September: Interfaith Renewal

Pomegranate torah cover

“Do you remember, never a cloudy day…”

Earth, Wind & Fire is the soundtrack to my formative years, and the song “September” always gets me out on the dance floor. I was lucky to experience both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of celebrating love while dancing at two interfaith weddings in recent weeks: one Jewish and Christian, and the other Hindu and Unitarian.

This year, those recent moments of pleasure are helping to carry me through an unsettling first week of September. Yesterday was 9/11. Those of us in New York and Washington, in particular, think of the eeriness of the blue sky, the panic, the unfolding horror. And then we think of how many people in the U.S. from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Latin America–anyone with brown skin or a “different” name–have been harassed, targeted, and in some cases killed, in the years since then. And we think of how our government leadership has too often fueled that misunderstanding and hatred.

At the same time, on a very personal level, this week is both the anniversary of my mother’s death, and of her birth. September was always Mom’s month. I always associate the excitement of back-to-school with her excellence as a mother: the new school supplies, the thoughtfully packed lunch, the deep engagement with our lives. But now, the sudden coolness, the drop in humidity, the angle of light, the smell of September trees and plants, all of it signals my entire body to remember 9/11, and the morning that I was with my mother when she died two years ago on September 14th.

This year, these public and private sources of pain are bookmarked by the two Jewish high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (always ten days apart). I grew up marking those days faithfully in my Reform Jewish family (with the support of my Episcopalian mother), attending hours of synagogue services at Temple Beth Elohim (“TBE”) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. And I still find the liturgy of reflection and renewal inspiring and restorative.

Here in the Washington DC area, we are lucky to have the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), with high holy day services designed to be radically inclusive for anyone connected to Judaism in any way, and to acknowledge all that is good in our partnerships with Christians and people of other (or no) religions. Because it turns out that a service that does this is also an accessible and inspiring service for a whole range of people, including Jewish people.

What does a service designed by and for an interfaith families community look like? Each year is different, since there is a huge body of music and poetry and theology to draw on: traditional and contemporary Jewish liturgies, and sources from religions and cultures of the world. This year, we sang “Morning Has Broken” (a Christian hymn made popular by a man who later converted to Islam), and “If We Only Have Love” (a Jacques Brel chanson), alongside the traditional tunes for Avinu Malkeinu and many other parts of the service.

And we sang contemporary composer Noah Aronson’s lovely Bar’chu (call to prayer), “Am I Awake,” led by our own Rich Shegogue (who was raised Catholic). This provided a deep connection for me, since for many years, I have spent one of the high holy days with my parents at TBE, my childhood synagogue, where it just so happens that Noah Aronson was the longtime composer-in-residence. This is the temple where I became a Bat Mitzvah. (And also, the temple where the rabbi refused to officiate at my marriage). Since my family joined over 50 years ago, the synagogue has grown from 50 families to over 1000 families.

Sitting with my parents in the vast and glorious modern worship space at TBE, I have been lucky to learn many of his new tunes from Aronson himself, strumming his guitar as he leads thousands of voices. So, hearing “Am I Awake” this year in our more informal and intimate service at IFFP, served as an unexpected thread of connection between my experiences.

At IFFP, we remain a DIY (do-it-yourself) community–even the special high holy day cover for our torah was made by a community member, appliqued with a pomegranate to symbolize the sweetness of the new year (photo above). What makes our services feel especially inclusive? Maybe it’s the moment when a couple gets up and talks about Rosh Hashanah from their perspectives as partners–one Jewish, one Mexican Catholic–and what this community means to them. Or maybe it’s the fact that our rabbi, Rain Zohav, feels free to draw on Christian mystics (including Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart) for her Rosh Hashanah talk on protecting the earth.

The high holy day opportunity to meditate, reflect, ask forgiveness, and renew vows to make the world a better place–all of this will help to get me through my mother’s yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), and her birthday, and another year of living in Washington DC. And tonight, midway between the two high holy days, I will be writing postcards to get out the vote in a neighboring state for the midterm elections. Because the high holy days inspire me to work for justice. And because, in September, all of us have the opportunity to begin again.

 

Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Advertisements

High Holy Days 2017: Finding Interfaith Community

Rosh Hashanah Apples, photo Susan Katz Miller

September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.

The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.

Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.

Jewish religious educators and clergy have created programs to serve interfaith families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), provides a full set of four traditional (yet progressive) High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, now led by Rabbi Rain Zohav. IFFP also provides specific children’s services on both holidays.

Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community,  to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!

