It has been a freezing winter, with everything cased in ice, still waiting for a thaw. Meanwhile, my longtime followers may have noticed that my blog has been in hibernation. After almost a decade of posting, and more than 300 essays on the topic of interfaith families, I have been sluggish in writing new material here. Instead, I curled up in my den, trying to keep warm through seasons of family grief, and dark times for the country, and the planet.
But now spring is on the way. And, while hibernating, I have been gestating a new book for interfaith families. Now that I have submitted the manuscript, and the sun is returning, and grief is receding, I will return to posting more often here. In the meantime, you can always find my curated links for interfaith families on my facebook author page, and on twitter.
The percentage of interfaith families continues to grow, and there is still a serious lack of informed and impartial books and resources by, for, and about us. Before 2018 ends, if all goes according to plan, my new book will reach you, providing support and inspiration for all interfaith families, whether Protestant and atheist, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian-Universalist, Pagan and Catholic. And I am already booking a new round of speaking engagements and workshops for next fall and winter, so that we can continue these conversations in person. So, stay in touch here for more details, as we awake, stretch, and stumble out into the spring light together.
The topic: “Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?”
Where to start? Let’s start with the sample.The Forward published answers from 22 rabbis, and half of them are Orthodox. Only two are Reform. According to Pew Research (2013), 10% of American Jews claim Orthodox affiliation, and 35% Reform (by far the largest denomination). As I read through the first five rabbinic responses, all of them Orthodox or Conservative, my mind was blown as I noted each rabbinic affiliation. Why would The Forward skew the sample so radically away from the reality of the American Jewish landscape?
Next, there’s that word, intermarriage. This is not a word used by most people in interfaith families to describe themselves. Among the 72% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor Conservative, you are rarely going to hear anyone call themselves “intermarried.” Less than a year ago, The Forward published my piece, “Four Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Intermarried.” I hope more of the rabbis in this Roundtable will read it, and talk with real life interfaith families about how they feel about this term.
Also problematic: giving the rabbis a stark choice of “problem, or opportunity.” I don’t experience my family as a problem, or as an opportunity for the Jewish community (or any other community). Interfaith family members are taking leadership roles in religious communities across the spectrum, and we may be your best hope for understanding and engaging with the unaffiliated. But we don’t experience our families from the perspective of Jewish market share. We see our interfaith families as embodying and celebrating boundary-busting ritual and liturgical creativity, and spiritual inspiration, and interfaith bridge-building, and cross-cultural peacemaking.
And finally, I must speak to the corrosive content of many of the rabbinic responses. In today’s Roundtable, rabbis call interfaith marriage “a sin,” “tragic,” a way “for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave,” something we “must work harder to combat,” and the “high price for acceptance” that is leading to Judaism being “hugged and kissed to death.” Of course, many of these rabbis, even some of the Conservative and Orthodox ones, also spoke to the importance of trying to be more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, the extreme bias in the survey sample in this case means that interfaith families will feel neither welcome nor included after browsing through these Roundtable opinions. Today’s piece in The Forward badly misrepresents the experiences of interfaith families, and minimizes the important reality of shifting rabbinic opinions on our existence.
September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.
The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.
Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.
What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.
The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.
In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.
In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.
Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community, to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!
But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta
Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.
In the most recent round of wrestling over interfaith marriage, we have heard from rabbis, academics and community leaders. As someone in the middle generation of a three-generation interfaith family, one founded in 1960 when my Jewish father married my Protestant mother, I thought it might be useful to weigh in. In doing so, I draw not only on my own experience, but also on the experiences of over 300 interfaith family members across the country who were surveyed for my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.
As a Reform Jew, and a “patrilineal Jew” to boot, it could be (and has been) argued that I do not have standing to comment on what seems to be a watershed moment in the Conservative (and possibly even Orthodox) movement. But from my perspective, we still need to make progress on engaging with interfaith families in all the movements, and in post-denominational Judaism(s).
My interest lies in trying to explain what we, the interfaith families, want from Judaism. Of course I cannot speak for all interfaith families. Some have turned away from Judaism altogether, for any number of reasons — including longtime systemic exclusion. Others want to be quietly incorporated into Jewish communities without being called out as different in any way. They may be happy to put aside the other religion in the family, with the intention of creating “exclusively Jewish” homes.
