On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.
I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”
But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.
Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.
Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.
In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.
The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM
The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.
This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:
Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.
Yesterday, I drove my father to the house where he was born, for our annual Thanksgiving gathering. I woke early this morning and started sifting through old photos and letters. I kept returning to one yellowed pamphlet: the November 1952 bulletin from Temple Adath Israel in Louisville, Kentucky. The bulletin provides a snapshot of the community led by Rabbi Joseph Rauch, who was my great-uncle, and a pioneer in interfaith relations. Reading through this bulletin from a Thanksgiving season 64 years ago, I began to understand how extraordinary his work was, even by the standards of today. And right about now, in this very dark season in America, seems a good time to study how he went about weaving the social fabric.
But first, a little Jewish geography. My grandmother, Aimee Helen Rosenfelder, was born in Louisville, the youngest daughter of Rabbi Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder. Her sister Corinne married the brilliant young Rabbi Joseph Rauch, but she died very young. Uncle Joe (as my father called him) then married my grandmother’s other sister, Etta. So Uncle Joe married two of my grandmother’s sisters. He never had children, but my father–his nephew–spent the spring or summer of each year in Louisville, living in a great house with his many aunts and uncles, including Uncle Joe and Aunt Etta.
Joseph Rauch was a luminary in the progressive Jewish world. He was on the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, president of the Hebrew Union College Alumni Association, and a founder of the World Union of Liberal Judaism. But beyond the Jewish world, he used his pulpit to advocate broadly for social justice and interfaith education. He took the unusual step of obtaining a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is credited with helping to desegregate the Louisville library system, and he was an original panelist, alongside Christian clergy, on “The Moral Side of the News,’ which remains one of the longest-running public affairs programs in broadcast history.
The November 1952 temple bulletin I happened to find today in a shoebox is a testament to his interfaith work, and contains the following rather remarkable items:
A report that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth services at Adath Israel aired on Louisville television stations.
A thank you letter from the local Methodist church for welcoming over 100 church members to a Sukkoth celebration at the temple.
A proposal by Dr. Rauch (as he was known to his congregation) and one Sister Clara Frances to rename an alley that passes behind the temple, Nazareth College, First Unitarian Church, and Calvary Episcopal Church. The name they proposed: Interfaith Lane.
An invitation to join Dr. Rauch for a weekly adult education series in November including the following topics: “Introduction to the Religions of the World,” “Your and My Religion,” “How Much of it do we Share with Christians,” and “How Much of it do we Share with Mohammedans.”
An address by a University of Louisville exchange student from India, Naresh Shah.
Dr. Rauch’s recent addresses at four different Protestant churches.
Regular sermon topics, including “Religion in the public schools,” and “We need a world Thanksgiving.”
A detailed curriculum for the children’s religious education program at the temple, including an entire course on “Comparative Religion.”
In the midst of the current season of interfaith Thanksgiving services, this little bulletin speaks of a deeper level of interfaith engagement, a level we urgently need now. We need entire congregations welcoming each other, not just once a year, but on a regular basis. We need more interfaith education for all adults, and for all our children. We need to work together, to protect this vision of intellectual engagement and mutual support across religious lines.
Susan Katz Miller (SKM): When the search committee first contacted you about coming to Brookville as the new pastor, the Interfaith Community already had a close relationship with the church there. What was your first impression of this relationship?
Rev. Vicky Eastland (VE): Initially, one of the reasons Brookville was interested in me was because I was one of the founding members of an interfaith council in upstate New York where I was pastoring a church at the time: we met to do community service and events together. When I heard the word interfaith, that’s what I thought of. It wasn’t until I received a series of questions the church wanted me to answer on paper that I realized it was about interfaith families. I still had no idea what this interfaith families community was, that was connected to the church.
SKM: I know Pam Gawley (co-founder with Sarah Cirker of the Interfaith Community of Long Island) has said she may be the only Jewish woman to serve on a church search committee for a new pastor.
VE: When I showed up for my second interview, I was really quite surprised because the search team of the church stepped aside and let Pam and Sarah lead the interview. It ended up being a great experience for all of us. I remember one of the search team members saying something that has stayed with me: “We’re not just looking for the next pastor, we’re looking for someone to take us further in our relationship with the Interfaith Community.” This was an integral part of helping them decide who the next pastor would be.
