For years now I have led interfaith family workshops for specific groups (including rabbis, and Unitarian-Universalist religious educators). I have helped lead interfaith couples workshops in the DC area, and privately coached interfaith couples.
But this fall, for the first time, I am thrilled to facilitate a four-part online workshop for interfaith couples based on The Interfaith Family Journal. The workshop is open to those from any religion, or all, or none. It is open to those who plan to practice one religion, or two, or more, or all, or none. All are welcome. The sponsor is Reconstructing Judaism, the first of the four largest Jewish movements to ordain rabbis with a spouse or partner from another religion. I am honored to work with them to bring you this unique workshop experience. We will meet online for an hour on each of four Tuesday nights starting September 3rd.
I created The Interfaith Family Journal to help any family or individual, anywhere. Through writing prompts, interactive exercises, and creative activities, the Journal supports you in understanding your religious and cultural past and forging a plan for your own interfaith family dreams and visions. Those who have used it testify to the power of this slim workbook.
Now, with this workshop, we have the opportunity to come together as interfaith families, no matter where we live. Together, we will create a supportive mini-community while working through the Journal to share our thoughts and experiences, our challenges and our joys. There is nothing like hearing your own questions and formative moments reflected in the words of someone else in a group, someone you’ve never met before. By spending these intimate hours together, we have the chance to feel affirmed and supported, gather new ideas, and feel less alone when facing ignorance or exclusion. Together, we will create this new space, and feel free to celebrate all that can be joyful, educational, and inspiring about being an interfaith family–whatever that family looks like for you.
I cannot wait to meet those of you who sign up! I am spending my August making plans for how we will weave this community together, and how I can be most helpful to you in these hours online. I have that excited back-to-school feeling with September approaching. Who will be in my class this year? (Yes, I was that nerd who loved school, both as a student, and later as a teacher). So please join me, sign up here before the workshop fills (space is limited), and share this post with anyone you know who might benefit.
On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.
I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”
But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.
Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.
Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.
In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.
As we get closer to November, I feel myself becoming more and more worried and scared about what this election will mean for my interfaith family. I’m shocked that a candidate with such blatant hateful, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric has made it this far in the campaign. Recently, my newsfeed on facebook has had multiple posts on how such a hateful platform can actually win this election. The outcome of this election will have a severe impact on the safety, emotional well-being, and daily life of my interfaith family. I am Jewish and my husband is Muslim. We have a one-year-old son who is both Jewish and Muslim. And so, as a Jewish and interfaith mother, I must speak out and fight for the best outcome to this election.
I was raised as a Reform Jew. Growing up, I remember learning in Hebrew School about the Holocaust and why we must remember it to make sure history is never repeated. I remember a school trip to the Holocaust museum in D.C. where I felt alone in this experience traveling with my non-Jewish peers. I remember visiting a concentration camp in Germany and feeling overwhelmed with how this atrocity could have ever taken place. But now experiencing this election process I am starting to understand. Sometimes we don’t fight because it feels impossible that this could truly happen.
I shouldn’t have to fear that my family will have to register and be monitored by the government because of our religion, our last name, or how we look. I shouldn’t have to fear that white supremacy will prevent my son from feeling proud about his mixed heritage. I shouldn’t have to fear that my husband’s status as a US citizen who immigrated here as a child from Guyana in South America could ever be revoked. I shouldn’t have to worry that people could legally be allowed to attack my family. And yet, these are some of my fears that surfaced out of this hateful campaign. As a Jewish Muslim family, I look forward to opportunities for us to freely study, observe, and celebrate both religions together. I look forward to teaching my son about his unique heritage and our values of social justice. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report that “…found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.” For us, and I’m sure for many other interfaith families, this is not the way we imagined raising our children.
As the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stated “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We must follow his teachings. I ask you to join me and respond to this call to action.
Here are some ways we can take action in the next three months before the election:
Make sure you vote for the candidate that at least isn’t leading a hateful, racist, and bigoted campaign, even if you don’t like the alternative.
