Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

Interfaith Generation: Rev. Erik Martínez Resly

January 12, 2016

The Sanctuaries, DC.   Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

We are still fighting the myth that interfaith children grow up to be lost and confused. Rev. Erik Martínez Resly is an interfaith child who grew up to become an inspired community leader. I met Erik at the Parliament of the World’s Religions this year, and recently interviewed him about his work as Lead Organizer of The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC.–SKM

1. How would you describe your own religious family history and journey?

I grew up in a mixed religious family, Jewish and Christian, both practicing. My parents embraced the tension, encouraged me to experience both ritualistic worlds, find my own place of commitment and conviction. Living overseas in Germany, we attended the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde, a free-religious community that served mixed families like our own, some Muslim-Christian, others cross-cultural in non-religious ways. As a teenager, I was “religious but not spiritual,” in the sense that I attended services but didn’t necessarily identify with the beliefs and practices in an intimate and immediate way.

However, in my last years of high school, all of that changed during a particularly difficult struggle with chronic illness. I was stretched and shoved to my physical and spiritual limits, and forced to make a decision about how to face death. I chose life, in the sense that I came to appreciate the small moments of rupture and revolution, the seeds of the spirit that broke through the pain and hardship. I will never forget the one time I was in great pain wrapped in covers on my hospital bed, and I all of a sudden had this urge to pray. I don’t know where it came from! I neither really knew how to pray, nor whom I would be praying to. My illness didn’t magically heal, but I felt the power of something or someone holding me up, giving me the strength and courage and resilience to push on. “Maybe that’s God,” I thought to myself, intentionally leaving the question open. It was a question that I would carry with me for many years, and one that I continue to live with to this day.

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Rev. Erik Martinez Resly    Photo, Julio Jimenez

2. What inspired you to found The Sanctuaries? 

After flirting with a career in international politics, I came to realize that institutions are only as humane as the people behind them. So I decided to devote my life to supporting the people behind them — empowering people to live as their best selves. I sought graduate training in religious pluralism at Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

At the same time, I quickly realized that our inherited forms of organized religious community needed to shift to catch up with the changing realities of what it means to be a younger person in the economic context and cultural worlds that we find ourselves in. As an artist and activist, I found this to be even more pronounced within circles of creative and conscious people, who too often described organized religion as something that burned or bored them. Let me be clear: I have deep respect for more traditional religious communities. Nevertheless, there is an ever-growing population of younger people who do not feel connected to or well served by these institutions. And so, I felt that we needed to broaden the bandwidth on what a spiritual community could look like.

Towards the end of 2012, I spent six months meeting with people — at cafes, bars, gallery openings, music shows, and everything in between. I wanted to know what type of community they would value, what would be worth their time, what was missing in their lives. The Sanctuaries was born in 2013 as a collective response to those questions.

People told me that they sought a community that truly reflected the racial and religious diversity that exists in this city, and an opportunity to build lasting friendships with people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. People also told me that they yearned for a spiritual community that would welcome them as they are, without drama or judgment, and that would celebrate their questions, curiosities, and doubts. It would be a place where devout Muslims and committed Christians could grow spiritually alongside people who do not claim a specific tradition, but who still strive to live a life of meaning and purpose. Lastly, people told me that they wanted to help build a creative community that encouraged personal creative expression and artistic collaboration, across mediums, in service of a higher cause. A place where art and soul fuel social change.

3. So what does this work at The Sanctuaries end up looking like?

The Sanctuaries hosted more than 60 gatherings last year. One highlight was being invited to perform at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, a gathering of over 10,000 people from around the world, last fall. Another highlight was working with fifteen of our artists of diverse racial and religious backgrounds to record a seven-track album, “The Mixtape,” that sold out its first pressing. The album fuses hip hop and soul with folk and classical Indian ragas, incorporating spoken word poetry, thumping beats, soaring vocals. It’s raw, and sacred.