But according to the 2013 Pew study, only 20 percent of Jewish parents in interfaith partnerships are raising children “Jewish only” by religion, whereas 25 percent are raising children “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else.” These are my people. We are not “doing nothing,” we are “doing both.” But we cannot do it alone.
So here is how you, the rabbis and academics and community leaders, can support us and help us stay connected to Judaism, if you so choose:
1. We ask rabbis to help us to celebrate our weddings, welcome our babies, usher our children into adulthood and officiate at our funerals. We want to engage with the history and culture and liturgies of Judaism, and forge bonds of affection for Judaism in our children. Watching the loving relationship of my children (who only had one Jewish grandparent) with Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing, was one of the greatest gifts of being part of a community of interfaith families led by a rabbi and a minister. (Rabbi White left the Conservative movement over the interfaith marriage issue decades ago. He should be remembered in the current struggle as the pioneer that he was.)
2. We ask rabbis to co-officiate at these life-cycle ceremonies. Our partners and spouses want to feel represented as equals in these key transitional moments. We are not afraid to have our extended families, including our children, see that we honor Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism, or Catholicism. If we cannot have co-officiating clergy, many of us will choose secular celebrants.
3. We ask religious institutions and clergy not to force us to make promises about how we will raise theoretical future children. We have no way of knowing whether we will feel exactly the same way about religion five or ten years down the road. We may well shift in our thinking about single-faith religious education, or interfaith education, or no religious education. Often, these decisions have as much to do with what kind of welcoming communities are available geographically as they do with theology. What we know is that religious beliefs and practices are intensely personal, and many of us do not maintain the same religious affiliations throughout a lifetime.
4. We ask Jewish institutions to educate our interfaith children, whether or not we are raising them in monofaith households. (In truth, we believe that all people can benefit from interfaith education in order to become better bridge-builders.) Reform Judaism, for example, needs to overturn the policy excluding these children from Jewish education, as Edmund Case has bravely stated in a recent column. Every interfaith child, no matter how they are labeled by parents, knows that they have extended family members from more than one religion. We do not do any great service to children in denying them basic religious literacy, or segregating them and keeping them ignorant about the religions in their family trees. Because, as the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, all children grow up to make their own choices in life: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.”
For Being Both, I interviewed Ivan Kruh about his Jewish and Christian and Buddhist family. Today, more than five years later, Ivan updates us on how his family goes beyond both, to being all, in the context of interspirituality. Not all interfaith families become interspiritual families, and not all interspiritual people come from interfaith families. But, there is an overlap. Ivan sees his family as part of a larger circle encompassing all three of the family religions represented in the Venn Diagram above. Here’s his guest post:
It is funny how some things that feel so organic to one family can be so radical within the larger society. My wife and I found that people thought we were nuts when we both went half-time at work after our son was born. And they thought we were even crazier when we told them we planned to raise him as a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian. But my family has three traditions – I am Jewish and also a Buddhist (what some people call a “Jew-Bu”), and my wife is a Christian. The decision to raise him “all” – connected to all three of these traditions – feels so natural to us. As Susan’s book and blog attest, the number of interfaith families choosing to raise their child with connections to more than one religion is growing. But we are also raising him “all” in a deeper way. Because beyond being an interfaith family, we consider ourselves an interspiritual family.
The term “interspirituality” was coined by the Catholic monk Brother Wayne Teasdale to reflect our human potential to see and be transformed by the shared spiritual truths that form the core of all great religious traditions. For example, my wife and I believe the following truths are at the core of the practices, rituals, songs and traditions of our three religions, and that they form the heart of what we want our son to understand:
“See yourself clearly in order to forget your self;”
“Love and serve all beings and your world;”
“Live with simplicity;”
“Walk humbly with your God.”
Interspirituality does not equate all religions, but sees each as a particular way of expressing these kinds of truths in much the same way different languages could be used to explain the same experience. Clarifying that religions are each merely fingers pointing to the proverbial moon, interspirituality allows individuals to live with strong, deep connection to one or more traditions, yet open from traditional boundaries to include, hold, respect, and benefit from the full family of human spiritual traditions.
