Successful Interfaith Marriage: Cokie and Steve Roberts

Those of us living over here in the parallel universe of happy interfaith families continue to sigh and shake our heads at the persistence of the myth that interfaith marriage is, by definition, fraught with peril. In fact, there are no robust statistics on the current rate or incidence of success or divorce in interfaith marriages.

At the moment, we have only anecdotes. And so, I plan to continue to profile the many interfaith couples happily balancing two religions. For intermarried Jews and Catholics raising children with both religions, Cokie and Steve Roberts have served as inspiration ever since at least 2000, when they published From This Day Forward, a memoir of their own intermarriage. Last year, they followed up with Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families. Together, these books build a portrait of a marriage marked by deep love and mutual respect, even as it approaches the 50-year mark.

Yesterday, our interfaith families community welcomed Steve and Cokie to a regular Sunday morning at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). Our rabbi and our minister reflected on the theme of compassion on the first Sunday of Lent, Steve led us in our interfaith responsive reading, we all shared bagels and coffee, and then Cokie and Steve spoke during our adult group about their interfaith journey.

Cokie described her love of Catholic liturgy and ritual, her faithful attendance at mass. Steve described his secular Jewish family roots, and his own shift towards deeper Jewish practice, prompted by his Catholic wife. For many of us, this story is more familiar than exceptional: in choosing partners of another religion, we are forced to contemplate our own religion, and to be very purposeful about our own religious intentions. Could this lead to tension? Or course. Could it be creative tension? For some of us, yes. Could another result of religious difference in marriage be improved communication and mutual appreciation, as well as more profound connection to our own religion? Many of us think so.

I had heard Steve and Cokie speak several times before about their marriage, and I even appeared last spring on a public radio show on intermarriage, following an interview with Cokie. But somehow, welcoming this couple into the midst of our community of interfaith families, hearing them speak to an audience of hundreds of people who share their delight in partnering across religious boundaries, gave their stories new resonance.

While acknowledging that choosing both religions is not the right path for every family, Steve and Cokie explained why they chose to celebrate both religions with their children. Each partner had a strong identity, and neither partner ever considered conversion. “I must say it would have helped to have had a community like this when we were raising them,” Steve told us, yesterday. “Because there was an absence of encouragement and support for families like us, and like you, at that time.” Today, interfaith families are encouraging and supporting each other, as we educate our children in both religions, in DC, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and beyond. And our families, and marriages, are strengthened by these grassroots communities.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Good and Bad Interfaith Marriage: On Stage, and Off

It is second nature to look for reflections of our own lives, and affirmation for our own choices, in both fiction and in the media. Happy interfaith families are rarely rewarded with seeing our experiences depicted in print, or on the screen, or on the stage. Happiness is boring. Conflict is necessary to drama, whether it is the “real life” drama in a blogger’s column, or the more constructed drama of the theater.

So I was prepared for the inevitability that the interfaith marriage in Renee Calarco’s new play “The Religion Thing,” (at Theater J at the DCJCC through January 29th), would be conflicted. And I was drawn to the witty dialogue, the elegant set, the surprising plot twists. I also want to credit Theater J with recognizing that the topic–interfaith marriage–merited a talk-back or audience discussion after many of the performances. Folks have a lot to say on this topic, and Theater J organized a way for us to say it.

On Sunday, three of us served as panelists in an apres-matinee discussion on the topic “Every Interfaith Family is Interfaithful in its Own Way.” Therapist Jennifer Kogan, Rabbi (and therapist) Arthur Blecher, and I, shared the stage: all three of us are in longtime interfaith partnerships/marriages. Together, the three of us have worked with or interviewed hundreds of interfaith couples. All three of us testified to the existence of healthy, happy, interfaith families. Rabbi Blecher’s most recent book, The New Judaism, chronicled that reality, as will my own book, forthcoming in 2013.

The interfaith relationship in this play is not just conflicted: it’s a train-wreck. After four years of marriage, this fictional couple had not even discussed how to raise children. They excluded religion from their wedding. They failed to educate themselves or each other about their respective traditions. And in the course of the play, they pull away from each other as they return to their religions of origin.

