Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Interfaith Families, 2015

autumn image

(Each year, I adapt this post with new links to upcoming High Holiday services for interfaith families.–SKM)

Shofar blast! The Days of Awe (the Jewish High Holidays) begin early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 13th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 22nd. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Jewish communities are becoming more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families, with the help of national programs like the new #ChooseLove campaign. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. To connect with other families in your area celebrating both religions, you can now join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

The High Holiday services these interfaith family 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 Holiday services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community affiliated programs in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut will gather for the holidays both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities. The Long Island Interfaith Community meets at a unique Multifaith Campus (Muslim, Jewish, Interfaith, and Christian communities all sharing space). They will have services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days. This year, Rabbi Allen Secher, the beloved original rabbi affiliated with the Family School, will be returning to Chicago to lead services at Makom Shalom, the Jewish Renewal synagogue he founded, where many interfaith families will gather to observe the Days of Awe together. In the Chicago suburbs, many interfaith families from the Union School for Interfaith Families, and the Interfaith Union, will gather in Mount Prospect to worship together with Congregation Am Chai.

In Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. IFFP now hosts five progressive High Holiday services, specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by our new rabbi, Rabbi Rain Zohav. We also have two separate Children’s Services (on the mornings of both holidays).

And in the Philadelphia area, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, founded by an IFFP family who moved to Philly, will again celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year with an apple-picking trip. Growing up, my family always went apple-picking on Rosh Hashanah, to usher in the sweet New Year.

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.

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.

Deep Christian Roots, Interfaith Family Journey

Erika blog photo final
Callaway Kleiner family photo.

Today, we feature an essay from interfaith parent Erika Callaway Kleiner, MDiv. One persistent myth is that interfaith parents raising children with interfaith education must lack religious education or depth. Erika is someone with a rigorous religious education, who has thought long and hard about theology, and still chose (with her Jewish husband) to raise her children with both family religions. In this post, she explains how she got there.

Being a Christian has always been an important part of who I am. I grew up in a small United Methodist Church outside of Oklahoma City. The people there were our church family. I have many fond memories of Sunday School, youth group sleepovers, family camp, and Holy Week. Even in a very conservative area of the country where I did not see many women in religious leadership roles, I was encouraged by two male pastors to be a leader in my church. I served many Sundays as liturgist, sitting next to the altar across from the minister.

In college I decided to major in religion. My professors gently encouraged me to explore my religious beliefs. I remember one professor continually referring to God without using masculine (or feminine) pronouns. The idea that God is bigger than masculine (or feminine) had a motivating and inspiring impact.

Then, when I was a junior in college and my brother a sophomore in high school, my mom died of ovarian cancer. She was our best friend and a beautiful woman of faith. Many people took care of us and supported us. Everyone meant well. But a few people (not part of our church family) said some things I will never forget. “Trust that this is all part of God’s plan.” “It’s such a shame – your Mom was such a good person but she just couldn’t let go of her sin in order to heal.” Statements like these hurt and made me angry. What kind of God chooses to take a mother away from her children? Couldn’t let go of her sin?? She was always a generous, kind and loving person – a testament from everyone who knew her. My reaction was not to shun God or religion, however. I wanted to get to know God better and find a way out of this harmful, debilitating theology.

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and earned a Master of Divinity degree. There I met others struggling with questions of theodicy: Where is God in our suffering? What is our role as humans to ameliorate suffering and bring about justice? In divinity school, I had the space to live in these questions and gain some answers for myself (along with many more questions). I graduated with a different and deeper faith and also the realization that I wanted to join in the work towards creating social justice.

For me, God was not only bigger than masculine or feminine, God was also bigger than my Christian religion. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with a friend who eventually became my husband. He is Jewish. Neither of us intended to partner outside our religions. Still, what we discovered as we talked about how we were raised and what we believed is that we both wanted to help create a kinder and more compassionate world where people appreciate and respect diversity.

A rabbi and a minister married us on the Vanderbilt campus with our families and friends celebrating with us. We were intentional about every element of our ceremony, and we have been intentional about all the religious decisions we have made since then. In 2008, after attending several churches and belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue, we decided to join the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). We realized that this was a place where people truly understood our choices and situation.