But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my  tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

What Do Interfaith Families Want From Rabbis?

Linen Wedding Napkin, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

Over at the Forward, I published an Op-Ed today as part of a recent series of opinions on rabbinic officiation and interfaith marriage. Take a look on their site if you want to engage in the discussion there. Or read it here…

 

In the most recent round of wrestling over interfaith marriage, we have heard from rabbis, academics and community leaders. As someone in the middle generation of a three-generation interfaith family, one founded in 1960 when my Jewish father married my Protestant mother, I thought it might be useful to weigh in. In doing so, I draw not only on my own experience, but also on the experiences of over 300 interfaith family members across the country who were surveyed for my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

As a Reform Jew, and a “patrilineal Jew” to boot, it could be (and has been) argued that I do not have standing to comment on what seems to be a watershed moment in the Conservative (and possibly even Orthodox) movement. But from my perspective, we still need to make progress on engaging with interfaith families in all the movements, and in post-denominational Judaism(s).

My interest lies in trying to explain what we, the interfaith families, want from Judaism. Of course I cannot speak for all interfaith families. Some have turned away from Judaism altogether, for any number of reasons — including longtime systemic exclusion. Others want to be quietly incorporated into Jewish communities without being called out as different in any way. They may be happy to put aside the other religion in the family, with the intention of creating “exclusively Jewish” homes.

But according to the 2013 Pew study, only 20 percent of Jewish parents in interfaith partnerships are raising children “Jewish only” by religion, whereas 25 percent are raising children “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else.” These are my people. We are not “doing nothing,” we are “doing both.” But we cannot do it alone.

So here is how you, the rabbis and academics and community leaders, can support us and help us stay connected to Judaism, if you so choose:

1. We ask rabbis to help us to celebrate our weddings, welcome our babies, usher our children into adulthood and officiate at our funerals. We want to engage with the history and culture and liturgies of Judaism, and forge bonds of affection for Judaism in our children. Watching the loving relationship of my children (who only had one Jewish grandparent) with Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing, was one of the greatest gifts of being part of a community of interfaith families led by a rabbi and a minister. (Rabbi White left the Conservative movement over the interfaith marriage issue decades ago. He should be remembered in the current struggle as the pioneer that he was.)

2. We ask rabbis to co-officiate at these life-cycle ceremonies. Our partners and spouses want to feel represented as equals in these key transitional moments. We are not afraid to have our extended families, including our children, see that we honor Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism, or Catholicism. If we cannot have co-officiating clergy, many of us will choose secular celebrants.

3. We ask religious institutions and clergy not to force us to make promises about how we will raise theoretical future children. We have no way of knowing whether we will feel exactly the same way about religion five or ten years down the road. We may well shift in our thinking about single-faith religious education, or interfaith education, or no religious education. Often, these decisions have as much to do with what kind of welcoming communities are available geographically as they do with theology. What we know is that religious beliefs and practices are intensely personal, and many of us do not maintain the same religious affiliations throughout a lifetime.

4. We ask Jewish institutions to educate our interfaith children, whether or not we are raising them in monofaith households. (In truth, we believe that all people can benefit from interfaith education in order to become better bridge-builders.) Reform Judaism, for example, needs to overturn the policy excluding these children from Jewish education, as Edmund Case has bravely stated in a recent column. Every interfaith child, no matter how they are labeled by parents, knows that they have extended family members from more than one religion. We do not do any great service to children in denying them basic religious literacy, or segregating them and keeping them ignorant about the religions in their family trees. Because, as the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, all children grow up to make their own choices in life: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.”

 

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

 

 

Passover and Easter 2017 in Interfaith Family Communities

 

Egg.
Egg.       Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

Spring is here, and many interfaith families will be celebrating Passover and Easter at events  with other interfaith families. Below, I share with you a round-up of spring celebrations hosted by interfaith family communities devoted to interfaith education for interfaith families. All are welcome at all of these events, just RSVP to the various organizers and see what you can bring. Some of these events are held before the actual holidays, such as a model teaching Seder, or a discussion of the various interfaith perspectives on Easter. Other events are held on the actual dates and are identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families who celebrate both Judaism and Christianity. And some interfaith family communities have partnered with churches and synagogues, and join those congregations for the holidays.

For all who are lucky enough to live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming Passover and Easter events:

WASHINGTON DC

This Sunday morning, April 2nd, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) will host their annual potluck community Seder, designed by and for families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity. It will be led by the IFFP’s Rabbi Rain Zohav.  And on Easter Sunday, April 16th, IFFP hosts an Easter-themed Gathering with reflections from a minister and a rabbi. After the Gathering, join the community for a Pancake and Matzo Brei breakfast.