Such intermarriages do occur. Some couples are deficient in communication and collaboration skills, some lack support from family and clergy, some blame underlying issues on religious difference. And of course, there’s no law against portraying such a bad marriage on the stage.

Unfortunately, this play comes in the wake of a scandalously misleading Washington Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics. This opinion piece was written by an affiliate of an anti-gay-marriage and “pro-marriage” think tank (an affiliation the Post failed to acknowledge). Because this piece appeared in a major newspaper, it has been subsequently quoted as a “source” for the “fact” that interfaith marriages tend to fail, with little acknowledgement that the piece was published on the editorial page, not in the news section, and contained no original research.

Given this recent incident in the Washington media, it was hard not to see this play as, presumably unintentionally, fueling anti-intermarriage polemics. Most disturbing, for me, was the play’s framing device, featuring a comedy sketch about the Amish tradition of rumspringa–a period when adolescents are permitted to sow wild oats before choosing whether or not to return to the strict demands of their culture and religion. It was hard not to conclude that the playwright intended to draw a parallel to the Jewish and Catholic characters in the play experimenting in a sort of interfaith rumspringa before returning to their cradle religions. As the child of a tremendously successful 50-plus year interfaith marriage, I have to admit I find this metaphor misleading and inept.

I was relieved to see that a large cohort of the play’s audience stayed after the show for the discussion. Some were eager to testify about the vibrant interfaith marriages in their families. And others who pointed out the challenges of interfaith marriage (the challenges are real, of course), felt that the couple in the play, who had not even discussed “the religion thing,”  strained credulity.

In the end, the points I made on the panel are the same points I often make on this blog. Interfaith families can be successful. Choosing one religion for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks but clearly can work. Choosing both religions for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks, but is working for over 100 families in my interfaith community, and in other communities across the country. Providing interfaith children with a sense of community (whether it’s a Jewish community, Christian community, interfaith community, or secular community) is essential.

I know it’s just a play, but given the sensitivity of this topic and the weight and history of institutional opposition to interfaith marriage, I must conclude with a reminder that one bad (and, in this case, fictional) intermarriage does not a trend make. Look around you, and I suspect you will find in your own family and community happy couples reflecting the dynamic and fluid religious, racial, ethnic and sexual diversity of our culture. Maybe we make for boring theater. But we lead satisfying lives.

Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

In my doctor’s office today I heard Christmas music–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families group discusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Thelma and Ralph, Facing the End

Ralph came from an evangelical Christian family, Thelma was Jewish. After 34 years of very successful interfaith marriage, Ralph was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, at age 64, and died a year later. Thelma started a blog, Widowsphere, in loving memory of her husband, and to chronicle her journey as a widow. Recently, Thelma contacted me to point out that I had not devoted much attention on my blog to second marriages, or interfaith marriages later in life. I also know that I have barely begun to address all of the issues surrounding death, burial, and mourning in interfaith families. I appreciate this opportunity to appreciate the inspiring marriage of Thelma and Ralph, and to launch a conversation about facing the inevitable, natural ending in a happy interfaith marriage.
 
How long did you date your husband before marrying, and what were your thoughts about the benefits and challenges of interfaith marriage before the wedding?
 
We met at a party, my first foray into the singles world after a divorce.  He called the next day and asked if he could come by, then he asked me out.  What went through my mind was, “He’s not Jewish, but he’d be okay to practice on.”  By the time we married two years later, I was more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t Jewish than with the fact that he was five years younger than me.
 
Who officiated at your wedding? How did your extended families respond to your interfaith marriage?
 
We were married by a justice of the peace, who deleted all Christian references from the ceremony at my request. My two children were nine and seven, Ralph’s son was five. I think my family was outwardly supportive but inwardly very upset.  His family was very accepting of me and my children but never quit hoping that I would convert to Christianity.  I have remained very close to them since Ralph’s death and will be visiting them next month.
 
After marrying, did you and your husband continue to practice your religions? Did you share any of the rituals or traditions with each other?
 
After we married, we joined my synagogue as a family. We always went to church when we visited his family. We celebrated Jewish holidays and we exchanged gifts at Christmas and had a dinner then because as the children got older, they were home from college at that time.  We did not have Christmas trees or any other decorations.
 
How did your interfaith marriage influence the children? How were they raised, religiously?
 