SKM: The Interfaith Community of Long Island, which was founded to support Jewish and Christian interfaith families, now holds their interfaith Sunday School at Brookville, and these interfaith families attend the church service at Brookville on a specific Sunday each month, as part of their interfaith education program. Do the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity pose a challenge for you in those services?
VE: The most challenging aspect for me since I’ve been at Brookville is surrounding the Sacrament of Communion. Personally, I don’t think we should turn anyone away from an experience with God, so I understand opening the communion table to non-Christians. But the wording in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) liturgy is very Christocentric. I was using that liturgy, and I had a Catholic woman ask me, “Can you please not use those words? My husband who is Jewish feels like all Christians are blaming him for the crucifixion of Christ.” There were Sundays when I left the service, and I started crying because I felt like something I said was offensive to someone from IFC. But then there was pushback from other Christians who were saying, “We don’t want you to take those words out.” But for a while I did, because I don’t think anything should be excluding people who want to be there.
In my second year, we moved IFC Sunday to a non-communion Sunday, and I’ve gone back to the RCA language for communion. Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, told me, “We want this to be authentically Christian.” We’re all on this journey together. And the Catholic woman who was worried about how her Jewish husband feels? That husband actually participates now in communion.
Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I was very Christocentric in my sermon–but its hard not to be on Resurrection Sunday. That cognitive dissonance that I had in the first year, I don’t have so much anymore. In the service I said, “I know there are people who are with us today that aren’t Christian, and don’t believe what we’re saying here, and that’s okay.” A Jewish mom came up to me afterwards in tears, and said she was so moved to be acknowledged. It was not planned: it just came out of me.
SKM: I know the Muslim study group had been meeting at Brookville Church on Sunday afternoons for many years, but how did it become integrated into the Multifaith Campus?
VE: When I got there in the fall of 2013, I realized the rabbi, Rabbi Stuart Paris, had never met the Muslim leader, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. I started doing introductions, friendships formed, and we realized our individual missions were so similar–we all wanted to bring reform to our specific faiths. None of our groups is exclusive, anyone is welcome at any of the groups. Then we said let’s do something together, around a holiday not based on any of our faiths.
That first Thanksgiving together was the highlight of my entire ministry career. We started out with our new Brookville Multifaith Campus sign dedication, on the lawn of the church. One of the members from the Muslim community did the call to prayer in Arabic outside on the PA system. We had about 200 people, the maximum we can fit into the chapel, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Dr. Sultan said he’d been to a lot of these interfaith Thanksgiving services where the representatives each preach from their own holy scripture, and it feels almost like a competitive situation. So he suggested that instead we preach from each other’s holy scriptures. I ended up preaching from the Quran, Dr Sultan from the Torah, and Rabbi Stuart from the New Testament. That’s what we’ve done ever since—this year was our third Thanksgiving together.
Since that first Thanksgiving, I have traveled to the Sultanate of Oman, a Muslim majority nation in the Middle East , and I have had a lot more exposure to the Muslim faith. The Quran has come alive to me in ways I never would have imagined. We’ve been talking with the IFC about how to add an Islamic unit to the interfaith Sunday School curriculum. For now, we’ve decided to wait until there are more young Muslim interfaith families in the IFC community.
SKM: As the Brookville Multifaith Campus becomes established, do you see this as a template for other communities?
VE: We’re now at the point where I’m starting to form a team with people from members of all four communities, to work on becoming a 501c3 (non-profit institution). The long-range hope is that that this will turn into a model that will change the makeup of our church. I believe that’s the direction all houses of faith should move in. I think it’s a model that everyone should look at.
Many churches, here and across the country, have been shrinking, even closing. Recently, I met with a group of clergy from Long Island. They came to learn about what we’re doing–how it’s working, why it’s working, and what we’re doing that’s making it so successful. We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society. How is that going to play out in our houses of faith? Clergy can no longer bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the needs of interfaith families are not important. We have to find ways to meet their spiritual needs. Ours is a model that others can follow.
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.
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:
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.
What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?
The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.
But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.
Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.
So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.
Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.
After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.
Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.