PHILADELPHIA

On Saturday April 8th, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia (IFFGP) will be hosting their 9th Annual Interfaith Passover Seder for interfaith families that celebrate both family religions. The event will be held in Lansdale, PA. For more info check out the facebook event page.

NY/NJ/CT

In New York City, the original Interfaith Family Community (IFC), which helped pioneer the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families, now has both a Jewish and a Christian  “home” to extend holiday observances. As a group, they will be joining St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for their Easter Sunday service and egg hunt on April 16th. And they are also allied with the innovative Romemu Jewish community, the only Jewish community I know of with a minister on staff to meet the needs of multi-faith families. You can join Romemu for an adult discussion of Passover and Easter this Wednesday, March 29th.

The Interfaith Family Community chapter in Westchester will hold their annual Easter-Passover celebration on April 2nd in White Plains. For more information and/or to RSVP, email IFC.wes@gmail.com

The IFC Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter had their Passover event last weekend. They will hold a family Easter celebration followed by an egg hunt and bunny hop race this Sunday, April 2 in Rivervale, NJ.

The Interfaith Community of Long Island, at the Brookville Church and Multifaith Campus, will host a discussion on Passover led by Rabbi Paris and Cantor Irene during Shabbat on April 7th. And their “Have a Seder/Need a Seder” program matches up families who offer to host or attend a Passover Seder. A Palm Sunday Service led by interfaith youth is on April 9th, and a Family Easter Service is on Sunday April 16th followed by an egg hunt.

And in central New Jersey, Faithful Families, a joint project of Congregation Beth Mordecai and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Perth Amboy, is hosting an Interfaith Jewish-Christian Agape Meal Seder, exploring the Jewish and Christian traditions steeped in the language of the exodus from Egypt. The event is on Thursday April 13th, which is the fourth night of Passover, and Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. A new interfaith families community for central New Jersey is also in formation, and will be meeting up at the Perth Amboy event.  If you are a local family raising kids with Judaism and Christianity, join their facebook group.

CHICAGO

The Union School for Interfaith Families (http://www.interfaithunionschool.org/) in the Chicago suburbs will be hosting a Passover Seder for families in their interfaith education program on April 9 from 9:30-11am at St. Raymonds in Mt. Prospect. Sign up here (http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e44aea72babfc1-union1). Email questions to leslimarasco@gmail.com.

Catholic and Jewish families from downtown Chicago‘s interfaith Family School, an interfaith education program for interfaith children, often celebrate Easter together at Old St. Pat‘s.

ELSEWHERE

Not in one of the areas listed above? Your interfaith family has at least two options for finding community. One is to seek out progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now also welcome interfaith families (though they may not  approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as well as synagogues.

The second option is to build a new interfaith families community to organize interfaith education and interfaith celebrations in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start. To find other families raising children with interfaith education in your area (whether your family is Jewish and Christian, or atheist and Hindu, or Pagan and Buddhist), join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups. New communities are forming all the time!

 

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

 

Kol Nidre… at Old St. Patrick’s Church

Every November, I find myself thinking about how to sustain the inspiration many of us find at annual interfaith Thanksgiving services. Right now, more than ever, we must look for ways to support and connect with each other across religious divides. So today, I am delighted to bring you this essay from guest bloggers David Kovacs and Steve Ordower. –SKM

It was a Sunday Mass at Old St. Pat’s. The city’s oldest public building (it survived the Chicago Fire), this downtown Chicago Roman Catholic Church has a 160-year history of hospitality, welcoming generations of immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere. Today its diverse parishioners come from over 200 zip codes. And for almost 30 years, Old St. Pat’s has welcomed interfaith families.

As always, worship began with the penitential rite, a shared meditative moment of confession. But this time, the music heard was Kol Nidre.

In two days, it would be the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when this haunting melody would touch Jews around the world. Rabbi Ari Moffic joined Father Pat McGrath to offer a blessing. She introduced the meaning of Kol Nidre as she invited 800 people to share the moment together. “It was profoundly spiritual,” she reflected. “For Catholics, it was a deeply meaningful way to experience that penitential part of the Mass. And for interfaith families, they could interweave these parts of their lives and their heritages through this music that’s part of their hearts and souls.”

