In Recife, Brazil: The First Synagogue in the New World

 

In honor of the Rio Olympics, I thought I would re-post this essay, written seven years ago, in the year I launched this blog. I’m glad to report that both of my children, in the intervening years, grew in their appreciation of museums. Inspired by our 2009 visit, both of them also went on to study Portuguese in college, and we are all suffering from “saudades” and yearning to visit again soon.–SKM

 

Street of Jews

 

My kids hate museums, or so they claim. My daughter, 15, says she doesn’t like the way the objects are taken out of context, isolated and pinned to white walls like butterfly specimens.

So on our trip to Brazil last month, I only dragged them through one museum: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, commemorating the site where the first synagogue in the Americas was built around 1636. As an interfaith parent, I could not resist the opportunity to weave this thread of Jewish history into our lives.

When we lived in Brazil in the 1990’s, archaeologists had just uncovered evidence of the synagogue’s location—a mikvah, or ritual bath, made of stone. My children were less than four and one when we left the city of Recife after living there for three years.  By the time we returned last month, twelve years had gone by and a museum had grown up around the mikvah, which is now covered with clear plastic so that you can walk over it and peer down in.

The museum chronicles how Jews arrived in northeastern Brazil with the Portuguese explorers and played a key role in the thriving colonial sugarcane plantations in northeastern Brazil under Dutch rule, until the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654 and imposed the Inquisition. Some Jews fleeing Recife ended up in New York, where they founded the first congregation in the city, Shearith Israel.

The museum is modest–the mikvah is about all that is left from the original building. A new synagogue now crowns the building, and I felt the deep satisfaction of connecting my children to another synagogue that plays a role, no matter how small, in our family chronicle. For an hour, they absorbed another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. And I was satisfied to inject an hour of thinking about Judaism into our celebration of the boisterous pagan and Catholic Sao Joao (Saint John) festival–two weeks filled with bonfires, fireworks and dancing.

After patiently touring the Synagogue and Museum, my children stepped back out onto the street, beneath a canopy of fluttering Sao Joao flags and lanterns. On the map of Recife, this street is marked the Rua do Bom Jesus: the Street of Good Jesus. But I know, and now my children will never forget, that the first name for this street was the Rua dos Judeus: the Street of Jews.

 

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.

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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.

 

A Jewish Woman Who Says Inshallah

Kaolack
The Tidjane Mosque in Kaoloack, Senegal, through the filter of red harmattan dust in 1989. Photo by Susan Katz Miller.

Once again this year, I am honored to be a part of #InterfaithRamadan, the month-long series of daily essays curated by interfaith activist Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman). Sarah is an English teacher living in Italy, a preacher’s kid. and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim hybrid.” She writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” Two years ago, she posted an essay I wrote reflecting on my three-year sojourn in Senegal, a predominantly Sufi Muslim country. This year, partly in response to the toxic Islamophobic rhetoric in American political discourse right now, I wrote a new essay for #InterfaithRamadan, published yesterday, reflecting on why I say Inshallah and Alhamdulillah, and how this relates for me to the Jewish Shehecheyanu prayer. Hop over and check it out, and then browse through some of the many other wonderful #InterfaithRamadan essays there, and subscribe to Sarah’s blog.

My years in Senegal, the first years of my marriage, were formative in multiple ways. Immersion in a joyous, welcoming, progressive, and culturally rich Sufi Muslim culture permanently altered the way I see Islam and the world. As someone who has had the privilege to experience Senegal, I have written from this perspective on my own blog, again and again and again. As someone who grew up in an interfaith family, I see this as part of my role in the world: to build bridges as an interfaith activist, especially when intolerance is on the rise.

 

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.

Interfaith Families in the Pews: Q & A with Reverend Vicky Eastland

 

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Photo: Susan Katz Miller

 

 

While reporting my recent article in The Washington Post on Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, I ended up with a lot of material that did not make it into the story. As an unofficial historian of the interfaith family communities movement, one of my goals is to record and preserve as much of our ongoing story as possible. Below, I share an extended interview with the minister at Brookville Church, Reverend Vicky Eastland. Here, she discusses her role as a Reformed Church in America minister, in the context of Brookville’s Multifaith Campus—a joint project of the Brookville Church, The New Synagogue of Long Island, the Muslim Reformed Movement Organization, and the Interfaith Family Community of Long Island.