Early on, we worried about how our children would identify. Is this confusing? Will they ultimately not feel included in either Judaism or Christianity? Will they have a spiritual home? Our children are still young — eight and six — so the answers to these questions remain to be seen. What we do see each week as we leave the Gathering at IFFP and Sunday School is our kids confidently living an interfaith life. They sing songs in Hebrew and also This Little Light of Mine. They are learning the similarities and connections between Judaism and Christianity as well as the differences and what this means for their lives. And they are already asking and finding their own answers to significant theological questions. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I have grown fond of the rhythm the practice of Judaism creates in my own life and that of my family. The ritual of Shabbat is a welcome part of my week. I look forward to the deep and cleansing time of the High Holy Days just as I look forward to the season of Advent.

The rituals and the theologies of both traditions now inform and inspire my thinking about the world and my place in it. I appreciate aspects of Judaism that encourage us to wrestle with theology and continue asking questions. In addition, from Jesus I hear the two greatest commandments reiterated. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The other day my kids asked me in the car if I see myself as Interfaith. I responded in a very Jewish way – with a question! I asked, “How do you see me?” They said, “Yes, Mom, you’re both!”

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.

Immersion: Interfaith Families and Unitarian Universalism

Mount Hood, Oregon
Dramatic arrival in Portland for the UUA General Assembly

Technically, I am not a Unitarian-Universalist (UU), but I spend a lot of time interacting with and thinking about UUs. I sometimes claim the labels of UU wannabe, fauxnitarian, or UU ally. In part, this feels like fate, because I was born on Beacon Hill, the birthplace of American UUism. And my book, Being Both, was published by Beacon Press, the venerable yet feisty publishing house founded by Unitarians in 1854. Theologically, I am both a unitarian (I see the mystery some call God as one, not as a trinity), and a universalist (I don’t believe anyone is going to hell). And the intentional interfaith families communities I chronicle share most if not all of the UU principles. (Check out “So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”).

But both my appreciation of, and education in, the UUniverse reached a new level this week when I had the tremendous honor of speaking about interfaith families at the Sophia Fahs Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA), in Portland, Oregon. With more than 4000 UUs at the UUAGA, I spent many hours engaged with thoughtful UU leaders and educators and clergy, both in the Professional Development workshop for Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA), and at my lecture, and in coffee shop conversations.

It was a great joy to finally meet some of my favorite intellectual and spiritual colleagues and fellow disruptors from the UU twitterverse. And it was an ecstatic moment to get to celebrate the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage for all, in a community of thousands of people who worked hard for this decision, most recently through the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, a campaign with great resonance for interfaith families.

All week in Portland, I gathered perspectives and stories from UU leaders who also live in interfaith families. We talked about both the synergies and the challenges of being an interfaith family in the UU world, or in any specific religious community. Here are some of the take-aways so far:

1. Unitarian Univeralism has long provided a welcoming spiritual home for interfaith families, often in times and places where no one else would welcome them, for which we are all profoundly grateful.

2. Individual UU congregations vary greatly in the degree to which they use Christian frameworks and language. Those that emphasize words and concepts including church, ministry, and mission, create higher barriers for interfaith families who might be interested in Unitarian Universalism.

3. To a certain extent, even committed UUs who come from Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Pagan or secular humanist backgrounds still sometimes see UUism as Protestant in its esthetics and form, even while it emphasizes “radical hospitality.” And at times, they can feel like guests of this hospitality, rather than hosts.

4. There is a (creative) tension between the desire to affirm the unifying importance of specific UU identity, and the desire to affirm the role of interfaith families in UU communities and the complexity of interfaith identities.

5. As an advocate, I strive to help all interfaith children, in any and every community, to feel positive about interfaithness as an enriching rather than a problematic component of identity. This means I encourage any and all religious communities to draw on the knowledge and interfaith dialogue skills of the interfaith families in their midst, rather than politely ignoring interfaith heritage.

6. Unitarian Universalism has been on the forefront of inclusion for people of all genders, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all races, all cultures. And drawing on wisdom of many religions is explicit in the UU principles.

7. Extending this history of radical inclusion to explicitly affirm the experience of interfaith families inside and outside of UU communities helps to ensure that these families feel that they are part of the creative energy at the core of UUism, and not simply at the periphery.

This week, together with UU leaders from across the country, we talked about specific strategies for appreciating interfaith families as a resource and inspiration. I am deeply grateful that Unitarian Universalists thought this topic was so important that they brought me to Portland to engage in this conversation. And I look forward to continuing this work in collaboration with UU colleagues.

UU banners, UUAGA Portland 2015
UU congregational banners, UUAGA Portland 2015

Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

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.