The children went to synagogue with us. I was not a particularly religious Jew, more of a cultural, ethnic Jew, although I did have a cousin who was a rabbi. Neither of us made any effort at converting the other.  We were what we were. Today, my children identify as Jewish; his son does not.
 
When your husband fell ill, did the interfaith nature of your marriage pose special challenges?
 
Just before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant, Ralph confided in me for the first time that he wanted to convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he shared this with his family. At the hospital he listed himself as Jewish and became great friends with the Jewish chaplain, but as he got sicker he returned to the faith of his childhood. His funeral and burial were in his hometown. The first time I visited Ralph’s grave, I brought a stone from our backyard garden, and explained this Jewish custom to his sisters who went with me. His family now puts stones on his grave when they visit.  We had a memorial service at the synagogue a few weeks later. I said Kaddish for him and observe Yahrzeit.
 
I think death is the greatest spiritual challenge and one that is rarely addressed when discussing interfaith marriage. For a long time, I felt abandoned by his return to Christianity, probably not logically.  I came to terms with it and realized he needed the comfort of Christianity as he faced death.
 
How do you feel when you read that the challenges of interfaith marriage are going to be too great for many couples to overcome?
 
My experience with interfaith marriage was a joyful one. I think the strength of our marriage came from commitment to one another and understanding and acceptance of each other’s backgrounds.

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 @susankatzmiller.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Anne and Danny

When a family chooses a religious identity, each family member has a unique response based on background, expectations, and personality. Today, I post the thoughts of Anne Stewart, a long-time Sunday School teacher in our Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Her husband, Danny Weiss, arrived at IFFP deeply sceptical, and quickly became Chair of the Board. Anne speaks to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of choosing the interfaith pathway for themselves, and for their two daughters, who are now 12 and 15 years old.

Religious Background

I was raised in a Vatican II-era Catholic Church in Pittsburgh in which social justice work in the community was the primary concern of the parish.  I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, and to a Catholic women’s college.  My father was raised Protestant, and he did not attend church with us.  He did, however, go to a Catholic college, and was pretty comfortable with the traditions. My parents were married in the Catholic Church, but they had to stand “outside the altar” because my father was Protestant.  Both of my grandparents accepted that their children were marrying “outside the faith” in part because they were all in the same neighborhood/social class.

Danny was raised in a culturally Jewish household that celebrated all the major Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover–at home, not in a temple.  They did not belong to a temple and  did not attend religious school.  They had a secular Christmas celebration during which they exchanged presents, but they did not have a tree. He grew up overhearing a lot of talk from one side of his family about “Goyem this…” and “Goyem that…”, which Danny interpreted as disparaging of non-Jews.

Interfaith Marriage

We became a couple in 1988 and married in 1992.  Our first serious discussion of religious identity as a couple came with the planning of the wedding.  I insisted that we be married under some greater authority than the State, but had no preference about a rabbi, priest, or both. When Danny and I first became a couple in 1988, Danny was living in the home of Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and his wife Randy. Bill Coffin was an old and close friend of Danny’s mom. It became obvious that the Weiss family, including Danny, would feel most comfortable with Bill doing the wedding.  In our first meeting with Bill, Danny asked that Bill not use the word “God” in our ceremony.  I strongly disagreed, as that was the point of having a person of the cloth. Bill was used to this sort of thing, and said. “Danny, my boy, you’ll get over it.”  Coffin was a hero to my liberal family, so that was an easy compromise.  To this day, I believe that the presence of Bill Coffin in Danny’s life played a pivotal role in my trusting that Danny would “come around” to being okay with religion in our lives.

Choosing a Religious Community

As a married couple, we went to a few masses at Georgetown and to our local church.  For me, they were too white and upper-class, so that was that.  We went to a service at one temple because Danny had a connection to a rabbi there and I went to check out another one.  I didn’t like the Reform synagogues—too much like Protestant churches, or something.  Danny did not really feel comfortable in a synagogue, anyway. I saw an ad in a paper for IFFP, and decided we would check it out.  When we got there, we saw our pediatrician, which gave us the feeling that it wasn’t “weird.”  I think Danny may have chatted with a kindred sceptic. It was Danny who felt comfortable.  I could be comfortable anywhere, so this was a big plus that he liked the guys he talked to there.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Choosing Both

The Benefits seem obvious—you live in a bigger world, you learn more, you understand more, you discuss/debate more.  All things we both like, that suit our personalities.