 

Susan Katz Miller (SKM): When the search committee first contacted you about coming to Brookville as the new pastor, the Interfaith Community already had a close relationship with the church there. What was your first impression of this relationship?

Rev. Vicky Eastland (VE): Initially, one of the reasons Brookville was interested in me was because I was one of the founding members of an interfaith council in upstate New York where I was pastoring a church at the time: we met to do community service and events together. When I heard the word interfaith, that’s what I thought of. It wasn’t until I received a series of questions the church wanted me to answer on paper that I realized it was about interfaith families. I still had no idea what this interfaith families community was, that was connected to the church.

SKM: I know Pam Gawley (co-founder with Sarah Cirker of the Interfaith Community of Long Island) has said she may be the only Jewish woman to serve on a church search committee for a new pastor.

VE: When I showed up for my second interview, I was really quite surprised because the search team of the church stepped aside and let Pam and Sarah lead the interview. It ended up being a great experience for all of us. I remember one of the search team members saying something that has stayed with me: “We’re not just looking for the next pastor, we’re looking for someone to take us further in our relationship with the Interfaith Community.” This was an integral part of helping them decide who the next pastor would be.

SKM: The Interfaith Community of Long Island, which was founded to support Jewish and Christian interfaith families, now holds their interfaith Sunday School at Brookville, and these interfaith families attend the church service at Brookville on a specific Sunday each month, as part of their interfaith education program. Do the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity pose a challenge for you in those services?

VE: The most challenging aspect for me since I’ve been at Brookville is surrounding the Sacrament of Communion. Personally, I don’t think we should turn anyone away from an experience with God, so I understand opening the communion table to non-Christians. But the wording in the Reformed Church in  America (RCA) liturgy is very Christocentric. I was using that liturgy, and I had a Catholic woman ask me, “Can you please not use those words? My husband who is Jewish feels like all Christians are blaming him for the crucifixion of Christ.” There were Sundays when I left the service, and I started crying because I felt like something I said was offensive to someone from IFC. But then there was pushback from other Christians who were saying, “We don’t want you to take those words out.” But for a while I did, because I don’t think anything should be excluding people who want to be there.

In my second year, we moved IFC Sunday to a non-communion Sunday, and I’ve gone back to the RCA language for communion. Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, told me, “We want this to be authentically Christian.” We’re all on this journey together. And the Catholic woman who was worried about how her Jewish husband feels? That husband actually participates now in communion.

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I was very Christocentric in my sermon–but its hard not to be on Resurrection Sunday. That cognitive dissonance that I had in the first year, I don’t  have so much anymore. In the service I said, “I know there are people who are with us today that aren’t Christian, and don’t believe what we’re saying here, and that’s okay.” A Jewish mom came up to me afterwards in tears, and said she was so moved to be acknowledged. It was not planned: it just came out of me.

SKM: I know the Muslim study group had been meeting at Brookville Church on Sunday afternoons for many years, but how did it become integrated into the Multifaith Campus?

VE: When I got there in the fall of 2013, I realized the rabbi, Rabbi Stuart Paris, had never met the Muslim leader, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. I started doing introductions, friendships formed, and we realized our individual missions were so similar–we all wanted to bring reform to our specific faiths. None of our groups is exclusive, anyone is welcome at any of the groups. Then we said let’s do something together, around a holiday not based on any of our faiths.

That first Thanksgiving together was the highlight of my entire ministry career. We started out with our new Brookville Multifaith Campus sign dedication, on the lawn of the church. One of the members from the Muslim community did the call to prayer in Arabic  outside on the PA system. We had about 200 people, the maximum we can fit into the chapel, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Dr. Sultan said he’d been to a lot of these interfaith Thanksgiving services where the representatives each preach from their own holy scripture, and it feels almost like a competitive situation. So he suggested that instead we preach from each other’s holy scriptures. I ended up preaching from the Quran, Dr Sultan from the Torah, and Rabbi Stuart from the New Testament. That’s what we’ve done ever  since—this year was our third Thanksgiving together.

