Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

Passover, Good Friday, and Easter: When Interfaith Holidays Converge

March 30, 2015

This year, I am fielding calls from reporters wanting to know how we handle the dilemma of Passover starting on Good Friday. I know that, especially for young couples just starting their interfaith journey, this convergence of important holidays may create stress. Say, for instance, your in-laws are expecting you for a raucous Passover seder featuring four glasses of wine and glazed brisket: this could be an alienating experience if you are also commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and avoiding meat on the solemn Friday of Holy Week.

As interfaith families become the norm in our culture, rather than the exception, all of us must learn to empathize, to see our own practices through the eyes of the “other.” And as each interfaith couple learns to listen deeply and to support one another, I can imagine that serving salmon, rather than brisket, might be a reasonable accommodation in some families this year. Note that I am very pleased to report that chicken broth is apparently acceptable for those fasting from meat, so matzoh ball soup is “kosher” for interfaith families even on Good Friday!

Of course, it’s important for this kind of welcoming and respect to work both ways. So when our interfaith families community has an Easter gathering on Sunday, we follow it with the traditional pancake breakfast, but also fry up matzoh brie (matzah in scrambled egg), on separate grills, for those keeping kosher for Passover (pancakes have leavening, so they are not allowed during Passover).

I have to admit that rather than adapting our seder menu, our family is doing what an awful lot of American families are doing these days with all sorts of holidays: moving the date of our celebration. Somehow, this does not seem sacrilegious, since many of us attend multiple seders each year anyway, often spread out over weeks. Our community interfaith seder was last week, before everyone started leaving town for the school spring break to have Easter and Passover with family. Other themed seders such as women’s seders, or social justice seders, are often held well ahead of Passover week for the same reason. And families and friends may schedule multiple seders throughout Passover week, in order to celebrate with more than one group.

My interfaith clan won’t have our seder this year until later in the week, because being together is more important than the precise day we celebrate, and because we want to respect the climax of the Christian liturgical year. Moving our seder will allow for a proper and separate day of celebrating Easter, since our extended interfaith crew includes both practicing Catholics (who will go to an Easter service) and small children (who will want to eat chocolate and dye eggs). Part of respecting the differences between our two familial religions involves giving each holiday proper space to breathe, and avoiding blending them together. But I suspect that inevitably this year, some of us will spend Easter making matzoh balls.

After years of blogging around the cycle of Jewish and Christian holidays, I thought I would provide a round-up of links to my past posts on Passover and Easter in interfaith families. For culinary musings, you can read about my Grandma’s southern-style charoset with bananas, oranges and pecans, about the “Easter” recipes in her 19th-century German Jewish cookbook, and about what to do with leftover matzoh, jelly bean, and Peeps. And on Joan Nathan’s blog, alongside her terrific flourless chocolate cake recipe, you can read my tips for making the Passover seder more accessible for both Jewish and interfaith guests.

To address the “Spring Dilemma” head on–-the theological harmonics and feedback produced by the proximity of Easter and Passover, read about how one father talked to his young interfaith daughter about the story of Jesus, about my experience of Easter as a mystery and a metaphor, and about being Jewish at a sunrise Easter service.

And for more about how my motley interfaith clan celebrates, you can read about it in this post, and in my infamous “Interfaith Easter, Oy!” essay from Huffington Post (with 240 passionate comments).

However you celebrate, wherever you are, I hope you have time to slow down this holiday weekend, to take in the rebirth of spring, to appreciate the old people and the babies and the tender teenagers gathered round, as we partake in these ancient rituals together.

(NOTE: a version of this post ran in 2010, when Passover and Good Friday also converged).

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.

The Identity of Interfaith Children: Downton Abbey Edition

March 2, 2015


I don’t always blog about fictional interfaith families, but when I do, it’s because they’re discussing the identity of interfaith children. Season 5 of Downton Abbey, which concluded this week in the US, featured the courtship and interfaith marriage of Rose (niece of Lord and Lady Grantham) and Atticus (son of Lord and Lady Sinderby). But for me, the most interesting episode aired last week, when we witnessed the following conversation between Lord Sinderby and Atticus:

Lord Sinderby: “The second Lord Sinderby may be Jewish, but the third will not…”

Atticus: “Any children we may have will be brought up to know both sides of their heritage.”

Lord Sinderby: “Your children will not be Jewish. Don’t you understand that! Their mother will not be Jewish, and neither will they.”

Atticus: “They may choose to convert. Or are you implacably opposed to giving anyone a free choice.”

 Lord Sinderby, quietly: “How easy you make it sound…”

Although the episode takes place between the two World Wars, that conversation sounded very familiar, very modern, and possibly painful, to a lot of contemporary interfaith families. I was not surprised to learn that it was based on an experience the writer Julian Fellowes had himself, while dating a Jewish woman. Interfaith couples today still face worried and frustrated family members who try to discourage interfaith marriages based on the following myths:

1. The myth that the children cannot be Jewish, if their mother is not Jewish. This is no longer the policy of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, and it hasn’t been since 1983. We now have rabbis with mothers who never converted to Judaism, including Jewish luminaries such as Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.