Drawbacks—what we are/do is really hard to explain; no helpful vocabulary (we are NOT Unitarian); we are a minority; our children are “different” from their observant Catholic or observant Jewish friends—there is no getting around this one—they have the burden of explaining; they get told things like:  You can’t be Jewish because your mother isn’t; You can’t take Communion (but they do); You don’t really know Hebrew, right?  In the end, telling someone you belong to an interfaith congregation is either a conversation starter or a conversation stopper.  On average, I would say that it is a conversation stopper if I am talking to someone who is Jewish.

Family Responses

My extended family is progressive/liberal thinking, so our choice has not been an issue.  I think the fact that my Irish Grandfather married a Hungarian and that my Catholic Mom married a Protestant were helpful in all of this. Danny is a special person—everyone loved him from Day 1, so that helped.  My extended family was thrilled to come to our older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  It has been an added benefit that Rabbi White is from Georgetown (a Jesuit university).

Danny’s family has had a harder time with Danny being in any religious community, particularly his mom, who was raised atheist. In recent years, Danny’s dad has thanked me for bringing Jewish learning into the family. It was very moving that Danny’s dad participated in our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah—he hired a tutor for himself to learn the Torah Reading. I believe strongly that without IFFP, Danny would not have found a comfortable place to develop a religious identity.

Identity of the Children

Our older daughter has stated that she is glad she can “count herself as Jewish” when she is with Jewish kids.  When asked why she feels she can, she says it is because she had the Bat Mitzvah. She hated IFFP, because of the touchy-feely nature of the program/gatherings. But she loved the Bat Mitzvah process she went through with a close friend from IFFP. She may have been better-off in a traditional Sunday school/church/synagogue setting—she is not a person who likes to stand out or be different.

Our younger daughter is a more naturally spiritual soul.  She does not mind IFFP, and sees herself as both. However, the rituals that you get in a Mass, or maybe even in an Orthodox Jewish service, are probably something that she would like more. She would have liked to know more about angels, mystery, etc. She loves to go to Mass with my Pittsburgh family—the candles, the smells… It concerns me how quick she likes to say that Jesus did not really rise from the dead.  I have to coach her about being more sensitive about this topic. I believe both my children are missing a sense of wonder, mystery, overall “Godness” that I had growing up in the Catholic Church.  This is a loss, and they may get it on their own someday, but I think it is harder as an adult.

The Secrets of Successful Interfaith Marriage

I hear a lot of people say that the way interfaith marriage works is through acceptance.  In our marriage, I would say that each of us has embraced the other’s traditions.  I mean really enjoyed them, learned about them, got excited about them, looked forward to them and then shared them.   I have loved all the cooking I’ve done for Jewish holidays—and inviting people who may have never celebrated them.  My mother’s 70th birthday was over Passover—we had a formal Passover dinner as part of the weekend celebration.  Danny loves to go to the Christmas Eve Service, the tree, the crèche, all of it.  So I think the “secret” is that you remember why you married the person—to expand your life, to make your world bigger. That has given us the rich opportunity to learn more about the religious traditions we grew up with, and then learn about each other’s, and then create more traditions together. Danny and I and our children have a more spiritually fulfilling life as a result.

 

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 @susankatzmiller.

 

My Big, Fat Interfaith Wedding

I got married 23 years ago today. Okay, so our wedding wasn’t really big or fat. It was a relatively modest affair, in a tent in my backyard, organized in a matter of weeks. But it was a joyous occasion for us, and for the extended family on all sides: Reform Jews, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Catholics who married in and became Protestants, and at least one Protestant who now attends a mosque. We had been dating on and off for 12 years, and any hesitation our parents felt about our intermarriage was outweighed by relief that we were finally getting off the fence. Anyway, the fact that my own parents had been happily intermarried for a quarter of a century by then, tended to mute any concern about religious differences.