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The Sanctuaries at the Parliament.      Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

4. Where do you see The Sanctuaries heading next?

We’re about to launch our Collective, which will equip engaged citizens to harness the power of their creative and spiritual lives to promote social change in their own communities. We’ll host a three-month pilot this spring, free of charge, where ten creative people of diverse backgrounds and mediums will form a community, and receive studio space and supplies, tools for deepening their spiritual voice and artistic craft, and the opportunity to learn from and contribute to a local justice campaign. Applications are open now and will close on Friday, January 15th.

The Collective is part of our larger mission to bring new perspectives to the social problems that we face. The world desperately needs creative leaders of diverse backgrounds who are spiritually grounded and socially conscious.

5. What do you think makes this kind of community powerful for those from younger generations who have no interest in traditional religious institutions?

The Sanctuaries is an unapologetically inclusive and relevant community. It’s real and raw — a space to creatively explore what organizer Osa Obaseki, Co-Founder of our Collective, calls “spiritual gangsta shyt.” There’s an appreciation for the wisdom of ancient traditions, alongside a desire to figure out what it means to live well in the here and now.

Members of our community often tell me that this is the first community they’ve found that welcomes their whole selves — the creative and the spiritual, the questions and the convictions, the successes and the shortcomings. We don’t need to look alike or think alike to love alike.

Let me also say: partnership is powerful. It’s a form of support without suffocation. It’s a way to mutually commit to a shared cause, and collaboratively work towards a shared vision. I prize the partnerships we have with local religious institutions, as well as with small businesses, arts organizations, and justice campaigns in the area. They don’t try to do what we do, and we don’t try to do what they do. Rather, we share stories, learn from each other, find ways to share resources and celebrate shared successes. I truly believe: we’re better together.

6. How do you think growing up in an interfaith family helped to form your approach to religion and the world?

My family taught me to appreciate difference and embrace contradiction. Sometimes you can’t come to a resolution that pleases everyone. Sometimes life is just too complicated for easy answers. Rather than fight these impasses, I’ve learned to welcome them.

So often, finding an answer closes down curiosity. It stops a journey of inquiry, and sends everyone home, puffed up and proud. Points of difference, on the other hand, open up new questions and demand new perspectives. They force us to look at things differently. They stretch our minds. They expand us.

That’s not to say that answers are unimportant. They’re guideposts along the journey. But growing up in an interfaith family, I came to know a God who refuses to be put into a box, to be mobilized to reinforce our sectarian divisions, to be reduced to our human prejudices.

 

2014 song and video by The Sanctuaries, DC.

 

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.

Seven Big Interfaith Family Stories of 2015

December 31, 2015
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Plexus A1, Gabriel Dawe

 

In 2015, it was a privilege to take part in a conversation with all of you on interfaith families and interfaith identities. Looking back over the past year, I chose what I see as seven of the most important themes from this conversation. I welcome your comments, or suggestions for stories I may have missed.