Help people register to vote. Organize people in your synagogue, church, mosque, other religious institution, or any other organization you are part of to help people register to vote.
Talk to anyone in your life that you think might support a candidate who incites hate. Work to educate them and remind them about history. This is especially important for people who have family and friends in swing state areas. These conversations can be uncomfortable and challenging but remember what is at stake if we stay silent.
Donate money to organizations that are helping register and get people to the polls on Election Day, especially organizations that are working to end Voter ID laws and other obstacles that prevent people who are marginalized from voting.
Stay informed through progressive news and social media about new and creative ways to help influence the election.
President Obama gave a moving speech about inclusion and preventing extremism at the Islamic Society of Baltimore yesterday. I saw this event, his first visit to a US mosque, through the lens of an adult interfaith child, a lens that President Obama inevitably shares. Every interfaith child (actually, every human being) has the right to choose a religious identity, and Barack Obama made a clear choice to be a Christian. As someone born into an interfaith family, as someone who has had to defend my own religious identity, I empathize with the constant battle President Obama must fight against those who try to mislabel him. My hope is that after he steps down, he will be able to speak more freely about the ways in which his interfaith family background has inspired him as a bridge-builder and peacemaker in the world.
While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefited from it.
Listening to the speech yesterday, one phrase in particular caught my attention. Here is the slightly inexact quote as tweeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, the progressive Democratic congressman from Minnesota, who was there at the mosque:
The point the President is making here is that we must counter the recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions. But note the metaphor: he describes America as a giant interfaith family. President Obama’s own extended interfaith family is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish in two different branches. And Rep. Ellison, who chose this sentence to tweet, is a Muslim-American from an extended interfaith family. He was brought up Catholic, has a brother who is a Protestant pastor, and raised his children as Muslims in the context of an interfaith marriage.
My point here is that we are all moving together into a world of greater religious complexity and interconnection. I see the formative interfaith family experiences of our elected officials inspiring more effective interfaith diplomacy, and the desire to reduce religious violence in the world. I heard this theme the very first time I heard Obama speak, in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. I look forward to hearing him speak out even more boldly after his term is over. And now, it looks like our next Democratic presidential nominee will be either a Christian woman with a Jewish son-in-law, or a Jewish man with a Catholic wife. Either way, it seems our nominee will see the world through an interfaith family lens.
For four days last week, I was immersed in an extraordinary community created by the Parliament of the World’s Religions: almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City from around the world to learn about each other, pray for peace, and talk about saving the planet. The week was rich and dense with intercultural experiences. At dawn, I stood in a sacred circle with Ute people around a fire of wood and sage, gazing up at the Wasatch mountains beyond the highrises. I reclined on pillows with women in a conference room transformed into a red tent. And I learned a traditional Maori greeting from Grandmother Rose (Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Arikirangi Rose Pere), who came all the way from New Zealand to speak truth to power about corporate greed and climate change.
I heard inspiring speakers including Jane Goodall, Maryanne Williamson, Madea Benjamin, Joan Brown Campbell, Tariq Ramadan, Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, and Allan Boesak. And, I delighted in the inscrutable pop-up happenings that make the Parliament so much more lively and radically inclusive than an academic conference: the folks dressed in light-up angel wings, the young men in clown costumes dancing under a disco ball suspended on a long stick. The Parliament includes the sublime, and the ridiculous. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton gave it the snarky epithet: “a pantheon for pantheists.” But more accurately, it is an encounter of pantheists, monotheists, atheists, and everyone else.
One of the highlights of the Parliament for me occurred each day, when I took off my shoes, covered my head with my scarf, and enjoyed a free vegetarian meal served by the Sikh community in an extraordinary act of community service called langar, designed to uphold the principle of equality of all people. Whether sitting cross-legged on the floor at langar, or standing and watching the Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala, I got to meet people I never would have met otherwise, because at Parliament, everyone talks to everyone else in a spirit of openness. I also got to hang out with longtime friends who converged from my interfaith word (including emma’s revolution, Melody Fox Ahmed, Jackie Fuller, Katie Gordon, Victor Grezes, Katherine Rand, Sean Rose). And I finally met interfaith twitter buddies I had never met in person, including Vickie Garlock, Tahil Sharma, Simran Jeet Singh, Ellie Anders).