When we decided on a rabbi and a minister to co-officiate at our ceremony, we signaled to our friends and family that we were going to respect and draw on both family religions. In 1987, there was no such thing as a community for interfaith families. The interfaith movement was actually born that same year, when a group of families in New York City set up an interfaith afterschool program for their children at the private Trinity School. By almost incredible coincidence, the minister closest to us and the one we chose to co-officiate, my husband’s wonderful first cousin, the Reverend Rick Spalding, co-taught with a rabbi in that interfaith afterschool program.

Both because of his immersion in the interfaith culture of New York, and his family ties to us, Reverend Rick gave a warm and personal reflection at our wedding, casting our interfaithness in a most positive light. For a rabbi, we had to scrounge around a bit, after the rabbi at my temple refused to officiate. Finding a rabbi who would perform an interfaith marriage seemed to require my parents to make sotto voce inquiries, as if seeking a connection for some sort of illicit trade. I was grateful when they found Rabbi Benjamin Rudavsky, a brave and controversial rabbi who understood early on that rejecting interfaith couples is not good for the Jews. For me, the balance of the family warmth provided by Reverend Rick, and the ancient Jewish rituals and language provided by the rabbi, seemed fitting and right.

Although we met with both the Rabbi and the Reverend to plan our interfaith wedding service, we did not really have a plan for raising our children. In fact we were not ready for children yet at all, and we waited seven years before having our first child. But the idea that Rick was teaching those interfaith kids in New York certainly planted a seed of possibility in our minds.

Just three days after marrying, we set off to spend three years in Africa, and later spent three more years in Brazil. Ten years went by before we found ourselves settling back in the US with an infant and a toddler, and looking to establish a coherent religious identity for our family. In the meantime, the idea of an interfaith community had spread from New York to Washington, and as fate would have it, we settled right in the suburb where the DC interfaith group was beginning to take off. The rest, as they say, is history chronicled on this blog.

Today, I celebrate our 23 years as an accomplishment: a journey of passion and adventure, but also of hard work and compromises. Disagreements? There have been many. But I can say, with total honesty, that we have never had a disagreement about religious practice or theology, or how to raise our children as spiritual beings. We have found our interfaith community to be a font of inspiration, emotional support, and intellectual stimulation. And the essential interfaithness of our marriage has inspired creativity and heightened our mindfulness of family rituals and shared values.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Marci and Rich

A year ago I wrote about the love story of my interfaith parents,  and this became one of the most popular essays on this site. People are searching for details on successful interfaith marriages, and I know hundreds of these success stories. So this week, I start an occasional series of portraits of happy interfaith couples.

 

Marci and Rich Shegogue met doing musical theater in college. In our interfaith families community (IFFP), they are active volunteers, infusing our program with music. Marci fronts the band during our weekly Gatherings, when we sing songs and reflect together, and she usually leads us in the Hamotzi (the Hebrew blessing over bread) before we break for bagels and cream cheese. Rich is known for his gorgeous tenor voice, and he frequently leads us in chanting the Lord’s Prayer, or performs a selection from Godspell. During Sunday School, Marci and Rich visit our interfaith classrooms with their guitars, teaching songs from both traditions.

Marci, what is your religious background? What is Rich’s background?

I was raised in Conservative Judaism, my husband was raised Catholic. My husband considers himself more “Interfaith” now.

How long have you been married, and how old are your children?

We have known each other for 25 years, been married for 18 years, and have two daughters, 13 and 9. We attended seminars on Interfaith marriage and read many books, once we decided to marry.

Did you discuss or try out other religious pathways as a couple before joining a community of interfaith families?

We had decided from the beginning that we wanted to have an Interfaith home, but weren’t really sure what that meant in reality. We thought about joining a synagogue, but couldn’t afford the dues. When the synagogue in our community said that we couldn’t have the privelege of naming our daughter there if we were not members, we looked elsewhere… and found IFFP.

How and why did you settle on joining an interfaith community?

We wanted a place where both of us felt comfortable in our beliefs… where neither one of us would be a minority, and where our children would be able to learn equally about both Christianity and Judaism without a bias toward one or the other. We also wanted to meet other families for purposes of finding out how other interfaith families handle the basics: holidays, in-laws, questions, life events, etc. We wanted to find a place where we could belong… because neither the churches nor the synagogues we visited felt like home to us.