We captured this remarkable event in a new Leaps of Faiths video. This project is a true “Leap” for us – we’re creating a documentary about interfaith families, the choices they make, and their hopes for their kids and their spiritual lives together. Our film will respect any choice a family makes regarding their home and religious life, while taking a closer look at what happens for those who decide to “do both.” Over a generation, we’ve seen they can raise children who grow up far from confused; indeed many often develop deep connections to one or both faith traditions. St. Pat’s has become a spiritual home to many of them: a Catholic community where Judaism is valued and honored, liturgically and educationally. Much of our footage is from the Chicago Interfaith Family School, hosted by St. Pat’s and run by interfaith families whose children grow though grades K-8 learning both faiths, taught by their parents.

Another arc of our story is what happens when clergy regularly co-officiate. Father John Cusick and Rabbi Chava Bahle led the first Kol Nidre experience at Old St. Pat’s a few years ago. For many years at St. Pat’s, under the leadership of Pastors Jack Wall and Tom Hurley, and at some Chicago area synagogues, rabbis and priests have often stood side-by-side. They have led worship experiences and celebrated sacraments and rites of passage. As they make interfaith families feel welcome, they also enhance these experiences for Jews and Christians together, breaking down divisions in polarized times. As one parishioner said after praying to the melody of Kol Nidre, “The way the world is going, this is what we need. Seeing this it gives me a little bit more hope.”

We hear her voice in the video, along with clergy, interfaith parents, and kids, reflecting about the experience. “There is a fear that if a family wants to raise children with a dual faith identity that their children will be confused about an authentic Jewish expression,” says Rabbi Moffic. “Interfaith education programs like the Family School and worship experiences like this show that these families want Judaism in their lives in real ways and seek it out. It’s incumbent upon Jewish leaders to support and foster that.”

Susan Katz Miller has been our friend for many years and will be another voice in our film. The Family School, the Interfaith Families Project in Washington D.C., and the Interfaith Community in the New York Metro area all started more than 20 years ago, and all are dedicated to the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children. More recently, the Interfaith Union School was established in suburban Chicago. We’ve learned from each other, cheering each other on as we’ve all grown.

We share the concerns Susan describes in her recent post about “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage” – a study by researchers at Brandeis University.  Like Rabbis Moffic and Bahle, we were puzzled by its conclusion providing “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.”

From our experience, first impressions mean a lot. What are Christian partners to think of the religion they are marrying into if it will not allow their own faith tradition to be represented at their wedding? And indeed, if a wedding is a day but a marriage is a lifetime, should the question of co-officiating be limited to a single moment? What can a more open-minded approach do for these couples as their families grow?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll raise in the film. We hope you’ll enjoy this video and the others on our website – please share them with friends. If you like our facebook page, or subscribe to our youtube channel, you’ll get word of new videos as we release them. And if you would consider donating to help make the dream of this project a reality, we would love to add your name to our growing list of supporters. In this season of Thanksgiving, we are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received, and look forward to telling the kinds of stories so many of us share.

David Kovacs and Steve Ordower are the co-producers of Leaps of Faiths, and also interfaith parents from the Family School. David and his wife Patty are one of the school’s founding families.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Successful Interfaith Marriage: A Jewish and Muslim Wedding

RorriWeddingPic
Photo, Cassarino Studios

I recently met Rorri Geller-Mohamed at Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, where her family has the ongoing support of both a rabbi and a progressive Muslim study group. I invited her to write for OnBeingBoth.com about her Jewish and Muslim interfaith family. Here’s her first post, on her wedding planning and weekend of celebrations.–SKM

Most brides love talking about their weddings, but I especially enjoy sharing my interfaith wedding story. My husband and I were blessed to have family, friends, and a whole lot of dancing to celebrate the union of our different backgrounds and religions. I hope that our wedding inspires interfaith couples that feel overwhelmed and intimidated to know that it is possible to have the wedding of your dreams. My husband is a Guyanese American Muslim and I am Jewish American. Our wedding was the perfect celebration of the coming together of our religious identities as well as our cultural and family traditions.  We joked about how our wedding photos would be the perfect advertisement for world peace.