Each Parliament is different, marked by time and place. Because we were in the Great Basin, this Parliament provided a strong opportunity to engage with indigenous American religious traditions from throughout the West and Canada. It also, of course, provided an opportunity to experience the center of the Mormon world. On my last day, suffering conference burnout, I stumbled out of the Salt Palace and walked up to Temple Square. There, I entered the 19th-century Assembly Hall and chatted with a young woman on her mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) as she explained her faith. Then, I headed into the spectacular Mormon Tabernacle to witness music and dance from a dozen different religious traditions on Sacred Music night. Judaism, my primary religion, was represented by a group of rabbis positioned all through the Tabernacle who blew long shofars together at the invocation, and by a multi-faith choir of local children who led thousands of people in singing a Shlomo Carlebach nigun (a mystical wordless tune).
You never really know when or where you will have a Parliament experience again. So far, only a handful have been held (Chicago 1893, Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, and Melbourne 2009). Parliament organizers announced their intention to hold the next one in two years, although we don’t yet know where. Wherever it is, whenever it is, I don’t intend to miss it.
One of the reasons I wrote Being Both was to encourage more adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences, positive and negative. Too often, the discourse on interfaith marriage has been dominated by people speculating and worrying about the experiences of interfaith children, rather than listening to the voices of those who actually grew up in interfaith families.
So I was very glad to read a story in Haaretz this weekend about Jewish and Muslim interfaith families in Israel. The reporter actually interviewed not only parents, but at least two children from these families (ages 10 and 19) about their experiences and identities. The article adds to the small but important collection of stories told by interfaith children about their own lives in the 21st century (including the fifty interfaith children I surveyed for Being Both).
I appreciate the reporter and Haaretz for acknowledging that these intact interfaith families exist, for giving them space to tell their own stories, and for allowing them to describe both the challenges and the benefits of being intercultural, interfaith families. In the article, 10-year-old Nour says “I’m half-Jewish, half-Arab, and I’m not ashamed of it.” This is a strong statement from a very young person, given the history of conflict in the region. (And putting aside for a moment the fact that Arab is a language-group and ethnicity, not a religion, and that there are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Arabic-speakers).
The article does have a certain amount of language derived from traditional anti-intermarriage discourse, including the idea that identity questions “plague” interfaith children “for life.” For the interfaith families in this article, I would argue that part of the stress clearly derives not from celebrating two religions, but from living in a war zone in which the parents are expected to identify with opposite camps. It is hard to keep straight the religious, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and national issues at play in this context. For instance, the reporter writes that one family observes “the holidays of both religions except…Independence Day.” Israeli Independence Day is not a Jewish holiday, it is a national holiday, even if some Jewish communities in the US choose to celebrate it.
But despite the complexity of this story, it is hard to ignore the voices of young people testifying to the benefits of growing up interfaith. We have young Nour, age 10, declaring that she “felt at home everywhere.” Reading her words, she does not sound plagued. She explains the issue here very succinctly, as she describes friends who gossip about her interfaith status: “I’d prefer to leave my parents the way they are, but it’s easier for friends when parents have the same religion.” In other words, she is comfortable with her interfaith family: the confusion, as I have so often written, is in the eye of the beholders.
In this article, an Israeli advocate for interfaith families, Irit Rosenblum, frets that sometimes these children choose a single religious identity in adulthood, and this can lead to a “break with one parent.” My point of view is that this break occurs only when parents cannot accept the reality that children, all children, whether interfaith or monofaith, can and will grow up to make their own religious choices. But Rosenblum also observes that some of these children lead “happy lives, content with both cultures,” and that while parents may struggle, “these children are more open to dialogue and cultural receptivity, and they can more easily cross cultural divides.” It is heartening to observe that even in Jewish and Muslim interfaith families, even in the fraught atmosphere of Israel at the end of a very long summer, the idea that growing up in an interfaith family can have benefits as well as challenges can no longer be pushed aside or ignored.
