creative and the spiritual, the questions and the convictions, the successes and the shortcomings. We don’t need to look alike or think alike to love alike.

Let me also say: partnership is powerful. It’s a form of support without suffocation. It’s a way to mutually commit to a shared cause, and collaboratively work towards a shared vision. I prize the partnerships we have with local religious institutions, as well as with small businesses, arts organizations, and justice campaigns in the area. They don’t try to do what we do, and we don’t try to do what they do. Rather, we share stories, learn from each other, find ways to share resources and celebrate shared successes. I truly believe: we’re better together.

6. How do you think growing up in an interfaith family helped to form your approach to religion and the world?

My family taught me to appreciate difference and embrace contradiction. Sometimes you can’t come to a resolution that pleases everyone. Sometimes life is just too complicated for easy answers. Rather than fight these impasses, I’ve learned to welcome them.

So often, finding an answer closes down curiosity. It stops a journey of inquiry, and sends everyone home, puffed up and proud. Points of difference, on the other hand, open up new questions and demand new perspectives. They force us to look at things differently. They stretch our minds. They expand us.

That’s not to say that answers are unimportant. They’re guideposts along the journey. But growing up in an interfaith family, I came to know a God who refuses to be put into a box, to be mobilized to reinforce our sectarian divisions, to be reduced to our human prejudices.

 

2014 song and video by The Sanctuaries, DC.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Jason Segel: Growing Up Interfaith, Then and Now

Kippah from Guatemala, photo Susan Katz Miller

This week, on his “WTF” podcast, comedian Marc Maron conducts a long and thoughtful interview with actor and screenwriter Jason Segel (Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement, The Muppets). Segel has taken on an ambitious role, playing writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, a film opening in theaters today. Wallace wrote the iconic, postmodern novel Infinite Jest in 1996, and committed suicide in 2008.

In the first half of the interview, Segel speaks at length about his childhood growing up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and his education in both religions. His parents sent him to a Christian school during the day, and to Hebrew school at night. As he describes it, “At Christian school you’re the Jewish kid, and at Hebrew school you’re the Christian kid. I think that’s the nature of groups,” he said. “And so everyone wants to compartmentalize people. And I think I decided at that point, like OK, its just me versus the world kind of.” Segel questions the decision made by his parents: “Neither of them are religious. So they made this decision that they were going to let me decide, which is like the dumbest thing you can do for a kid.

I write a lot about the idea that there are both challenges and benefits to growing up as part of an interfaith family. And, I write about the linked idea that whether your parents choose one religion, or both, or none, or a third religion, or all religions, there are going to be both challenges and benefits to each of those pathways. For many of us who grew up in earlier generations, when interfaith marriage was less common, and less tolerated, the challenges sometimes seemed more obvious than the benefits. But there is a danger in projecting those negative experiences into the present and future, when our children are growing up in a very different, much more fluid and flexible religious landscape.

So, I was frustrated to see that Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, picked up the podcast story and ran a piece today, leading with the idea of Segel growing up “half-Jewish and complete outsider” (their words). Clearly, by leading with this idea, the intent was to use Segel’s story as a cautionary tale, warning parents away from dual-faith education, or from interfaith marriage in general. So, I would like to make a few points in response:

  1. I agree that it is not good to put pressure on interfaith children and make them feel they are uniquely burdened with the task of deciding on a religion. Those of us in interfaith families communities dedicated to raising children with both religions teach our children that they are interfaith, because they are born into interfaith families. And we teach them that all human beings grow up to decide on their own religious beliefs, practices, and affiliations.
  2. Yes, it is a problem when religious communities exclude or marginalize interfaith kids. We need to continue to work on changing these attitudes and policies if we want interfaith families to remain engaged with religion, and to find supportive communities. And in an era when we have interfaith families are everywhere, parents and teachers need to be educating all children in order to eradicate religious bullying and put more emphasis on compassion and the Golden Rule.
  3. Yes, it is a problem when interfaith kids grow up without any interfaith peers. But today, 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising children “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Progressive Jewish communities are filled with interfaith kids, many of them getting interfaith educations. So these kids look around and see a lot of other interfaith kids just like them. They don’t necessarily feel marginalized anymore. So those of us, like Segel, like me, who grew up in earlier generations, may find our experiences are not that relevant to parents making decisions about children born today.
  4. Yes, it is essential for interfaith children to have support for integrating two (or more) cultures in their families, rather than bouncing back and forth between two separate religious worlds. Interfaith family communities provide that opportunity, in a context where all the kids are being raised with both religions. Going forward, we need clergy to work together, across religious boundaries, to share in collaborative support of interfaith families, rather than competing for souls and bodies in the pews. And this collaborative support is important, no matter what decisions those families make about religious labeling or religious education.
  5. Segel tells the tragicomic story of being asked to stand up at his Christian school and explain his bar mitzvah, and then getting beat up the next day. In contrast, in Being Both, I tell the more recent story of Jared McGrath, an interfaith child raised in an interfaith families community, who attended Catholic school, and invited his classmates to hear him read from the Torah when he turned thirteen. It was a moving and educational experience for his classmates, and his extended family, and for Jared. No one got beat up.
  6. Haaretz neglects to mention that in the interview, Segel speaks with great affection and appreciation about the fact that his parents are still together, that they have family get-togethers, that they are coming to his movie premiere. In my book, this is a successful interfaith family.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Families, Jewish Communities: Spring Thaw