  1. Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the fourth-largest Jewish movement, changed their policies this year in order to allow the admission and ordination of students in interfaith marriages or partnerships. While the smaller Jewish Humanist and Jewish Renewal movements have long accepted such students, this shift marks a significant moment in the history of accepting interfaith families in Jewish leadership.
  1. Progressive Protestants and Interfaith Identities. Historically, the topic of interfaith families (at least in the US) has been viewed mainly through Jewish, and to a lesser degree Catholic, lenses. So it was exciting when I was invited this year to speak at both a chapel service and an evening panel at Union Theological Seminary in New York. And it was also exciting that the World Council of Churches and United Church of Christ convened a series of consultations on Religious Hybridity, bringing together mostly Mainline Protestant clergy and theologians to discuss how to engage with people with multiple religious bonds. I was honored to be asked by Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson to present my research on identity formation in interfaith children raised with both family religions. I look forward to reviewing a new book (publication date tomorrow!) filled with related essays, Many Yet One: Multiple Religious Belonging.
  1. Unitarian Universalists and Interfaith Families. While Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have long welcomed interfaith families and people of complex religious identities, this year they took that support to the next level, with new resources on interfaith families in the UU world on their website and in a new pamphlet. I spoke about interfaith families at two UU communities this year, and on a UU podcast. And UU religious educators invited me to give the keynote Sophia Lyon Fahs lecture at the UU General Assembly, highlighting the important history of interfaith families in UU communities. The lecture was recently published in an eBook by Skinner House press.
  1. Interfaith Families and the Rise of the Unaffiliated. This year, Pew Research highlighted the steep rise in the religiously unaffiliated, from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. Clearly, interfaith families are a part of this complex story, with some of us who are doubly-affiliated lumped in with others who are alienated from all religious institutions. Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research Institute recently told a White House gathering on religious pluralism that 25% of people in the US said they had a spouse from a different religious background, and 16% said they follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion. This year also saw the publication of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, in which Kaya Oakes writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’,” rather than either/or.
  1. Jewish Communities Engaged with Interfaith Families Doing Both. A slow thaw continues between Jewish institutions, and the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith families educating children in both religions. For me, signs of this gradual warming trend (which I first noted last year) this year included invitations to speak at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on The Jewish Channel, in synagogues and JCCs, at Hillel-sponsored talks, and at The Jewish Museum (coming up in February). I also enjoyed a year (sadly, over now) of being a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward.
  1. Interfaith Families as a Global Rights Issue. While interfaith families in the US enjoy the freedom to marry across lines of faith, not all couples have this right. Many countries still register the religious identity of citizens, and allow religious institutions to control marriage and the religious identity of children. But the global connectivity is helping to highlight the importance of civil marriage as a universal human right. On twitter this year (follow me @beingboth) I came across an interfaith romance novel banned from schools in Israel, a court case over the religion of interfaith children in Malaysia, legislation to restrict interfaith marriage and conversion in Myanmar, the battle to recognize interfaith marriages in Indonesia, and interfaith couples violently attacked by religious extremists in various countries.
  1. Launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG). In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the rise of communities formed by and for interfaith families to deliver interfaith education to their children, principally in NY, DC and Chicago. Since the publication of Being Both in 2013, I have been contacted by couples around the country and the globe, seeking to find or create interfaith family communities. In response, I launched the NIFG facebook page this year, to help couples who want to celebrate both family religions to find like-minded couples nearby. Already, we launched a new Atlanta facebook group filled with interfaith families who found each other through NIFG. At NIFG, you can find contacts listed from throughout the US, from California to Florida, and Wisconsin to Richmond. If you plan to raise children with both family religions (that’s any two religions), join us!

 

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.

About That Interfaith Tree-Topper

December 21, 2015
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Peace card by emma’s revolution

We put a tin Mexican star with eight colorful points on the top of our Christmas tree. This star refers to the star that led the Magi to find the baby Jesus, as the story is told in the gospel of Matthew. And from a Pagan perspective (on a tree with Pagan origins), the star as a winter Solstice theme makes sense to me because we are more aware of the brilliance of the stars on the longest of all nights.

But this year, the number of interfaith families putting a six-pointed star, the traditionally Jewish symbol known as the Star of David, on top of Christmas trees seems to have reached some kind of critical mass. Reporters have been calling me to ask about this kind of holiday mash-up, or “Chrismukkah” celebration. And lovely interfaith couples have been tweeting and emailing me to market their mixed-faith holiday greeting cards and ornaments.

My family does not celebrate Chrismukkah, but we are beginning to feel outnumbered. One year, I had a very public and feisty back-and-forth with a blogger who both misunderstood and objected to my family’s approach to the holidays. Our family doesn’t hang dreidels or top the tree with a Star of David. Our approach to being an interfaith family has been to seek to provide our children with literacy in both family religions, and respect for the integrity of each. That has meant teaching and celebrating the two religions separately, giving them each space, in order to honor their specific historical and cultural and theological meanings.

Every interfaith family has to find the pathway that works best for them. For some, that will mean choosing one religion and celebrating the “other” holidays only with grandparents. For our family, it means celebrating both, but in separate, traditional ways. But for what seems to be an increasing number of more-or-less purely secular interfaith families, it has come to mean the freedom to create mash-up celebrations.