One of the great joys of writing Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family has been the opportunity to develop relationships with interfaith activists who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, and more. While acknowledging our differences, we tend to share a belief that love can prevail over hate, and that life is richer and fuller with all of us in conversation, and working together.
This is the month of Ramadan, and many of these interfaith activists have created great projects (including #RamadanReads and @TheBigIftar) to complement the introspection and community-building of this period of fasting. Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman), is a preacher’s kid and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim” and writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” For Ramadan, she publishes an entire month’s worth of reflections from Muslims, and everyone else, on Ramadan, in a project called #InterfaithRamadan, and then tweets it out under @InterfaithRam.
Sarah had noticed some of my blog posts on my positive experiences with Islam (perhaps here, here, or here), and invited me to write a piece for #InterfaithRamadan this year. I started with a scene from my book, and then had a new epiphany about how growing up in an interfaith family prepared me to encounter those with other religions. Sarah also inspired me to go around my house, photographing some of my beloved objects from Senegal, for this post. Here’s the start to the essay…jump to her blog to read the rest:
I moved to Dakar, Senegal, just three days after getting married in 1987. When our plane landed on the other side of the Atlantic, I stepped into a new role as a Jewish girl from an interfaith family, married to a Protestant working for a Catholic organization, in a predominantly Muslim country.
Growing up in a small New England town, everyone I knew seemed to fall neatly into one of two religious boxes labeled Christian (the religious majority) or Jewish (the tiny religious minority). But on a deeper level, as the child of an interfaith marriage, this strict binary always felt forced. I knew that the religious world, and my own identity, had to be more complex…read the rest here.
A few months ago, I had the honor of interviewing Rabbi Chava Bahle about her historic selection as a rabbi to lead a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) community. We talked about her background as one of the handful of rabbis working directly with an interfaith families community raising children in both family religions. For almost ten years, she has been the rabbi at Chicago’s Interfaith Family School.
Now you can watch Rabbi Chava tell her story at a recent TEDx talk in Traverse City, Michigan. She describes this moment in history as a spiritual paradigm shift, when we begin to look around and see “us” rather than “them.” In listening to her funny, moving and inspiring talk, it is easy to imagine why a UU community took a leap of faith and hired a rabbi to lead them. In her TEDx talk, Rabbi Chava describes what she sees as the importance of the Catholic and Jewish families in Chicago as “game-changers.” Embedded in her talk is the excellent video created by the Family School for their 20th anniversary this year, in which you hear interfaith parents, Catholic and Jewish clergy, and young people raised with both religions, talking about the benefits of interfaith education.
For Being Both:Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I interviewed Chicago clergy, parents, and young adults from the Family School. I am looking forward to visiting Chicago in the fall, to celebrate the release of the paperback edition of my Beacon Press book with the groundbreaking community there. In the meantime, it is thrilling to me to have one of the clergy members most closely associated with the interfaith families movement telling her own story, and testifying to a public audience about all that is compelling about raising children with both family religions. I look forward to more clergy, parents, and young people who are part of this paradigm shift, those creating and supporting and growing up in interfaith family communities, bearing witness to the movement we have created.
A couple of years back, the venerable Jewish Daily Forward published a blogpost in the form of a letter attacking my family for celebrating Christmas. I waited several days before responding. Meanwhile, readers and bloggers rushed in to decry the “snide” “condescending” “offensive” “anti-interfaith family” tone of the original post. One wrote that it “paints a scary picture for interfaith families in the Jewish community.”
But in the six months since the publication of Being Both, I have witnessed a different picture emerging. I have been honored to give talks sponsored by synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, and a group of rabbis. I was invited onto an interfaith family task force by my local Jewish Federation. And The Forward chose my beloved rabbi, Harold M. White, the Jewish Spiritual leader of my interfaith families community, when I nominated him as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America for 2014.