2. The myth that you can’t raise children with both religions. I did it. Hundreds of families are providing interfaith education to interfaith children in organized interfaith family communities. And clergy and religious institutions are beginning to acknowledge this choice as part of the religious landscape. A Chicago rabbi recently told me that fully half of the interfaith couples he marries plan to raise children with both religions. And, I would argue that there is a level on which all interfaith children are exposed to both heritages, even if you give them a single religious label. So Atticus may have sounded naive to Lord Sinderby, but I would argue that he was simply ahead of his time.

3. The myth that Judaism is so strongly tribal that you cannot convert into it. Many people choose Judaism and convert. And some interfaith children can and do choose to convert in order to gain full membership in the movement of their choosing. Sadly, Lord Sinderby is right that it isn’t always easy, and Jews-by-choice still face exclusion, restrictions and prejudice in some Jewish communities. But that’s not a reason to avoid interfaith marriage, or avoid conversion. It is a reason to continue to press for policies that will include and welcome interfaith families.

Finally, Atticus makes reference to free choice in religious practice. In the US, we are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose our own religious identities and practices, to love across traditional boundaries, and to educate our children as we see fit. And our children, whether born into single-faith or interfaith families, will grow up to do the same.


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

Let Us Check More Than One Religion Box

February 20, 2015

Interfaith Sweater by Susan Katz Miller

Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager, arriving at college for your first year, and that you come from an interfaith family. Perhaps you were raised in one religion, but now, you feel drawn to explore the other religion in your family background. Or perhaps you were raised with both religions, and plan to stay connected to both. Or perhaps you were raised with neither religion, but now plan to explore both family religions, or all religions.

Now, imagine you are handed a survey and asked to choose one religion, and only one religion, as your identity. Your only other choices are to choose “none,” or “other religion,” or to skip the question altogether.

I went through this thought experiment as I read “The American Freshman,” an annual report released earlier this month, based on a survey of more than 150,000 college freshmen in the annual CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) survey, produced by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA.

The survey only allows students to pick one religion as their “religious preference.” I suggest that as a result of this restriction, the researchers are missing an opportunity to better understand the changing landscape of American religious identity. As summarized recently by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, that landscape includes the following: one in five Americans is religiously unaffiliated, a quarter of the unaffiliated still see themselves as religious, one in six Americans follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion, and about one quarter have a spouse or partner of another religious background.

This year’s American Freshman survey found that nearly 28% of the students chose “none” as their religious preference, up from some 15% in 1971. And yet, more than 16% of these “religious nones” in 2014 rated their own spirituality as “above average” or in the highest ten percent. I asked Kevin Eagan, the director of HERI, for additional information on the students who came from interfaith families. In 1973, about 22% of students reported having parents with two different religions or denominations (or having one parent with no religion). By 2014, almost 30% had such “religiously discordant” parents.

When I asked whether the researchers had considered allowing students to check more than one religious preference, Eagan replied in an email:
“Unlike race/ethnicity, we have not heard feedback from students or institutions that respondents have felt boxed in by restricting them to just one preference for religion.” I can only reply that both my college-student daughter and my college-bound son do feel boxed in, as do I. And based on the college students I surveyed and interviewed for Being Both, my book on interfaith families, I suspect we’re not the only ones.

I also asked Eagan what he thought of the idea that students from interfaith families would check “none” if they could not check more than one box. “I would think that students who wanted to check multiple religions would either skip the question entirely (i.e., be coded as missing data) or choose the option of ‘other religion’ rather than choose ‘none’,” Eagan wrote me.

As someone who claims an identity formed by both my Jewish and my Christian heritage, I would not choose “other religion,” a category that seems designed for Sikhs or Jains or Pagans. Interfaith is not a religion: it is an identity based on the synergy and symbiosis of two distinct family religions. Often, those of us honoring both family religions are accused of trying to form a new religion. In order to avoid feeding this kind of concern, I would make a point of not checking the “other religion” box. My 18-year-old son says, “At least checking ‘other’ sends the message that they need to expand their options.” But does it send that message?

The choice to just skip the question creates the unfortunate result that people with complex religious identities from interfaith families will not be counted or included in the study results on religious identity. And we are tired of not counting. I agree that some students might just skip this question since there would be no way to express their true religious preferences within the parameters of the survey. My argument is that by allowing them to check more than one box, researchers would be able to gather data to better understand the religious identity of these students.

Why would students who feel connected to more than one religion choose “none”? Those of us who are interfaith children grow up hearing “you can’t be both” and “if you try to do both, you’re really nothing,” and being told that clergy, or religious texts, do not accept the existence of interfaith families. A survey that does not allow students to check two or more religion boxes, but does allow them to check “none,” effectively steers respondents from interfaith families to the “none” box. And yet, this is clearly an uncomfortable box for interfaith children who celebrate more than one religion. My 18-year-old son explains, ” ‘None’ strips you of your religion. They’re saying that because you don’t fit into one of our categories, you can’t have any religion.”

