A Silver Lining in Zoom Community

My grandfather Edward David Katz (right) and his twin, Edna.

My father’s grandmother lost both parents in a yellow fever epidemic. My father’s father lost his twin in the flu pandemic of 1918, and later spent decades in a wheelchair. My father was a child of the Great Depression, and a World War II veteran. And, despite all this, or because of it, he was a stubborn optimist. On the piano, he loved to play “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Accentuate the Positive,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” I miss the comfort and counsel of my parents as we go through this traumatic historical period. In their memory, I try to channel the blessing of optimism.

And so it was that I have been looking for silver linings, and I found one, on zoom.

Five years ago, I created a facebook group to bring together “doing both” interfaith families of any two (or more) religions, from across the country (and the globe). For five years, this Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) has been a place to share ideas and resources and support, especially for families who feel isolated, in geographic areas where they don’t know many (or any) other interfaith families doing both, or don’t have the support of clergy.

With the start of the pandemic, we began to meet every week on zoom. Gathering online, with our partners, children, and pets wandering through, has been a revelation. From Iowa and North Carolina and Tennessee, from Boston and Rochester and Pittsburgh, we now get to tell our stories, and brainstorm together. Why didn’t we think of doing this sooner?

Our gatherings are rich with new ideas. A teen interfaith kid meet-up? A big sibling program for interfaith kids? A family interfaith summer camp? And we get a chance to celebrate all of the many ways to give interfaith kids interfaith education, whether it is in one of the “big three” interfaith family communities (DC, NY, Chicago), or in a three-room schoolhouse like the one in Philadelphia, or a one-room-schoolhouse like the one in Ames, Iowa. And we share ideas with the many parents who are looking for support in homeschooling interfaith education for their kids in an era when homeschooling is, well, universal.

Discovering this new community, one that existed but did not come together with sound and moving pictures until now, has been a rare bright spot for me in these dark times. Like most of you, I have now lost friends to the virus, and when we finally reach that sunny side of the street, a whole string of delayed funerals, of family and friends, await us. With the blues on parade, community has never meant more to me, though we must work harder to find and create it. We persist, in that stubborn belief that the sun will come shining through.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

My (Interfaith) Decade, 2010-2019

Brittany Coast. Photo by Susan Katz Miller

This was a big decade for me. Both personally and professionally, the past ten years have featured dizzying highs and devastating lows, interwoven achievements and heartbreak. I am, frankly, exhausted just thinking back on it. And yet, it seems important to do just that–to try to gain perspective and a sure footing as I gaze out at the horizon of the next decade.

I have been laid low. I experienced more personal loss in this decade than in my whole previous half-century. The big, gorgeous, three-generation interfaith family I depicted in my first book, Being Both, changed dramatically. I lost my father, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I lost my teenage nephew. My husband and I each had to empty and sell multigenerational family homes, severing ties to two formative places in our entwined family history. And this year, we lost our 17-year-old dog.

And yet I wrote, and spoke, and advocated. Somehow, in this same decade, my experience as a journalist on three continents, and my lifetime in an interfaith family, all culminated in a new body of work. I felt called to document interfaith family life, and to speak up and speak out to defend the full diversity of our experiences. In this spirit, I published two books, including The Interfaith Family Journal this year, and ten years worth of essays (368 of them) on this blog. I published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a dozen other media outlets. I was invited to speak in more than 30 cities in more than 15 different states and countries. And I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, a national support hub for interfaith families celebrating two or more religions.

This work, making space for interfaith families, has often felt risky. I have received threats from organizations and individuals, and nasty attacks in the press. I have had people refuse to share a stage with me. At least one brave non-profit lost a funder because they invited me to speak. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all of this tsuris (Yiddish for troubles) is over families that insist on loving across boundaries.

At the same time, this work continues to feel essential. And the work is not done. Interfaith families around the world are still in danger. Interfaith families in the US still face exclusion, misunderstanding, and intolerance. Meanwhile, many of us, interfaith and monofaith, are reevaluating traditional religious systems and institutions, seeking meaningful connections to carry forward.

I do see progress. After a decade of writing and speaking about the joys of being part of an interfaith family, about embracing each other, and about the benefits of interfaith education for all adults and children, I see these ideas catching on. Or at least they are now deemed worthy of debate. I see this progress in the Jewish institutional world, and in other religious, spiritual and humanist contexts.