An Imam, A Rabbi, and Bruno Mars

How do a Rabbi and an Imam plan a ceremony together?  First, they discussed with us what prayers and traditions are typical for a Jewish wedding and Muslim wedding.  Then, we met together to figure it out.  We were honored to have an amazing Imam and Rabbi who wrote a beautiful ceremony for us, intertwining blessings from both our religions and incorporating Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  We included the Jewish tradition of breaking the glass and had a kiddush cup filled with grape juice instead of wine because drinking alcohol can be viewed as haram (against the religion) in Islam.  We also had yarmulkes available for whoever wanted to wear one for the ceremony.  We made the non-traditional decision for my husband and bridal party to dance down the aisle to the upbeat song “Marry You” by Bruno Mars (who has intercultural and interfaith heritage himself) in order to get all of our guests into the celebratory spirit.  I walked down the aisle with my parents to “All of Me” by John Legend.  We both love music and felt that it was the perfect way to start our unique ceremony.

Us & Family

I was excited about the opportunity to plan our wedding with the goal of honoring both of our identities, and sharing them with our families.  My husband had some concerns about how his family would feel about it not being done in their traditional Islamic way.  My husband and I wanted to make sure that both of our families felt comfortable.  We consulted with family along the way as we made our decisions.  It was very important to us that our parents approved of our wedding.  Traditionally, a member of my husband’s family officiates family weddings, but there wasn’t anyone that had experience and felt comfortable performing an interfaith ceremony.  We spent time discussing our Muslim officiant’s credibility, sharing the written ceremony, and addressing concerns with my soon-to-be father-in-law.  It was important to my parents that Jewish traditions were part of the celebration and that I was married by a Rabbi.

While incorporating both sets of traditions, we also felt empowered to make changes to ensure that it was the best day for both families. For instance, traditionally, my husband’s family has to do a lot of the work preparing for a family wedding.  They often stay up all night cooking the food, decorating the hall, and even baking the wedding cake.  However, it was important to my husband we have a different kind of wedding where his family could enjoy the celebration without having to do any work. We accomplished this by having our wedding catered at a beautiful outdoor venue.

Extended Celebrations

We had multiple family gatherings throughout the weekend as part of our wedding that really allowed our family members to meet and get to know each other.  Although we were both a little apprehensive about how some of our extended older family members might act or what they would say, everyone got along really well.  My husband’s family, from the Indo-Caribbean culture from Guyana in South America, organized an extremely personalized mendhi party for me and invited both of our families to come and get painted with henna. It was amazing and really made me feel welcomed into their family. My husband’s cousin and his little son did a mini-dance performance to traditional Indian music, we ate traditional Guyanese food, and they gifted me with a sari and traditional wedding sweets.  It also was a great opportunity to introduce my family to their cultural traditions and for both families to mingle and get to know each other.

Party Time

My husband and I both love to dance. Not all Muslim weddings in his family have had music but it was important that our reception represented us even if didn’t follow some traditions. We also sought out an MC and DJ that could play music to keep both of our families and friends entertained. We did the horah, a traditional Jewish celebration dance, played West Indian music like reggae and soca, and included traditional Indian music to please some of the older crowd. Everyone was up dancing and mingling the whole night. Looking back at it, we had a blast and couldn’t imagine celebrating any other way.

Advice for Planning a Jewish Muslim Wedding

From our experience, here are a few tips for other Muslim and Jewish couples trying to figure out how to plan their wedding:

  1. Communicate with your partner about your wedding vision and what typical wedding ceremonies and receptions look like in your family. This gives you a starting point for creating your joint vision together.
  2. Consult with your families along the way. This gives you and your family members time to process and address any concerns and prevents any surprise reactions on your big day.
  3. Give yourself plenty of time to research and find an officiant or officiants that fit what you are looking for. Good starting places include Muslims for Progressive Values, interfaithfamily.com (for rabbis), and Brookville’s Multifaith Campus (for those in the New York area). Have confidence that you will find an officiant or officiants that can do the ceremony you want–it just can take some time.
  4. Take family halal or kosher dietary needs into account for the reception.  Some people believe that kosher food is also halal, but find out about your  family or your partner’s family’s opinion about this. Many caterers can accommodate this for a small fee, you just have to ask.
  5. Remember it’s only one day. Yes, it may be one of the most meaningful days in your life and a symbol of your unity shared with friends and family, but it is still only one day. You have a lifetime ahead of you to share together with your loved ones.
  6. Reach out for support and ideas. If you are in a Jewish and Muslim relationship, join the new Jewish-Muslim Families Facebook community and connect with people who have been in your shoes. The Network of Interfaith Family Groups connects interfaith families (of any religion or none) who seek to celebrate both family religions. Additional support for interfaith couples can often be found with local progressive clergy, therapists, and inclusive communities.

 

Rorri Geller-Mohamed (Upowerchange@gmail.com) is a licensed therapist who specializes in issues of identity and supporting mixed couples. 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.