We found IFFP through information in the back of an interfaith marriage guidebook, but waited a year until we called and talked for a long time to Sue Katz Miller who invited us to visit and see for ourselves. The first gathering we came to was the opening gathering of the year… Sept, 2001, the weekend after the 9/11 attacks… in the courtyard of a local middle school. While standing outside, with people we had yet to meet, we instantly felt the kinship and support of a community, and we joined that day.

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of the interfaith pathway for your family?

Benefits:  A much more well-rounded education in religion than we would ever get anywhere else. Deeper meanings, debates and conversations about the similarities and differences. A better sense of common ground. Increased tolerance of others’ spiritual choices. Kids who have a sense of belonging… not feeling like something is wrong with them if they aren’t one or the other. Always being challenged to look deeper, understand better, be patient, and think out of the box!

Drawbacks:  Having people say “that doesn’t work,” or “your kids will be all confused,” or “you know you’ll have to choose at some point,” and having to take the time to educate them (well, maybe that’s a benefit in disguise though).  Not having the intense connection to one faith when it comes to celebrating with extended family.

How have your extended families reacted to your interfaith relationship and your choice of an interfaith community?

I think both sets of parents grew to accept and embrace the interfaith-ness of our family. We had to remember that it was a choice that WE made for ourselves, and that we had had time to grow and commit to it. They had to learn from experience how we dealt with our religions within our home before they could fully accept that we weren’t watering anything down, and that we kept important traditions. To have our mothers making latkes together while the dads played a spirited game of dreidel… and then the next week all singing Christmas carols together around the piano… priceless!

How do you feel about the formation of your childrens’ religious identities, so far?

They seem to have a good handle on their religious identities so far. We talk a lot about beliefs when they come up, and find that we can have some great conversations and debates. We celebrate all major holidays, and some minor ones too, in our home with great spirit and fullness. Our feeling is that, as long as they keep asking questions and feel free to discuss, interpret and explore all concepts of religion, then we are on the right track. We can only hope though, that we give them a good foundation on which to build their own beliefs and ideals.

What do you think are the secrets to your successful interfaith marriage?

Communication, trust, willingness to make compromises, being able to talk about difficult subjects, being willing to create new traditions that have meaning to our family, courage to forge through uncharted territory and challenge old ways of thinking, and being honest and respectful about our comfort levels when it comes to religion. For instance, having a Christmas tree was a big deal to my husband, but was initially uncomfortable for me. We compromised on a table-top tree that we bring home on December 20th every year. We know where each other’s limits are, and we respect them, but discuss them as well.

 

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

Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again

In yesterday’s Washington Post, an author named Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote an extremely opinionated attack on interfaith marriage, stating that such marriages “can be tragic” and that “tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right.” I have so many problems with the way this article was written, it’s hard to know where to start.

First of all, Riley devotes her first several paragraphs to the (old) news of the Reyes case, a spectacular interfaith divorce that has already been widely covered in the press and blogosphere. This was not a case of an interfaith marriage gone bad, as much as it was a case of two people in a really, really ugly divorce using religion as a weapon. It is outrageous to imply that the Reyes case is common or indicative of any trend.

Second of all, Riley did not even bother to declare her own biases. This should have been an ethical problem for the Post editors, but never mind that. Every statement by anyone about interfaith marriage is colored by the experience of the person making the statement. Is Riley trying to defend her own choices? Is she, for instance, a Jewish woman married to a Christian, raising children Jewish, as Ms. Reyes tried to do?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the “online chat” with the author this afternoon to find out. But in my experience, writers rarely cover this topic unless it stems from personal experience. And at this point in America, every person with an extended Jewish family has personal experience with this topic.

The heart of Ms. Riley’s “argument” is that divorce is inevitably more common among intermarried couples, a statement that has been made by those “tsking grandmothers” for generations now, based on scanty data, and studies that are often conducted by researchers with a very strong anti-intermarriage bias.

The data Riley references is extremely shaky. One study dates back 17 years–before the advent of communities designed for interfaith families, and before many Jewish institutions began to accept and welcome interfaith families. When she does cite a more recent study, she cherry-picks from the results, pointing out two particular scenarios under which interfaith marriages have higher divorce rates, and ignoring the actual conclusion in this study. The abstract reads, “Theological beliefs and the belief dissimilarity of spouses have little effect on the likelihood of dissolution ((of marriage)) over time.”