Since that first Thanksgiving, I have traveled to the Sultanate of  Oman, a Muslim majority nation in the Middle East , and I have  had a lot more exposure to the Muslim faith. The Quran has come alive to me in ways I never would have imagined. We’ve been talking with the IFC about how to add an Islamic unit to the interfaith Sunday School curriculum. For now, we’ve decided to wait until there are more young Muslim interfaith families in the IFC community.

SKM: As the Brookville Multifaith Campus becomes established, do you see this as a template for other communities?

VE: We’re now at the point where I’m starting to form a team with people from members of all four communities, to work on becoming a 501c3 (non-profit institution). The long-range hope is that that this will turn into a model that will change the makeup of our church. I believe that’s the direction all houses of faith should move in. I think it’s a model that everyone should look at.

Many churches, here and across the country, have been shrinking, even closing. Recently, I met with a group of clergy from Long Island. They came to learn about what we’re doing–how it’s working, why it’s working, and what we’re doing that’s making it so successful. We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society. How is that going to play out in our houses of  faith? Clergy can no longer bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the needs of interfaith families are not important. We have to find ways to meet their spiritual needs. Ours is a model that others can follow.

 

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.

 

Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

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I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

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.

 

Gay, Interfaith, Marriage: “Grace and Frankie”

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Photo: Melissa Moseley, Netflix

 

The best television comedy featuring interfaith families right now has to be “Grace and Frankie,” with the powerhouse quartet of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. Netflix released the second season last week, and a lot of us have been bingeing. Sheen and Waterston play business partners who carried on a secret love affair for decades before coming out to their wives. Fonda and Tomlin play those wives–an odd couple (a country-club alcoholic and a pot-smoking hippie, respectively) who move in together as platonic roommates after their husbands leave them.

Religion plays a relatively minor role in the series, with occasional references to the Catholic/Christian background of Robert and Grace (Sheen and Fonda), and the fact that Sol and Frankie (Waterston and Tomlin) raised their adopted sons Jewish. But as the second season gets underway (spoiler alert), Grace and Frankie find themselves rushing around a hospital in a frantic attempt to find a clergy member who will officiate at a bedside marriage for Robert and Sol.

Somewhat naively, they try the Catholic chaplain first. Frankie asks, “There’s no leeway? Even with this new Pope?” Turned away, they next go down the hall and try the Jewish chaplain.

          Grace: “Do you have any issue marrying two men?”

          Rabbi: “No of course not. I am in complete support of gay marriage.”

But after Grace fails to provide the rabbi with a plausible Hebrew name for Robert, the conversation goes downhill.

          Rabbi: “He’s not Jewish, is he.”

          Grace: “Well what does it matter? I mean you said you’d marry two men, and they’re both men. Let’s go! Do this!”

          Rabbi: “I’m so sorry, I don’t do interfaith marriages.”

          Grace: “Are you fucking kidding me?! Why not? You’re supposed to be so lefty and progressive.”

The rabbi attempts to explain his position, but the women get up and storm out of the office. This scene plays as both hilarious and excruciating for the many interfaith couples who have been turned down by rabbis. While others, including me, have written about this before, it is still moving to watch a pop culture depiction of what feels like the irony, or the hypocrisy, of progressive rabbis who officiate at marriages for LGBTQ people but not at interfaith marriages. Do we accept that love transcends boundaries, or not? At least watching Grace’s brutally honest, supremely frustrated, and hilariously profane response provides some measure of catharsis.

I was wondering if Grace and Frankie would go on to open door number three on the hall of chaplains, and discover a Presbyterian or Unitarian-Universalist minister who would be perfectly glad to officiate at a marriage for a same-sex, interfaith couple. I hope viewers realize that door is open to them. And I hope they realize that there are some rabbis who would have said “yes” to this marriage. But the women end up taking a different route.

Several episodes later, Robert prepares a Shabbat dinner for his new husband, including roasting a chicken and learning a Hebrew blessing from the internet. (It is not made clear whether the couple even knows that a rabbi has turned them down). I have to wonder if, watching this tender love scene, the fictional rabbi would have had any regrets about turning this interfaith couple away. Or, would he be counting on Judaism to be so compelling that he can get away with turning couples away, and still bet that they will engage with these ancient rituals? You can play those odds, fictional rabbi. But they still involve loss, for the Jewish community, and for the couples who cannot get past rejection at a most vulnerable moment. Not everyone can be as resilient as a Netflix character.