As Samira Mehta, an academic with a forthcoming book on interfaith families recently explained to her local newspaper, “In the past 20 years, Chrismukkah has become increasingly public. First, it has grown because of the increasing secularization of society and the growing number of ‘nones’ (those not affiliated with any institutional church or synagogue), and secondly the growing acceptance of multiculturalism in our society.”

I am all for accepting multiculturalism, for seeing what is shared and universal in our families and our cultures, and for celebrating together the theme of hope for peaceful pluralism in a world troubled by intolerance and violence. That is why the first ornament I placed on our tree this year was a card from our friends Pat and Sandy (emma’s revolution) who wrote the moving Peace Salaam Shalom song after 9/11, and created a graphic representation of these three words. While my family does not celebrate a mash-up of religions, we do acknowledge that there are historical ties between the three sibling religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And now, with Islamophobic politicians spreading fear, is a good time to remember these ties.

After hanging the Peace card on our tree, I wanted to stop there–to have this be the only ornament this year, to lift up this crucial message. But then our kids arrived home from college on the Wrong Coast, and we wanted to trim the tree together as a family, and put up all the beloved ornaments. And so we did that. They understand that the desire for peace must be universal, but on our tree we hang Christmas ornaments. Because even though my family has been an interfaith family for two generations now, we want our children to understand the distinct religious cultures, and the specificity of a history that continues to both unite and divide us.

 

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.

To My Interfaith College Kids: Hanukkah Giving

December 7, 2015

First Night of Hanukkah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Beloved Kids,

This is the first year that you will both celebrate Hanukkah away at college. Your dad and I will miss you, as we light the menorah and sing Rock of Ages by ourselves (sniffle). Maybe we’ll skype our Hanukkah with Nana and Grandpa one night, and with you another night. (We’re too middle-aged to figure out how to do both at the same time). I hope that you find some decent latkes at some point during the week, maybe at Hillel? You could try frying them up in the dorm kitchen but to be honest, it’s a laborious and messy job, which is why I brought you up mainly on box latkes (sorry!).

About the presents. I am taking advantage of the fact that you are grown and flown to return Hanukkah to its rightful place as a modest historical celebration that did not originally involve presents. As you know, we’ve been shifting our Hanukkah celebration for years now, away from gifts to you, and towards giving to those in need. We started this tradition when you were very young, and were able to get away with it in part because we have the privilege of being an interfaith family, and so you got a pile of gifts at Christmas. But also, we wanted you to understand that giving to those in need is appropriate for, well, any holiday.

This year, the world seems especially bleak in this, the darkest season (in the Northern hemisphere). I know you are worrying about climate change, terrorism, racial oppression, patriarchy, and, to be honest, finals. To combat this stress, your best tools will be cultivating a sense of gratitude, listening closely to others, and then attempting to make a difference in the world.

Alternative Gift Fair, photo by Susan Katz Miller

So, I have just returned from the Alternative Gift Fair, where I bought gifts for you, for six nights of Hanukkah. (You will also get a small box in the mail with a token tangible gift. I’m not trying to prove I’m a total Hanukkah Grinch here). Here is where I spent your Hanukkah gelt this year:

  1. Socks and underwear for 10 homeless people through Shepherd’s Table.
  2. A week of fresh vegetables from local farmers for one family through Crossroads Community Food Network.
  3. Four illustrated children’s books for DC children in transitional housing, through Share Literacy.
  4. A Leadership Workshop conducted by women of color for a DC girl of color, through SisterMentors.
  5. A week of camp for a child at one of our favorite spots, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
  6. 40 school notebooks for girls at risk for child marriage and child trafficking in Nepal, through The Little Sisters Fund.

I trust, actually I know, that you will appreciate these gifts as much as any physical gift we could send you. We can’t wait for winter break, even if we don’t get to light Hanukkah candles with you this year. In the meantime, study hard, and remember that light in darkness, whether it is the light of Hanukkah or Christmas or Yule or Diwali, does lift spirits. Create that light. Be that light.

Love, Mom

 

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.

