Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

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!

An Interfaith Family Community Welcomes a Torah

November 5, 2014


As a parent determined to connect my children to Judaism, as a writer who loves storytelling, as a Jew who grew up wrestling with our ancient texts, I wanted my children to experience Torah. This word, Torah, represents our collective Jewish narrative and thus, more broadly, all of Jewish teachings and practice. But I also wanted my children to interact with the physical Torah: the five books of Moses, hand-lettered on parchment scrolls, dressed in embroidered velvet.

And so it was with great joy recently that I witnessed my community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, welcoming our second Torah, as we celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah. We have been very lucky to have the long-term loan of a Torah for many years now, affectionately known as the teeny-tiny Torah. This first, diminutive Torah was the perfect size for my small son to carry, leaning it gently across one shoulder on his Bar Mitzvah day. And it was not too heavy for my father, then late into his 80s, to pass to me that day, and for me to pass to my son. We will always cherish our community’s first Torah.

Ah, but our new Torah is large and lovely, with an exquisite calligraphy, easy to read, and comes with a fascinating story. And it is a gift to our community, for all time. When one of our members, David Quigley, ran the Hebrew study program for our interfaith children, he consulted with his own inspirational Hebrew teacher, renowned Jewish educator David Norman Furash. Furash was leader of the Community Hebrew School of Dutchess County in New York when David Quigley was growing up.

David Furash’s father rescued this Torah after a fire shut down the “Emerald Street Shul” (Knesseth Israel) in Boston’s South End. The damaged Torah was lovingly stored for 36 years, traveling with the Furash family through years in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Oklahoma. After David’s death, his wife Sylvia Karkus Furash decided that the best home for the Torah would be in a community that would actively cherish it. And so she came to visit her husband’s former pupil, and our community, and see our children singing and parading behind her family’s Torah, our new Torah.

Master craftsman Pete Flynn, the guitar player who is the heart and soul of our community band, created an Ark (a portable cabinet) for our new Torah with his interfaith son Andrew, out of acacia wood. In the Torah, the followers of Moses used acacia wood to build the Ark of the Covenant, in order to carry the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As someone who used to live on the edge of the Sahel, in West Africa, the acacica has special resonance for me. This tree has iconic status as one of the few drought-resistant trees that can grow on the semi-arid plains of Africa and the Middle-East (you may know it as the umbrella-shaped tree in the logo for the PBS program Nature). For desert animals, the leaves, thorns, seedpods and nectar of the acacia are a rare source of sustenance.


Like an acacia tree, our interfaith families community is tough, resilient, sometimes bristling with defensive thorns, but nourishing to those who cross metaphorical deserts to find us. On the day we welcomed our new Torah, we sang: “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” In interfaith family communities, all of us are supporters of the Torah. Whether Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, Buddhist, or secular humanist, all of us are teaching our children Torah. We are holding fast.


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!


Being Both: The Paperback

October 21, 2014
Opening the first box of paperbacks. Random House pattern echoed in my grandfather's Persian carpet.

Opening my first box of paperbacks.


Today, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family comes out in paperback. For me, the paperback release also marks one full year on the road with Being Both. In DC, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California, I have entered into deep interfaith family conversations, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Mormons, Unitarians, Pagans, Hindus, and those with complex religious identities, with theologians, seminarians, religious studies professors, ministers, rabbis, parents, grandparents, and interfaith children.

One of my goals in writing this book has been to encourage adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences in interfaith families, and to encourage those from interfaith families to bring their skills to interfaith activism. I see that happening now. Whether we are Hindu and Muslim, atheist and Buddhist, or Jewish and Christian, we’re here. And we have our own stories to tell. This is the end of the era when people could write or lecture about us, without us.

For delivering this book to the world, and for supporting Being Both through a very successful first year, I must again thank agents May Wuthrich and Rob Weisbach, and my visionary Beacon Press team, starting with Amy Caldwell, Will Myers, Travis Dagenais, Tom Hallock, Pam MacColl, Jessie Bennett, Jenah Blitz-Stoehr, Alyssa Hassan, Rob Arnold, Daniel Barks, and extraordinary cover designer Gabi Anderson. Beacon Press publishes books that leap across traditional boundaries and challenge readers to think (and live) outside the traditional boxes. I am profoundly grateful that they took a chance on Being Both, and that the readers of the world have endorsed that leap of faith(s). I also must thank Gabi in particular for the fact that this book (whether in hardcover or paperback) glows with warmth and beauty. Yes, it’s available as an eBook, but I think you will find the physical object very pleasing.

And now, on to year two of traveling, speaking, and sharing interfaith conversations with all of you. I’m planning California and Oregon, Philadelphia and New York. Contact me about a Being Both event in your community.

Reminder, Upcoming Events:

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome!

Baltimore, MD, Wednesday November 5 at 6:30pm, Book Talk and Signing, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street.

Frederick, MD, Sunday November 9, Adult Education talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (10am) and Book Talk and Signing, Curious Iguana Bookstore (4pm)  RSVP on Facebook.

Takoma Park, MD, Sunday November 16 2014 1-3pm, Book Signing and Paperback Release Celebration, at Now & Then. Refreshments, including Being Both M&Ms! RSVP on Facebook.

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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