My wife and I discovered we were interspiritual early in our dating relationship, though neither of us knew there was a term to describe what was unfolding. As we talked about our religious study, spiritual practices and the insights that came out of both, we found (once we each did a whole lot of explaining of vocabulary) that we believed many of the same things and had a very similar vision about what it takes to live a good life. We began to share our spiritual practices with one another and discuss our experiences. And through these practices and conversations we each developed a true appreciation for the other’s religion while deepening our relationships with our own religions. We each experienced great spiritual nourishment in this process. It became obvious that we could each be devoted to our own different spiritual paths and simultaneously devoted to one another. We were married by a Rabbi and a Minister in a ceremony that joyfully reflected all of this.
And now we have a four-year-old son. Raising him within our interspiritual relationship means that we seek to raise him to also see the universal truths that form the core of his Jewish, Christian and Buddhist heritages. We hope to raise him like a strong tree – firmly rooted in the sacred ground of our three traditions, but with branches that open to all religious and spiritual paths so that he can find his own way toward truth and sacredness.
We know that this is not the view or intention of most interfaith parents. But it works well for us. Take, for instance, the painful conflicts some interfaith parents experience during holiday seasons, like the approaching Easter/Passover season. Some couples worry about whether to host a seder and dye easter eggs in the same home, or how to talk to their children about the Israelite Exodus at the same time they are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. The interspiritual family does not see the confluence of Easter and Passover as a dilemma at all – but a fortuitous opportunity to explore two different expressions of a universal spiritual message – that moments of all-encompassing hardship and fear can give way to unfathomable transformation when one trusts the sacredness of reality. When we approach the holidays in this way, I feel no conflict greeting my wife and her Coptic Orthodox family, ““Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen),” and my wife feels no conflict singing “Dayenu” around my Jewish family’s seder table. And my son just absorbs the joy and the power of these rituals and songs, growing into each holiday story with no need to rigidly adhere to either as true or false.
Yes, we have found that when a family begins to creatively explore the underlying teachings of multiple traditions, beauty emerges. One of the weekly rituals in our home, for example, is to re-enact the Maundy washing of the feet and then offer tzedakah (charity). When we wash one another’s feet, we talk about how Jesus taught the importance of caring for one another – and when we deposit quarters in the family tzedakah box which will later be used to buy food bank donations we extend that same care. In this way, when our son gets older and I teach him about the Buddhist bodhisattva vows or he discovers the Hindu seva (service) tradition or Islam’s pillar of zakat (charity), I trust that he will see these, too, as unique expressions of the universal truth of compassion. I trust that he won’t worry so much about which ways of understanding or practicing compassion are “right” or “best,” but rather he will be curious about the songs, stories, rituals and practices each religion uses to support awareness of the truths. My hope is that no matter what paths he chooses for his own spiritual journey, the universal teachings will rest in his bones and rush through his blood from his Jewish-Christian-Buddhist interspiritual childhood.
I want my son to be gifted an interspiritual lens because I believe it is a true lens. But I also hope he will cultivate this lens because it is what the world needs. These are challenging times. Distrust between people of different religions is running very high. I firmly believe that children who have grown up in a situation that supports them seeing how religious differences point to spiritual commonalities will be in a unique position to help our world toward healing. One foot-washing and tzedakah ritual at a time, one Easter/Passover season at a time, one child at a time, this world can be healed.
Ivan Kruh is a juvenile forensic psychologist in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
I have been following the powerful photography of Colin Boyd Shafer for years now. In the Interlove Project (2014-2016), Shafer created 50 black and white portraits of interfaith couples and families from throughout Canada. You could describe these families as Protestant and Jewish, or Catholic and Muslim, or atheist and Hindu. But instead, Shafer lets his subjects describe the nuances of their religious journeys and identities. And so, we meet a Catholic who became a Wiccan, a Hindu who became an atheist, a Muslim born to an intermarried Shia and Sunni couple who identifies with both. These Canadians, as individuals and as couples, illustrate the complexity and fluidity of the religious landscape.
Now, I am thrilled that Shafer plans to extend the Interlove Project to 50 interfaith couples in the US, starting this fall. If you are interested in being included, fill out the application now. The project is open to people who are in interfaith relationships, those from different sects or denominations of the same religion, those who may identify as having no faith, those who are spiritual but not religious, those in same-sex relationships, and those who identify as polyamorous.