Being Both vs. Jews For Jesus

Being Both M&Ms

Let me be very clear. Raising interfaith children with interfaith education is not the same as being part of the Christian movement known as Jews for Jesus. Sometimes, I describe interfaith family communities as the opposite of Jews for Jesus, since many of both the Jewish and Christian parents see Jesus as a teacher or rabbi, rather than as a messiah. This is in marked contrast to Jews for Jesus or Messianic Judaism, both forms of Christianity that accept Jesus as the Messiah.

This week, a Reform Jewish rabbi wrote a post that conflates Jews for Jesus with interfaith families celebrating both family religions. I don’t usually respond to blog posts written by those determined to undermine interfaith families who choose interfaith education. But in this case, I am going to respond point by point, since this is not the first time that interfaith family communities have been confused with Jews for Jesus.

First, some points of agreement with this rabbi: I am aware that Jews for Jesus sometimes target interfaith families. I find this evangelization or missionary work deeply problematic. I am not sure how successful it is, but I think it would have less success if interfaith families felt more welcome in Jewish communities. But that’s a side conversation.

I agree that if you believe Jesus is the Messiah then you are, theologically speaking, a Christian. And I agree that presenting Jewish texts through the particular historical Christian lens of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity “completes” Judaism) is deeply problematic from a Jewish point of view. I also find supersessionism problematic as a universalist who believes each religious system is a product of a specific time and culture with specific value. And finally, I would agree with the author that Christianity is “distinct from and different than Judaism.” That is what we teach our interfaith kids in interfaith education programs. We don’t blend or mix the two religions together.

On the other hand, I strongly object to the author’s implication that Jewish people in interfaith families tend to be ignorant about their own religion and therefore naively ripe for evangelization. My research documents interfaith families “doing both” in which the Jewish partner is in fact deeply knowledgeable about Judaism—went to Jewish Day Schools, ran Hillel chapters, and in some cases would have become rabbis if they hadn’t been excluded from seminaries because of their interfaith relationships. These Jewish parents are not about to become Jews for Jesus. But they do want to teach their children about both their Jewish and Christian heritage.

The author writes, “There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.”

Of course, the idea that you “need” to choose one religion for your interfaith family is the author’s opinion. There are more than just “a number” of families celebrating two religions. According to Pew Research, 25% of all intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” (I do not like or use the term “partly,” but this is their term, not mine). So trying to minimize or marginalize this choice, the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education, is no longer practical or reasonable.

I surveyed hundreds of parents who chose interfaith education for their interfaith children. I asked which other religious communities they had considered or tried. Some of these families had belonged to, or still belong to, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, and secular humanist communities. None of these families expressed any interest in Jews for Jesus.

Rather than Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children that Jesus was the Messiah, families “doing both” are Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children about all of the various ways of looking at Jesus. They are teaching their children that they are not born into any one theological state. Rather, they are born into two religious cultures, and have the privilege, as human beings living in a country with religious freedom, to choose for themselves what they believe, how they will practice, and how they will affiliate. Some of these children grow up to be Jews who respect Jesus as a great Jewish thinker. Some of them grow up to be Christians with a deep knowledge of and affection for Judaism. None of them, in my research so far, have grown up to be Messianic Jews, or Jews for Jesus.

The author concludes, “I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life.” I realize, once again, how hard it can be for people born into one religion to understand that for many of the interfaith children I interviewed and surveyed, bothness is not something we choose. Rather, bothness is a deeply felt identity, resulting from the beneficial reality of having extended family from both religions. And for some of us, it does indeed lead to living a Jewish life, for others it does not.

Jews for Jesus may see their role as persuading interfaith families to accept Jesus as the Messiah. And many rabbis still see their role as persuading interfaith families and children to be “exclusively Jewish.” However, a growing number of rabbis, ministers, priests, and clergy of all religions are beginning to understand that persuasion may not be the best way to support interfaith families, or the survival of religions. And they understand that we cannot simply ignore the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Pagan, or atheist) members of our interfaith families. Instead, they see the benefits of working together with clergy from other religions, to support interfaith families who want to pass on love and knowledge of both family worldviews.

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.

Launch! The Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG)

Fireworks, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG, prounounced “niff-gee”). This network will help interfaith families who want interfaith education for their children to find each other, across the country, and the globe. For now, you can find NIFG in the form of a facebook group created by and for interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion.