 

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.

7 Ways to Support Interfaith Families

 

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I celebrate the profusion of conferences, workshops, and organizations dedicated to interfaith couples, interfaith families, and those who experienced “growing up interfaith.” Unfortunately, some of these efforts do not provide resources and equal support for both religions or partners in the family. So I have drafted a list of tips for creating inclusive interfaith family programming. While most programs focus on Jewish and Christian families, these guidelines could apply to programs for any two religions, or for families with a mix of religious and secular members.

  1. Balance the Funding. Programs sponsored by a single religion (or worldview) often have an agenda aligned with outreach, rather than with the needs of interfaith families. When all of the couples on a panel just happen to be raising children “exclusively” in one religion, this is very transparent to interfaith families. Such funding bias will inevitably affect the ability to build trust with families.
  2. Hold the Program in a Neutral Space. Programs for interfaith families held in a church or synagogue or religious community center will not feel equally welcoming to both members of an interfaith couple. If renting a neutral space is prohibitive, try alternating meetings between a church and a synagogue. Also, be aware that interfaith families may be wary of any meeting in a space affiliated with a denomination or movement that does not accept co-officiation at interfaith marriages, clergy members in interfaith marriages or partnerships, full participation of interfaith family members in religious rituals, or the acceptance of interfaith children without conversion.
  3. Invite Clergy or Experts from Both Religions. A program that only provides support for one member of the interfaith partnership risks alienating both partners. If the workshop is for “Interfaith Families Who Have Exclusively Chosen (Our) Religion” then by all means, staff it with clergy from your religion. (Actually, even then, it would be helpful to provide experts from the “other” religion to help that partner navigate this pathway). But what if the aim is to help undecided interfaith families discern a way forward? Or to support all families no matter which path they choose? Or to provide space for adult interfaith children to understand the rich complexity of their experiences? Or even, to encourage a deep and affectionate connection to your religion, even if it is (inevitably) not the only religion practiced in these families? In all of these scenarios, the best strategy is to provide clergy, experts, or therapists with a variety of different religious identities, bringing a variety of viewpoints.
  4. Handle Interfaith Statistics with Care. Many statistics on interfaith families come from studies funded by people from a particular religion, or organizations with a particular agenda, and conducted by academics or authors with a particular viewpoint on this controversial subject. For instance, some studies on “interfaith marriage” include very few Jews or Hindus or Buddhists, and instead reflect the much more common incidence of evangelical Christians married to mainline Christians or Catholics. Such statistics are not particularly relevant if you are a Hindu married to a Jew, or a Pagan married to an atheist. In using statistics, it is always essential to note the source, determine how the sample was obtained, scrutinize the definition of “interfaith” being used, and decide whether or not the study is relevant for your purposes.
  5. Avoid the Term Intermarriage. The word “intermarriage” in a program signals a “tribal” perspective: the implication is that the organizers are on the inside, worried about people marrying “out.” Also, interfaith families include those who are married and those who are not—an interfaith family could be a single parent or grandparent raising children, or a couple who are not married but raising children together–so putting the emphasis on marriage excludes families. Related bonus tip: don’t assume an interfaith family centers on a white, heterosexual, married couple.
  6. Let People Label Themselves. Use of the term “non-Jew” clearly signals that the programming is designed from a Jewish perspective. Avoid defining people by what they are not. The more inclusive term is “people of other religions” although even here, you are establishing a Jewish bias and “othering” the Christian (or atheist, or Buddhist) partners. Also, be aware that the label “Half-Jew” (or “Half-Christian,” but does anyone ever even say that?) is offensive to some people who grew up in interfaith families, even while others have attempted to reclaim the term. As a general rule, when describing racial, ethnic, gender, or religious identity, it is always better to let people choose their own labels.
  7. Include the Voices of Interfaith Family Members. Workshops for interfaith couples will be more successful when led by experienced interfaith couples. Programming for interfaith parents (or grandparents) will be more compelling when designed by seasoned interfaith parents (or grandparents). And a conference for adult interfaith children will be more relevant when organized by people who grew up in interfaith families. In short, nothing about us, without us.

Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, 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.