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

November 24, 2015

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

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.

 

A Subset of Millennials from Interfaith Families, Part II

October 21, 2015

Millennial Children of Intermarriage

Yesterday, I published a first response from colleagues Sheila Gordon and Ben Arenstein to a survey of millennials from interfaith families who applied to Birthright (the free trip to Israel for young people with at least one Jewish parent). Today, having returned from the Parliament of the World’s Religions and read the report myself, I’m following up with some additional thoughts.

  1. The problem with the funding. As I mentioned yesterday, this study was funded by Birthright and a second Jewish foundation. I am puzzled when academics conduct studies with external funding and do not address this bias in the study. My own study of teens and young adults from interfaith families, the first study of children raised with formal interfaith education, received no external funding.
  2. The problem with the title. The survey at the heart of “Millennial Children of Intermarriage,” was drawn exclusively from people who applied to Birthright. So this was not a “comprehensive assessment” (as claimed). It did not include people who claim a “Jewish and…” identity rather than an exclusively Jewish identity and thus did not apply to Birthright because they assumed they would be rejected. (Read Being Both for an example of a millennial being rejected from Birthright because he refused to disavow his interfaith identity). The study also did not include millennials from interfaith families who are deeply engaged with Judaism but who are not interested in a trip designed to increase Jewish “in-marriage.” And it did not include millennials from interfaith families who are deeply engaged with Judaism but who are not interested in a trip that presents the Israeli but not the Palestinian perspective, or not interested in a trip that fails to address the challenges of being an interfaith family in Israel. (Another problem with the report title is that many millennials find the term intermarriage–as opposed to interfaith marriage–to be creepy. But that’s a sidebar conversation).
  3. Another problem with the respondents. In addition to the survey, the authors interviewed a smaller group of millennials from outside the Birthright applicant pool. But they recruited them through Jewish organizations (such as Moishe House), so again, this was a skewed sample, not at all representative of all “millennial children of intermarriage.”
  4. The problem with the desired outcomes. This study measured indicators of “Jewish engagement” including “wanting to marry someone Jewish.” As the report itself documents, many of us find this indicator offensive, as children of successful interfaith marriages. The growing numbers of rabbinical students from interfaith families or with interfaith partners should put this idea to rest–the idea that you have to be “in-married” to be of value to the Jewish community or raise children who will dedicate themselves to Judaism.
  5. Glad to be discovered. Despite the limits and biases inherent in the study, the growing presence of “my people” became clear in this study–people who want interfaith education for their interfaith children, and people who claim the benefits of complex religious identities. One respondent who claimed the adjective “multicultural” stated, “It makes me a little more open minded, but I think open-mindedness is not a value that’s always accepted or appreciated.” Overall, fully half of the adult children of interfaith families, even in this skewed sample, grew up attending Christian religious services at least a few times per year. And celebration of home-based Christmas was widespread. The authors note, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage.” Some 17 percent of the interfaith children in this sample were told that they were both Jewish and another religion, and another 18 percent were told that their religious identity was their choice to make. (I have a hard time believing that these were not overlapping categories, but this is part of the problem with either/or binary thinking and surveys). If the researchers are interested in understanding our complexities more deeply, I assume they will read Being Both. We are also awaiting a forthcoming Pew study on complex religious identities.
  6. Results of the campaign against interfaith marriage. One respondent explains, “I think there’s an assumption that if you identify as Jewish you obviously want to marry a Jew. I’m going to marry whoever I marry!” The report documents the fact that those with “Jewish experiences” including Birthright are less likely to be married. I call this the “Uncle Leon” effect, named for one of my many beloved Jewish relatives who never married, and thus never had children, because of pressure to avoid marrying a Christian. I fail to see how dying single, as my Uncle Leon did, is good for Jewish continuity.

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.