And I do have hope. I see interfaith families inspiring and innovating new ways of being religious, spiritual, and humanist, going forward. In this decade, I have witnessed interfaith families coming together to create our own communities, use our own voices, and tell our own stories. As we begin to take on leadership roles in religious, spiritual, and secular arenas, it will become harder to talk about us, without us. May the skills and insights we have gained living as interfaith families benefit everyone, in all of our cultures, in all of our countries, as together we navigate 2020 and beyond.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Eight Top Interfaith Family Posts of the Decade

Author Susan Katz Miller in Chicago in 2019

We are heading into a new decade (and the second decade for this blog). So I thought I would pause to think about the top interfaith family themes from 2009 to 2019, as represented by the most popular posts on this blog.

  1. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset (24,879 views). This post gets a lot of hits because of the success of the frothy long-running reality show, with all its fake scripted scenes and whipped-up melodrama. But I like to think there is something valuable, and future forward, about what I describe as the “unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim (and Christian) friends.”
  2. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions (20,336 views). This is probably the foundational post on this blog, distilling the philosophy of interfaith families who want to give their children interfaith literacy. So I am glad it has remained a perennial top post, ever since 2010.
  3. Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim (17,890 views). As with half the posts on this top hits list, this one goes beyond the familiar Christian-and-Jewish binary. Life of Pi reflects the global reality in which multiple religious practice is common. And the popularity of the book, and movie, has introduced many people in the United States to theological and philosophical ideas raised by the complex forms of religious identity in Asia and elsewhere around the globe.
  4. Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley (12,320 views). I was lucky to interview Reza and Jessica about their Muslim and Christian interfaith marriage for my first book. Later, they recorded a popular TED talk on the topic, and have begun writing about their interfaith family, so stay tuned. Muslim and Christian is one of the fastest-growing forms of interfaith family, as demonstrated by the Muslim Christian Interfaith Families group on facebook (which I helped to inspire!).
  5. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most (4477 views). I have written dozens of posts on the various “December holidays” and how they overlap and interplay from year to year, but this one touches on them all. It got a spike in views in 2011 when a light-hearted piece I published in Huffington Post resulted in a nasty response in the Forward. I wrote a letter back (and eventually received an apology). For me, this post signifies the fact that much of the institutional Jewish world still cannot accept that somewhere between 25% and 50% of interfaith Jewish families are practicing more than one religion.
  6. Successful Interfaith Marriage: A Jewish and Muslim Wedding (4140 views). I love the fact that two of the posts in the “Successful Interfaith Marriage” series made it into this top eight, and neither actually centers on a Jewish and Christian family. This was the only top post written by a guest blogger, Rorri Geller-Mohammed, a social worker who runs a therapy practice focused on multiracial and multicultural families. I welcome guest bloggers, so contact me if you have anything you want to say to the world about being part of an interfaith family!
  7. Blessing of the Interfaith Babies (3782 views). This is one in an ongoing series of essays that describe moments in the communal life of an interfaith families group–in this case the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. I think it gets a lot of hits because there is very little out there about how to welcome interfaith children into the family. This post provides some rituals and strategies and thoughts on how to do it.
  8. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story (3154 views). As I write this, I see another pattern in this list. People are searching for examples of successful, loving interfaith relationships, and finding them on this blog. And it seems fitting that this post, a celebration of my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, made it into the top eight. Now that they are both gone, I feel so very grateful that I wrote this post, and my first book, while they were still alive. Their example continues to inspire me as I begin to write about the next decade, from my new perspective as part of the eldest generation in my interfaith family.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Halloween in an Interfaith Families Community

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews (or people of any other religion) should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a shift among some progressive Jews to more traditional practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. In my interfaith family, and and in our interfaith families community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for me, as part of an interfaith family.If you’re wondering how this works, here is a description of our interfaith family community’s celebration back in 2009, the year I created this blog. The Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

This essay is adapted from an essay on this blog from November 3, 2009.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Sukkoth in an Interfaith Families Community

Sukkah

(This essay is adapted from a post from 2013).