It’s all very well to live in one of the big American cities with a vibrant community of interfaith families providing interfaith education for interfaith children. But what if you are an interfaith couple in New Hampshire or Nevada or Alabama, or Europe or Latin America or Asia? What if you just want to find one or two or ten other families in your region who are celebrating both family religions?

I hear regularly from people who don’t have the support of formal interfaith family groups like the ones in Washington, New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. We know (from the 2013 Pew study of the Jewish American landscape) that 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Some of these families have found two houses of worship to support them (often a church and a synagogue) either publicly, or quietly. Some families find homes in “third space” communities that do not promote a particular religious dogma (such as Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or secular humanist communities). But such families still might want to connect to other interfaith families doing both. In fact, I would argue that it is good for interfaith kids being raised with both religions to get to know other kids on that pathway, even if it is only at an occasional social get-together.

Many interfaith families seek me out because they would love to have a community designed by and for interfaith families, like the ones described in Being Both, but don’t know where to begin. In the book, I outline several ways to start a new interfaith families community. But the first step, finding a few other interfaith families who want to join you for a Shabbat meal or a holiday celebration, can seem like a big hurdle.

The new NIFG facebook group is designed to help any and all of these families find each other, or find existing groups. (Note, this network is for groups that are either independent of religious institutions, or have links to institutions and clergy representing both religions, not for groups sponsored by one religion only). One uploaded file has a list of links to existing groups (this list is also on my blog and on my author website). The other uploaded file has a new list of people willing to be the contact person in geographic areas that do not currently have active interfaith family communities—so far, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle.

So, if you know anyone in those three cities that might be interested in meeting other interfaith families interested in interfaith education, please forward them this post, and the link to the facebook group. If you live in a different geographic area and want to meet other interfaith families doing both near you, let me know and I will add your name and email to the uploaded file at the NIFG group.

Remember, by adding your name to this file, you don’t have to commit to running a new organization all by yourself. You might just connect to a few other couples (with or without children), and get together for brunch to talk about interfaith life, or share resources about which local congregations are the most welcoming. While most interfaith couples in formal interfaith family communities are Jewish and Christian, maybe you are looking for other Hindu and Jewish couples, or atheist and Christian couples. Maybe you need to find local clergy to help with a wedding or baby-welcoming. Maybe you just want to make some new friends who understand your interfaith approach. Or maybe you want to launch a one-room interfaith education schoolhouse in the fall. The idea is that the NIFG facebook group can facilitate all of these conversations and connections.

P.S. If you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to join me on Sunday at 6:30pm at Busboys and Poets, Takoma, for a very special Generation Interfaith event. I’ll be in conversation with one of the young adults portrayed in Being Both, a graduate of the interfaith education experience.

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

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this life is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

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.

New Year’s Interfaith Gratitude: 9 Shout-Outs

Being Both Car Magnet

In this New Year, at the start of 2015, I want to try to thank everyone who supported Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family in 2014, the first full year since publication and the year of the paperback launch. In particular, I want to thank the following (overlapping) nine communities for engaging with interfaith families celebrating more than one religion:

1. Jewish Communities. When I began work on Being Both ten years ago, almost no one in Jewish leadership wanted to acknowledge families providing interfaith education to interfaith children. But this year, I was invited to explain Being Both in more than one synagogue and Jewish Community Center and in multiple Jewish media outlets. And I became one of the respondents for the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith advice column. I also had the privilege of addressing two groups of rabbis (in Chicago and Maryland), who listened intently, asked hard questions, and I hope went away understanding how Jewish communities could benefit from engaging with the 25% of Jews in interfaith marriages who have chosen to raise children in both family religions. One rabbi told me, “Fifty percent of the interfaith couples I marry now say they plan to do both. Your book represents the reality we are facing–we are only just beginning to figure out how to grapple with this.”

2. Unitarian-Universalist (UU) Communities. I was so very fortunate to be published by Beacon Press, a venerable non-profit press promoting “freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.” Not everyone realizes that Beacon Press is affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA). I often say that no other press, religious or commercial, was brave enough to publish my book. Historically, many interfaith families have found community in UU congregations, and this year, I began speaking at UU communities. I look forward to attending the UU General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, next June.

3. Muslim and Hindu allies. While Being Both is primarily about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, it also includes Muslims and Hindus in interfaith marriages, and I hope it will be helpful to people of all religions, going forward. This year, I have really enjoyed interacting with interfaith activists of many religions and worldviews on Twitter, and at conferences. Specifically, I want to shout out here to those who have engaged with or reviewed Being Both, including Muslim interfaith parent Reza Aslan, Hindu interfaith spouse Fred Eaker, Shailaja Rao who advocates for Hindu/Muslim couples and other interfaith families in Asia, and several Muslimah interfaith activists who posted Being Both reviews or features.