Another Form of Interfaith: A Christian From a Jewish Family

August 4, 2015

Sarahbeth Caplin

Jewish identities are diverse. Christian identities are diverse. And, interfaith identities are diverse. I often write about the idea that every child, no matter which religious label and education parents give them, grows up to choose their own beliefs, practices and affiliations. Today, guest blogger Sarahbeth Caplin recounts her journey, from a Jewish childhood to her conversion to evangelical Christianity, and her sense of being interfaith.–SKM

No one, not even myself, can figure out where my fascination with religion came from: I wasn’t raised in a religious family, and I certainly wasn’t raised within any Christian tradition. I don’t know what my Jewish parents thought about my early fascination with saints and martyrdom; surely it wasn’t normal, at an age when most girls I knew were into reading The Babysitter’s Club and Boxcar Children series. As an adult, it’s clear to me that God had a firm grip on my life. The question is which God.

My fascination with Christianity, particularly the idea of a god in human form, led to inevitable conversion. I spent many years trying to shoehorn my new Christian beliefs into a Jewish identity while trying to ignore the dramatic differences between the two faiths: evangelical Christianity places heavy emphasis on an afterlife, which is not a top priority in Judaism. Some Christians define sin as a state of being, while Jews view sin as an action only. And that’s just the beginning.

Messianic Judaism was a loophole I thought I found in college that would allow me to “be both,” but it quickly proved to be another branch of Christianity, albeit with some Hebrew and Jewish worship garb tossed in. I was treated like as much of a novelty in those congregations for being a Jew by blood, as I was in elementary school for being the only Jewish kid in a school full of Christians. Most disturbingly, the sermons and discussion groups centered on “outreach” and emphasized Jesus “fulfilling” the Old Law, and that never sat well with me.

If I’m being honest with myself, another huge appeal Christianity had for me, besides the Incarnation, was something that Jews in my home town lacked: community. There is no shortage of churches where I’m from, but only one synagogue: a building that used to be, incidentally, a church. I was Bat Mitzvahed there before the crosses in the stained glass windows were replaced. You could say my conversion was almost prophetic.

If I’m being even more honest with myself, I feel more like “me” wearing Hebrew jewelry than I ever have with a cross. I cannot fluently speak the language that many evangelical Christians use – phrases like “Born again,” “Time in the Word,” “Washed in the blood,” etc. But my ears can’t help but perk up whenever I hear the expressions my mother and grandmother use: kvetching, chutzpah, mitzvah, oy vey. My cupboards are filled with coffee mugs labeled “Jewish penicillin” and other Yiddish-isms instead of Bible verses with cutesy floral designs. I feel a more instant connection with other Jews than I ever do when I meet a Christian, because there are so few of us. Clearly, there is more to being Jewish than a set of beliefs, and even those are not uniform among Jews (though to be fair, beliefs aren’t uniform among all Christians, either).

I now fully accept the reality that Judaism and Christianity are two very different faiths. A Jewish identity, however, is something a bit more fluid, something I have room to work with. No matter what I believe, my childhood of lighting Hanukkah candles and having Shabbos dinners cannot be erased. My strong sense of tikkun olam cannot be denied, particularly when I hear of missions groups choosing to send bibles overseas to tsunami victims instead of food or water. These are just a few of the things that make up my still-Jewish identity.

My biggest problem, however, is figuring out the best way to explain it to people. I am constantly paranoid about killing a chance for meaningful conversation because someone might not be able to accept my interfaith self. Those people are not my friends, but rejection and accusations of hypocrisy and even apostasy still hurt.

It’s actually something of a comfort for me to remember that everyone is considered an apostate to someone. For instance, I know there are Christians who won’t consider me a “true Christian” because I support gay rights. At some point, one must own who one is and where one has been, no matter how contradictory. Life journeys, particularly religious ones, are deeply personal. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being interfaith, it’s not to condemn a person for having beliefs I might find distasteful in some way. Diversity thrives when the journey behind the belief is respected, even if we disagree with the beliefs themselves.

Sarahbeth Caplin is a stay-at-home author, blogger, editor, and freelancer in northern Colorado with a degree in English Literature from Kent State University and an MFA in progress at Colorado State. Her first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, is a memoir of her religious journey. Follow her blog at http://www.sbethcaplin.com.


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