That sure makes sense to me. Our rabbi and minister have seen hundreds of interfaith couples put their children through our dual-religious education program over the past 15 years. Of these hundreds of couples, our minister notes, three couples have gotten divorced–and one of those three couples got back together.  Statistically, we’re a bunch of ridiculously happy interfaith marriages over here, getting ignored by researchers and writers. Part of what makes our marriages strong, I believe, is the experience of building our interfaith community together.

Interfaith divorces can happen, as in the Reyes case, when one parent or the other cannot abide being held to a promise made before marriage to raise children in the other partner’s religion. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both parents are free to fully share their religion with the children. Interfaith divorces can happen when couples feel lost, alone, without a community to support them. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both members of the couple have equal standing in a community that fully supports their choice to intermarry.

Obviously, I have a bias based on my own experience in our vibrant interfaith community. I am very open about that bias.  But I  also know a bunch of very happy interfaith families now raising Jewish children, in Jewish communities that have been working hard to fully include them. The statistics Riley relies on, even the more recent ones, do not reflect where interfaith families are right now in this journey, or where we are heading. It is a shame that the Washington Post gave such prominent display to a piece infused with outdated research, and a strangely antiquated attitude.

Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story

I have two very tangible reasons to believe that interfaith marriage can be an unqualified success:  my mother and father. My parents met in 1953, when they shared the last cab from Logan Airport on a rainy Boston night. For seven years, they courted on and off, cautious in part because of their religious differences. My father is a rabbi’s grandson from an isolated community of Jews who sometimes resorted to marrying cousins rather than marrying out. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Episcopalian mother had contemplated applying to a Protestant seminary after college. So at first, the idea of marriage seemed like a true leap of faith.

But leap they did, and went on to raise four children. This weekend, my parents hosted a family dinner and dance to kick off a season of celebrating 50 years of the strongest and happiest marriage I have ever had the privilege to encounter. When I called my mother and told her I was going to write about the anniversary celebration, she said, “Why would anyone want to read about that?” I guess she was thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s insistence that happy families are all alike.  But the media rarely depicts happy interfaith families: those stories tend to focus on conflicts and dilemmas, especially as the “holiday season” approaches.

Tolstoy also wrote, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.” My parents dealt with their religious differences by deciding to raise us as Reform Jews. But the “interfaithness” of my extended family was obvious this weekend at the exuberant anniversary celebration. My mother’s family (Episcopalian and Catholic backgrounds) flew up from Florida to my father’s hometown in Pennsylvania, joining about 40 of my father’s extended Jewish family who gather there each year for Thanksgiving. The vast majority of the Jewish cousins in my generation are in interfaith marriages. But the Rabbi from the temple where my father had his own Bar Mitzvah was one of a handful of guests from outside the family.

One brother, who is raising his children Catholic, began the celebration with an adoring toast. My sister, who is raising her children Jewish, read a rhyming verse she’d written about that fateful taxi ride. I’m the one raising my children as both: I read a schmaltzy poem of thanksgiving. As a highlight, my youngest bachelor brother performed my parents’ official love song, “My Romance.”

With a live band and a packed dance floor, the boomer generation then shouted the words to “We are Family” by Sister Sledge. Later, I spotted my Episcopalian husband with his arms around the shoulders of my Jewish cousins, dancing in a tight circle of men during an extended klezmer sequence. I had to wave off cousins who wanted to lift my parents on their chairs  at the center of a whirling hora circle—they are 87 and 79 years old, after all. But mostly, my parents did not sit, they danced together. Though my mother can’t stand without support for long, my father held her as they “swayed” to Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington tunes from their heyday.

The adoration between my parents is constant, powerful, a high standard for the rest of us to live up to. When my mother was in the hospital a couple of years ago, my father serenaded her on a piano in the nurses’s lounge, playing “My Romance” each day until she recovered. The nurses all fell in love with their love story. Who wouldn’t?

So if I’m sometimes a starry-eyed optimist, if I insist that interfaith marriage can work, that interfaith families can be close and vibrant, that interfaith children can be happy, that it’s all good–I have my reasons. Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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