Recently, I had a chance to ask Colin Boyd Shafer a few questions about the Interlove Project. Here’s our Q & A:
Miller: What first inspired you to chronicle interfaith couples?
Shafer: My previous project Cosmopolis Toronto focused on the diversity that exists in one city. I photographed one person from every country of the world who has migrated to Toronto. Doing this project made me think about other aspects of diversity, and one of those was diversity of relationships. I have lived in countries (like Malaysia) where interfaith relationships are highly discouraged, but in Canada I felt as though people would be willing and safe to open up about the experience. When we look at the news and see so much hate, I think its important to tell stories of love – especially when that love is between people of different beliefs. I agree with the headline in the Toronto Star’s piece on my project: “World Leaders could learn from these couples”.
Miller: What has been the reaction to the Interlove Project in Canada?
Shafer: I would say the project has been received very well. I know for the couples involved it has created a community, and for other interfaith couples who have seen the project it has given them a sense of belonging. I hope for some viewers who may have been doubtful as to the possibility of such relationships working, it may change their mind. Maybe INTERLOVE hasn’t been overly controversial because it isn’t trying to promote interfaith relationships and is instead trying to show that they do exist and they can work.
Miller: You’re embarking on the US version of this project at a time when many religious minorities are feeling threatened in the US. What effect might this have on the willingness of couples to tell their stories?
Shafer: That is an interesting question. I know even in Canada, for every 10 interfaith couples that saw the project, probably only one applied to participate. It is a big step coming out and telling your story in public. Unlike interracial relationships, interfaith couples are often hidden. Doing this project in the United States is especially important because I imagine such relationships have faced more opposition. I am definitely open to concealing identities of the participants because I believe that these stories need to be told regardless.
Miller: What are your goals in terms of what you want this project to convey?
Shafer: I hope it continues to provide a sense of belonging to the couples involved or to other interfaith couples who see this. I also hope it challenges some people’s preconceived notions about what relationships can work. It would be great if this project turns into a book that can reach people in countries outside of North America – in places where people may not even imagine ever being with someone of a different faith. With so many unhealthy relationships out there, it would be such a shame for a couple that are such a great match to not be able to be together just because of differences of faith. Ultimately, everyone wants to hear a beautiful love story, and Interlove delivers.
Last weekend, my husband and I celebrated Tu BiShvat, the Jewish new year of the trees. We sang songs about trees in Hebrew, said blessings over fruits of the trees, and shared grape juice, almonds, and dates in a Tu BiShvat seder meal. We sat at long tables filled with small children, parents, and grandparents, from the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. We are a community of over 200 families led by a minister and a rabbi, working together to honor both of our family religions.
When I got back home, I noticed a new article sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) entitled “Outside the synagogue, intermarried are forming community with each other.” First, as always, I had to recover from the jarring language (which included repeated use of the term “non-Jew”). I’m sad to report that my recent article in the Forward, explaining all the problems with the word “intermarriage,” has not had a broad impact. I do not consider myself “intermarried.” For three generations, my family has used the term “ interfaith family,” and I love how this allies us with everything positive about interfaith activism, bridge-building, and peacemaking.
But anyway, after looking past the language in this article, I appreciated that the reporter seems to have understood that interfaith families are tired of being disrespected by traditional religious institutions, and by programming that implicitly privileges “inmarried” couples and conversion. He hinted at the yearning many of us in interfaith families feel to control our own narratives, and to engage with religion in a way that will support the whole family.
And yet, all the programs described by the reporter in this article are supported exclusively by Jewish institutions, and most are created and/or led by rabbis or other Jewish educators. Nowhere does this piece explore how the Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu) partners feel about the fact that they are still expected to learn about Jewish ideas and practice, without any reciprocation. Meanwhile, the reporter ignored programs that provide interfaith education for interfaith families. He ignored independent communities formed by and for interfaith families, with balanced leadership, including thriving communities like mine.
And yet, we had hundreds of people at our celebration of Tu BiShvat on Sunday immersed in Jewish learning, discussing the Kabbalists and the mystical meaning of trees, and brainstorming how to become a greener community. Sometimes, this is what it looks like when a community of interfaith families designs their own programming. I wish more well-intentioned religious educators, clergy, and reporters would come and actually take a look.