The three great agricultural festivals in Judaism–Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot–tie us to our ancient origins, when we lived in intimate relation to nature. During the week of Sukkoth, we build temporary outdoor huts (or tabernacles), cover them with branches, and festoon them with harvest fruits. We are commanded to eat and sleep in the Sukkah–to look up through the branches at the stars, and sense our own fragility, and the infinity of the universe. Sukkoth appeals in part because it draws on every child’s fantasy of living in a treehouse– of living off the land in the primal way depicted in My Side of the Mountain.

This week, I will celebrate with traditional prayers and rituals in a Sukkah with my interfaith families community. One of our goals in interfaith education is to go beyond the most obvious Hanukkah/Christmas/Passover/Easter rotation of holidays–to go deeper into both religions. The elemental, natural, pagan elements preserved in Sukkoth please my interfaith soul.

I see every religion as fundamentally syncretic (and that’s a good thing)–as a historical accumulation of evolving influences rather than as something static and pure and singular. On Sukkoth, we stand in the Sukkah and shake a fruit called a citron or etrog, and a bound bundle of palm and myrtle and willow branches (the lulav) in six directions (north, south, east, west, to the skies, and to the ground). The parallel between this ritual and Native American rituals involving the cardinal directions has not gone unnoticed (and feels especially resonant in a year when Sukkoth starts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day). The etrog and lulav are thought to originate in harvest fertility rituals that predate Judaism, with the etrog representing the feminine, and the lulav clearly phallic. When we shake the lulav, we hear the sound of the wind, and invoke rain at the start of the ancient rainy season in the Middle East.

As urban-dwellers, and people of the scroll, we need to get outside more often–close our books and turn off our electronic phones and tablets, contemplate the sun and the stars, and get in touch with the elemental. Sukkoth provides that opportunity.

In autumn, our interfaith families community tends to feel very Jewish. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, we will celebrate Simchat Torah. We want our children to experience all these holidays, and feel connected to Judaism through them. But we also keep in mind that the Christian members of our families are celebrating with us. We provide context for every prayer and ritual, and give them ways to not only participate, but to lead. And we weave in St Francis, and All Saints and All Souls, and see the parallels as well as the differences.

One year, our musical director Marci Shegogue led us in the Sukkoth prayers. And then her husband Rich, who was raised Catholic, stood under the Sukkah, and led us in singing an 18th-century Christian hymn, perfectly suited to a Jewish agricultural festival, adapted and set to music by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Stephen Schwartz:

     We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,

     But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand...

Schwartz took the words for “All Good Gifts,” along with most of the other Godspell lyrics, straight out of an Episcopal hymnal. As the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, I find this fact resonant, and gratifying. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah predicted that in the end of days, all nations would celebrate “the feast of tabernacles” (Sukkoth) together. You could say that interfaith families gathered for Sukkoth are simply working on fulfilling this prophecy.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Where Do We Go? Interfaith Families, Fall Decisions

The Interfaith Family Journal

The kids are back in school. The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Are you joining a synagogue? A church? A Unitarian-Universalist congregation? A Buddhist sangha? A Hindu temple? A secular humanist community? All of the above? None of the above?

Are you interested in finding or creating an interfaith families community in your geographic area? Or, are you confident that you can teach your children what you want them to know about their religious heritages, and the religions of the world, at home? Do the schools your children attend teach one religion, or teach about many world religions, or avoid religion entirely? Do you and your partner agree on where you want your children to develop religious literacy and interfaith self-esteem?

Have you visited the communities available in your geographic area that might be a good fit for your family? Are they welcoming to interfaith families? Do the clergy officiate at interfaith life cycle ceremonies? Would they fully accept your children as belonging? Or, are their restrictions on participation?

So many questions! Interfaith families can feel overwhelmed this time of year, or even paralyzed, and may end up putting off decisions for another year.

But this fall, for the first time, help is here. I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  in part to help you through this process of figuring out which community or communities will be right for your family, at this moment. Whether you want to join one community, ,or two, or several, or none, the Journal will help. Whether you want to raise your children with one of your religions, or both of your religions, or a new religion, or many religions, or with purely secular and cultural education, the Journal will help.

The Interfaith Family Journal  takes you through an interactive process of figuring out what you want, what your partner wants, and what communities are available to you. It gives you a checklist of questions to ask any community you are considering joining, to make sure your interfaith family will be fully included. This is the moment to buy a copy for yourself, and one for your partner (or for your adult children, or grandchildren, or for your favorite therapist or clergy member).