4. Atheist and secular humanist allies. Marriages between religious and nonreligious people are a growing cohort. I share the perspective with many humanist writers that it is possible and even beneficial to expose children to more than one religion and worldview, realizing that all children grow up to make their own decisions about belief and affiliation. This year, I particularly appreciated interactions with Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom, Faithiest author Chris Stedman, and In Faith and In Doubt author Dale McGowan. I look forward to speaking in the coming year at Ethical Society, Sunday Assembly, Humanistic Jewish, and college organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, about the overlapping experiences of humanists and people from interfaith families.

5. My home, greater Washington DC. I am so grateful to live in a book-loving city, the kind of city that hosted a packed Being Both launch event at Politics & Prose. I’m also grateful to live in a city where families who want interfaith education for their interfaith children have the support of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Coming up this year in greater DC, look for a talk in March at the venerable Bethesda Writer’s Center. There’s always space on the calendar for local talks, so contact me if your DC-area university, community, or book group wants to host a Being Both event.

6. The great city of New York. The birthplace of the original Interfaith Community for interfaith families, New York has supported this movement, and Being Both, from the beginning. In March, I’ll be in The City for panels at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and at Union Theological Seminary uptown. Be sure to check the susankatzmiller.com event page for updates.

7. The great city of Chicago. My trip to Chicago this year to celebrate Being Both with the Interfaith Family School and The Union School for Interfaith Families strengthened my bonds with the other major city providing interfaith education for interfaith children. In Chicagoland, I also loved interacting with Rabbi Ari Moffic and interfaithfamily.com, with David Dault and the Things Not Seen podcast, and with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

8. The great state of California. On the West Coast, I loved reconnecting with the founders of the original interfaith families community in the Bay Area including Oscar Rosenbloom and Alicia Torre, meeting the staff at the charming Book Passage in Marin, catching up with longtime friend and author Julia Flynn Siler, and interacting with  interfaithfamily.com San Francisco, the Silicon Valley JCC, and Claremont School of Theology friends who study complex religious identity. On January 10th, I’ll be back in Claremont CA to speak at Claremont Lincoln University. Join me!

9. And finally, to my extended interfaith family, including my husband, my two interfaith kids, my pioneering interfaith parents, and my siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins, whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, atheist, or all, or none, of the above. Thank you, once again, for demonstrating what a big, loving, interfaith family can be.

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Interfaith Family Community, Chicago Style

The Family School. I am an Interfaith Ambassador

In writing Being Both, I set out to chronicle the rise of a grassroots movement centered on three great cities with vibrant interfaith family communities: New York, Washington, and Chicago. Each of these cities has a program with over 100 interfaith children being educated by paired Jewish and Christian co-teachers. Recently, I was in Chicago to celebrate the publication of Being Both (just out in paperback) with interfaith families there. Both interfaith parents and grown children from Chicago filled out the surveys that form the backbone of my research for Being Both. Most of them were from The Family School, the pioneering program for children in Jewish/Catholic families, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. (The video they created for the occasion features powerful, moving testimony from parents, children, and clergy, about the benefits of interfaith education). The school is so successful that families in the northern suburbs of Chicago used the curriculum to launch a parallel program, the Union School for Interfaith Families.

But I had not anticipated what an emotional experience it would be, to return to Chicago and stand before these interfaith communities, with my book in hand. Over the past year, I have spoken in churches and synagogues, bookstores and libraries, universities and community centers. Usually, I face an audience including listeners who are deeply skeptical. And I’m fine with that. My goal in writing this book was not to preach to the choir, but to document our experiences in order to shift the thinking of those who harbor grave doubts about the wisdom of interfaith education. So usually, when I prepare to speak, I line up my anecdotes, hone my arguments, memorize my data, and gather answers to tough questions. As an adult interfaith child, I have spent my entire life facing these tough questions, and I am not easily shaken.

Except that, at Old St. Pat’s, I stood looking out at a gathering of about a hundred interfaith family members, from both the Family School and the Union School, and I was verklempt (in Yiddish, overcome with emotion), unable for a moment to launch into my book talk. For suddenly, I realized I was in a room full of people who already understood everything I wanted to say, who had already experienced the benefits of interfaith family life. I arrived suited up in my usual book-talk armor, and instead felt completely disarmed by the love of these families, for each other. I was faced with a great big roomful of love transcending boundaries.