Frozen Branch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Do you hear a rumbling, creaking, sighing noise, like an iceberg melting? That’s the sound of policies designed to freeze out interfaith families, shifting and groaning as they thaw. Since the release of the 2013 Pew Research report on the Jewish American landscape (and the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I have been predicting a warming trend in engaging with interfaith families. Just in recent weeks, I note at least four new efforts by the Jewish community to include or acknowledge interfaith families:

1. A Conservative Jewish rabbi considered officiating at interfaith weddings, but then decided not to. Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, emailed his congregants in the Boston surburbs to say he was considering performing interfaith marriages, but only if the couple signed a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Interfaith families quickly pointed out that you cannot really extract such a promise about hypothetical children. A few days later, the rabbi backed off his proposal, noting that the “Covenant is not workable.”

My Response: This brave rabbi realized what many Reform rabbis (and the Catholic Church) have already realized. Requiring an interfaith couple to raise children in a particular religion as a condition for marriage is neither wise nor enforceable when both partners are on dynamic spiritual journeys. I deeply appreciate this rabbi’s attempt to address the hypocrisy of welcoming interfaith families into Conservative congregations, while refusing to attend or officiate at their weddings. But it really isn’t going to be possible to change this Conservative policy, without also accepting the children of Jewish fathers as Jews (“patrilineal descent”). Which needs to happen.

2. A Conservative Jewish youth movement relaxed their policy on interfaith dating (sort of). The leadership of the United Synagogue Youth (USY), a national teen group, voted to remove the phrase calling for national and regional board members to “refrain” from interfaith dating, though they did include language on “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community.” After a fierce community backlash, teen leaders explained that the intent was not so much to endorse interfaith dating, but to show respect for the many teen leaders from interfaith families.

My response: More than any change, or lack of change, in policy, this story is fascinating because young Jews from interfaith families are making their voices heard. Among teens now, more come from interfaith families than from families with two Jewish parents. Going forward, as this generation comes into leadership roles in the adult Jewish community, I look forward to the inevitable acceptance and inclusion for interfaith families.

3. A prize sponsored by Russian Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government was awarded to actor Michael Douglas, who was born to a Jewish father and Protestant mother and now identifies as a Reform Jew. Douglas is married to Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who grew up Catholic. Douglas and Jones recently traveled to Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of their son Dylan (who, like my children, has only one Jewish grandparent, a grandfather). Immediately, bloggers and columnists questioned rewarding a wealthy movie star who has not been particularly active in the Jewish community, simply for maintaining some connection to his Jewish identity (and Israel). And this week, the CEO of the prize foundation suddenly quit. In awarding the prize, the Genesis Foundation explained that the Douglas family embraces their Jewish heritage “on their own terms” and that this “embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.”

My response: Douglas was chosen because of his interfaith background, not in spite of it. In the Russian Jewish community in Israel, the exclusion of people who are “patrilineal Jews”, or do not have “kosher enough” conversions has been a huge issue. In a particularly cutting response entitled “Genesis Prize Goes to Michael Douglas. Really?” Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner stated baldly that “Douglas isn’t Jewish according to Jewish law,” ignoring the fact that he identifies as a Reform Jew. Note that even the more progressive American Jewish media sources are still filled with language excluding the growing number of “patrilineal” Reform Jews.

4. Interfaith Israel launches new tours designed specifically for people from interfaith families. Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) is co-sponsoring these programs, starting this summer, for interfaith teens, young interfaith professionals, and interfaith families to visit Israel. The teen trip promises exploration of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i cultures in Israel.

My response: Israel remains an uncomfortable topic for many interfaith families. In part this is because Orthodox control of religious identity in Israel excludes Reform Jews from interfaith families with Jewish fathers, and Jews who converted under the auspices of Reform rabbis, from being married or buried in Israel as Jews. Also, those of us from interfaith families are wary when we feel we are only hearing one side of any story story (for instance, the Israeli narrative but not the Palestinian narrative). Nonetheless, when compared with the Birthright trips to Israel–which only accept those who identify as exclusively Jewish–these new trips are radically accepting of the fact that people (especially young people) from interfaith families have fluid and complex religious identities. In the application, interfaith teens are not asked to check religious identity boxes, and the trip is open to any teen with at least one Jewish grandparent. Program founder Michael Dorfman emailed me that “this trip is designed to embrace the duality of a teen’s interfaith identity and provide them with an experience that will speak to their needs.” As with any sponsored trip, it’s important to think about the goals of the sponsors. But I wish we had more US-based programs for interfaith teens using this kind of inclusive language.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.