In recent weeks, I have had deeply fulfilling experiences presenting my work on interfaith families in Spokane and Asheville, with groups of young interfaith couples and groups of rabbis, and to an international documentary film crew. Next up, I’m heading to Chicago to speak and to sign books. Let your Chicago friends know!

My intention for this fall is to support as many interfaith families as I possibly can, in every geographic region, whether or not I am able to personally coach them. The Interfaith Family Journal distills my decades of research, personal history, and coaching experience into a slim format to help you through these moments of transition. If it is helpful to you, please let me know, and post a review. Thank you!

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Happy 10th, Being Both Blog!

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Happy birthday dear blog!

It has now been exactly a decade since I created this virtual space for interfaith families. Over ten years, I have posted 358 essays here. In that time 184,192 people have visited, and viewed these pages 347,715 times.

I like to think that together we have brought about a virtual global village of people who form families across religious lines. Thousands of people have visited this blog from the US, Canada, UK, India, Australia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Over 1000 people have visited from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Indonesia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And hundreds of visitors have found this community from Sweden, Russia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, Nigeria, Turkey, Norway, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Japan, Bangladesh, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Trinidad & Tobago, South Korea, Qatar, Argentina, Romania, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Thailand. In short, wherever there are families, there are interfaith families.

In ten years, what has changed? In my own work, I published two books on interfaith families. I spoke about how we can be interfaith educators, ambassadors, bridge-builders and peacemakers, at seminaries, conferences, festivals, universities, churches, and synagogues, around the country. I created the Network of Interfaith Family Groups to connect families of any or all religions “doing both” wherever they live. I helped inspire a lively Muslim/Christian interfaith families group (and welcomed the creation of a Muslim/Jewish group as well). And I began coaching interfaith couples online, as well as leading workshops for interfaith families, clergy, and religious educators.

This decade saw the publication of many other important new books in our nascent field, including those on the history of interfaith marriage in the US, on global multiple religious practice, on the different ways people come to be multiple religious practitioners, on how Jewish and Christian interfaith families choose to practice in the US, on what it is like being a rabbi married to a Catholic, on what it is like being a minister married to a Hindu, and on the inclusion of interfaith families in the American Jewish community.

In the Jewish world, one of the most significant changes for interfaith families was the decision of the fourth-largest movement, Reconstructing Judaism, to decide to accept, and ordain, rabbinical students in interfaith relationships. And in the Conservative movement, we are beginning to see a strong challenge from within, led by rabbis and congregants, to the policy forbidding Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriages.

Meanwhile, in this decade, a dramatic decline in American (and European) religious affiliation (and increase in “religious nones”) has encouraged many Christian denominations and other religious leaders to finally engage with the reality of interfaith families and the growth of multiple religious practice. These demographics also mean more of my work has been with families spanning religious and humanist/agnostic/atheist identities. And we have moved in this decade beyond the dominant Christian/Jewish interfaith family discourse, to engage with interfaith families with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pagan, African diasporic, and indigenous religious affiliations, among others. That’s why my new book, The Interfaith Family Journal , was designed to support people of any religion, all religions, or no religions.

Around the world, we still see, far too often, religious intolerance and misunderstanding leading to violence, including violent attacks on interfaith couples and families. And there are still far too many countries where religious authorities control the right to marriage (and burial), marginalizing or effectively prohibiting interfaith families (and LGBTQ+ relationships). We still have work to do to raise awareness, protect each other, and to see that love prevails over hate.

Sometimes in our cosmopolitan American and European cities, it feels like traditional religious identities are fading away, and perhaps interfaith families no longer need support, or my calls for new research and activism. But then, I get an email from a young couple—for instance, a Hindu dating a Catholic. They are seeking out a more neutral advisor, or a more positive outlook, as they struggle with society and extended family. And I realize, once again, how much I am learning from this couple–about their hopes and dreams–while simultaneously helping them. I realize, once again, that they have the potential to go beyond being okay. Through their relationship they can bring inspiration and interfaith education to their extended families and their communities, and to the world.

And then I think, maybe I will go ahead and keep blogging for one more decade?

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).