There’s a simple solution to all of this. Allow students to check more than one box. Allow them to check both Buddhist and Jewish. Allow them to check, whether or not you agree that it is a valid choice, Jewish and Catholic. The results will be more complex, perhaps harder to summarize. And more true.


This essay was first published on Huffington Post.

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


New Year’s Interfaith Gratitude: 9 Shout-Outs

January 4, 2015

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 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, 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 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.

Screen shot 2015-01-02 at 1.19.16 PM

A Millennial Perspective on Interfaith Marriage: When Unchurched Meets Unmosqued

December 11, 2014
Frank and Medina

Frank and Medina



(Note: Today I’m pleased to share this space with guest blogger Frank Fredericks.)

I recently read Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both, which is a practical, story-based guide on the many options interfaith couples have, with a particular focus on the feasibility of raising children in more than one faith tradition.

Being in an interfaith marriage of my own as a Millennial, I was fascinated by the different approaches offered, but at times felt like the discourse within its pages was for Gen X’ers, who are now raising children, whether toddlers or teens, and Boomers, the generation before them.  The challenges presented to them as interfaith couples include communal acceptance, birth and coming of age rituals, and ultimately identity in adulthood.  I believe Millennials will be facing slightly different challenges.

While reading, I reflected on my own marriage with Medina, who is a Muslim of Afghan and Mexican descent, and grew up in an interfaith household.  We are Millennials, both practicing in our respective faith traditions, but not particularly tied to specific congregations.  We believe, but our community of social interaction is wider than our religious community.  We both strongly identify with our religious communities, I as an evangelical Christian and Medina as a Muslim, but we are both extremely wary of institutions who claim to represent us.  We’re thus taking stock of what we want to give to our children when we begin, and what we’ll leave behind.

Reflecting on our own childhoods, I attended church, Christian schools, and even played guitar on worship team for both, while Medina attended mosque with her mother, and went to Islamic school after the regular school-day.  We both grew up fairly entrenched in our own traditions, but as adults no longer seek congregational life to experience the fruits of our religious traditions.

And it appears that Medina and I are representative of a larger trend of Millennials and religious practice. While the headlines often highlight the trend towards the growing non-religious identity among Millennials, there’s something else that’s equally telling: While two-thirds of Millennials identify with a religious tradition, only 22% of millennials actually attend weekly religious services.  In other words, the majority of Millennials religiously identify but do not belong to or regularly attend services with a congregation.  This has been referred to as the “unchurched” or the “unmosqued” movements, with a similar parallel for young Jews as well (granted, with a completely different construct for religious identity).

As a result, we’re not troubled by the same things Gen X interfaith and Boomer interfaith couples are.  We really don’t care at all about congregational acceptance. And like many people outside mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations, birth and coming of age rituals are simply not a part of our religious traditions.  Granted, some of this is denominational, but as interfaith relationships become more widespread, Millennials in interfaith couples will be much more likely to come from communities beyond Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, including my own evangelical tradition, which although the largest religious group in America, has historically been more insular.

But one can argue, all this non-institutional Millennial hogwash might simply be a phase.  Perhaps we too as a generation will return to the pews and prayer rugs when our firstborns shock us with the life-changing initiation to parenthood.  Interestingly, the research hints that some of us may never do so. In American Grace, by Robert Putnam and Joseph Campbell, they outline how not only are Millennials attending weekly religious services less than those belonging to older generations, but they are also attending at a lower rate than those generations did at the same age. Essentially, this means that though one’s likelihood to attend a house of worship increases as you get older, each subsequent generation is attending less frequently, even when adjusted for age. The big question is how close to the pattern Millennials will stay, once they become parents.

Even if Millennials in interfaith relationships stay out of congregations even after entering parenthood, we still face plenty of challenges. Like the generations before us, we must grapple with identity, family acceptance, and family tradition. In fact, in the absence of congregational liturgy, the challenge of feeling “authentic” in individual worship, balanced with shared family ritual, may be even more difficult to navigate.

So when Medina and I have our first child, we may not be able to take wholesale all of the wisdom from the interfaith generations before us. But we can learn from how they created new religious responses to a changing landscape, to forge the religious practices of the 21st Century. I’m sure more of Being Both will become relevant as those of us in my generation become parents. And I pray that our children will find our innovations on religious life applicable for them, when they too face a changing religious landscape, just as we learned from the generations before us.


Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, a global interfaith development organization, and Mean Communications, a digital strategy firm. He’s the shockingly fortunate spouse of the wildly intelligent and beautiful Medina Fredericks. He tweets at @frankiefreds

An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas

December 3, 2014

I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.

Snow in Hawley, PA

Interfaith Family Community, Chicago Style

November 10, 2014

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!


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