Granted, progress comes in fits and starts. Sometimes a leader from a synagogue discussion group calls asking me to speak: these congregants are worried about intermarried children and grandchildren who are often “doing nothing.” They wonder if “doing both” might not be a richer experience for their grandchildren, and a better bet for Jewish continuity. Whenever I receive one of these invitations, I have to ask if they have checked with the rabbi. More than once, I have received a call back from a frustrated and embarrassed congregant dis-inviting me, and explaining that the rabbi sees my mission as counter to the mission of institutional Judaism.
And yet, everywhere I do speak, I see the religious landscape shifting, with extended families and religious institutions far more willing now to support interfaith couples and children, even when they must “share” them with another religion. And that means that interfaith families have many more good options for finding community than they did a generation ago, whether that community is Jewish, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist, secular humanist, or (like my own Interfaith Families Project) intentionally interfaith.
Just this spring, I realized once again how far we have all come when The Forward, the same media outlet that published that scathing letter addressed to me two years ago, asked me to join the roster of experts for their new interfaith relationship advice column, The Seesaw. The expert panel includes an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, a Christian spouse, and Rabbi James Ponet (Chelsea Clinton’s rabbi). I am the only panel member raising children with any formal religious education beyond Judaism.
If I were to design my own roster of experts to give advice to interfaith families, I would of course choose people raising children on many different religious and non-religious pathways. But given the chance to represent something other than the “you must raise kids exclusively Jewish” perspective, I said yes. The comment section on The Seesaw is at times filled with sarcasm and intolerance, and at least one of my fellow respondents regularly despairs over my responses. But over all, I enjoy seeing how the respondents reflect diverse Jewish viewpoints, often displaying a deep sensitivity to the nuances and complexity of interfaith family life.
I advocate for the Jewish community (and all religious communities) to engage with, rather than exclude, parents who expose their children to more than one family religion. Given that Pew Research has found that 25% of intermarried Jews are raising children with more than one religion, the logic of including rather than spurning these families seems very compelling to me, even when viewed through the lens of preserving Jewish institutions. And this spring, I see a flowering of support for the idea of providing Jewish content to all families who want it, creating meaningful Jewish experiences for them, and allowing children to grow Jewish roots, even if they are putting down roots in more than one family tradition.
I already have plans for talks in Chicago and New York next fall. Let me know if your community wants to be included in either of those visits, or if you want to host a talk elsewhere in the country. I look forward to a conversation that will continue with all of you, growing deeper and wider and more complex, next year, and into the years ahead.
The Being Both book tour is ramping up again, just in time for Passover and Easter. You can help by forwarding this post to friends and family near Easton PA, Greenwich CT, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Charlottesville VA and Washington DC.
First up will be Lafayette College inEaston, PA on March 6th. I’ll be giving a new talk tailored for college campuses, drawing on interviews with college students from interfaith families, and emphasizing the extraordinary religious complexity, fluidity and flexibility in this generation. I will also advocate for young people from interfaith families to take leadership roles in interfaith dialogue and activism on campus. Facebook event page here. I’m currently booking college campus speaking engagements (as well as church, synagogue, and library talks) for next fall, when the paperback of Being Both should come out, so contact me now if you are interested.
Then, California here I come. First stop will be at the Silicon Valley JCC on March 19th, for an event titled, “Two Religions, One Family, a Million Questions.” I’ll be appearing with authors Rabbi Michal Woll and Jon Sweeney (a Jewish and Catholic couple). Please purchase tickets here. This event, and the Greenwich event, are part of my year as a Jewish Book Council Network Author.
After northern California, I will nip down to LA to visit a certain beloved college student, and also to visit classes at Claremont School of Theology. (Contact me if you want to sponsor another event in LA between March 22nd and March 26th.)
Later in the spring, I’m planning events at the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University on April 3rd, at the University of Virginia on April 9th, and at the MLK branch of the DC Public Library on May 7th. Stay tuned for more…