Over the course of four days in the Windy City, I also had time for long talks with David and Patty Kovacs, two of the original founders of The Family School. Their children are grown and flown, but they still to put their hearts and souls into The Family School. (Patty continues to develop and update the school’s Jewish and Catholic curriculum, in a huge stack of spiral-bound notebooks). Patty Marfise-Patt, the current school coordinator, presented me with an “I am an Interfaith Ambassador” button: a button inspired by a phrase from Being Both, and given out to all their students at the beginning of this school year. And I got to meet Barbara Mahany, a teacher in this year’s Family School eighth-grade, who brought her entire class to hear me speak. (Barbara, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, just published a book of essays, in part inspired by her own Catholic and Jewish family, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door).

While in Chicago, I also did outreach work, describing how interfaith family communities work to a Humanistic Jewish congregation, to a group of interfaith-curious Chicago rabbis, and during a podcast taping for Things Not Seen radio at the WBEZ NPR studios on the Navy Pier. But it was the inreach work that really fed my soul: reconnecting with my sister communities in Chicago, and especially with the interfaith teens there, who all “get” my interfaith identity in a natural and intuitive way that adults, even interfaith parents, sometimes cannot. Now, I wait with great anticipation for those who grew up with interfaith education to go out into the world, take leadership roles in interfaith activism, and write their own books. The world needs to hear their voices of the next generation of Interfaith Ambassadors.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.
Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

An Interfaith Family Community Welcomes a Torah

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As a parent determined to connect my children to Judaism, as a writer who loves storytelling, as a Jew who grew up wrestling with our ancient texts, I wanted my children to experience Torah. This word, Torah, represents our collective Jewish narrative and thus, more broadly, all of Jewish teachings and practice. But I also wanted my children to interact with the physical Torah: the five books of Moses, hand-lettered on parchment scrolls, dressed in embroidered velvet.

And so it was with great joy recently that I witnessed my community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, welcoming our second Torah, as we celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah. We have been very lucky to have the long-term loan of a Torah for many years now, affectionately known as the teeny-tiny Torah. This first, diminutive Torah was the perfect size for my small son to carry, leaning it gently across one shoulder on his Bar Mitzvah day. And it was not too heavy for my father, then late into his 80s, to pass to me that day, and for me to pass to my son. We will always cherish our community’s first Torah.

Ah, but our new Torah is large and lovely, with an exquisite calligraphy, easy to read, and comes with a fascinating story. And it is a gift to our community, for all time. When one of our members, David Quigley, ran the Hebrew study program for our interfaith children, he consulted with his own inspirational Hebrew teacher, renowned Jewish educator David Norman Furash. Furash was leader of the Community Hebrew School of Dutchess County in New York when David Quigley was growing up.

David Furash’s father rescued this Torah after a fire shut down the “Emerald Street Shul” (Knesseth Israel) in Boston’s South End. The damaged Torah was lovingly stored for 36 years, traveling with the Furash family through years in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Oklahoma. After David’s death, his wife Sylvia Karkus Furash decided that the best home for the Torah would be in a community that would actively cherish it. And so she came to visit her husband’s former pupil, and our community, and see our children singing and parading behind her family’s Torah, our new Torah.

Master craftsman Pete Flynn, the guitar player who is the heart and soul of our community band, created an Ark (a portable cabinet) for our new Torah with his interfaith son Andrew, out of acacia wood. In the Torah, the followers of Moses used acacia wood to build the Ark of the Covenant, in order to carry the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As someone who used to live on the edge of the Sahel, in West Africa, the acacica has special resonance for me. This tree has iconic status as one of the few drought-resistant trees that can grow on the semi-arid plains of Africa and the Middle-East (you may know it as the umbrella-shaped tree in the logo for the PBS program Nature). For desert animals, the leaves, thorns, seedpods and nectar of the acacia are a rare source of sustenance.

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Like an acacia tree, our interfaith families community is tough, resilient, sometimes bristling with defensive thorns, but nourishing to those who cross metaphorical deserts to find us. On the day we welcomed our new Torah, we sang: “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” In interfaith family communities, all of us are supporters of the Torah. Whether Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, Buddhist, or secular humanist, all of us are teaching our children Torah. We are holding fast.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

 

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