Interfaith Families, Interfaith Activists

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Women’s March, Washington DC, 2017                    Photo Susan Katz Miller

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.

And so, together, let us march.

 

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.

 

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Top Ten Interfaith Posts on This Blog

Interfaith Collage by Robin Allen

Pausing for reflection at the end of the year, I thought I would reveal the most popular posts from this blog on interfaith identity, interfaith parenting, interfaith children, interfaith families, and interfaith life. Below is a list of the top ten most-viewed posts since this blog began in 2009. In the comments, let me know which posts were your personal favorites of all time, and what topics you would like to see covered in the year to come.

  1. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. It seems fitting that the number-one post on this site is devoted to explaining the benefits of exploring both family religions with dual-faith children.
  2. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most. This post includes vignettes from my family celebrating each of these holidays. It was selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature. It also benefited from traffic based on the provocative public letter addressed to me by a blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward who objects to intermarriage.
  3. Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child. Fans of intermarried Broadway and television stars Idina Menzel (Jewish and white) and Taye Diggs (Christian and black) have kept this post at the top of the hit list. When their baby son Walker was born, I wondered in this post how they would choose to raise him in terms of religion. The last I read, the couple is still figuring out their religious pathway for Walker.
  4. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story. The post describing the long and happy marriage of my Jewish father to my Christian mother has become a perennial favorite on this blog. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary, I wrote about how their successful interfaith marriage has made it impossible for me to feel that intermarriage is a bad idea. Readers are scouring the internet, looking for signs of happy interfaith couples. The popularity of this post inspired me to start a whole series on successful interfaith marriages.
  5. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset.” Okay, so this post is popular because of a trashy reality TV series, featuring wealthy Jews and Muslims of Persian (Iranian) descent misbehaving in Los Angeles. Fans trying to figure out which character is Muslim, which is Jewish (and which is from an interfaith Muslim/Jewish family) end up on my blog. Intermarriage between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians represents the next wave of multi-faith families. So I am glad the interfaith world beyond Judaism and Christianity is represented in my top-ten posts.
  6. Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment.” I adore the fact that this tribute to a 17th-century religious rebel in New England remains a top post on my site. Roger Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island as a refuge for Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and anyone fleeing the religious oppression of Massachusetts Puritans. Williams himself ended up becoming a very early example of the “religious nones,” without institutional religious affiliation.
  7. Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive. A parody music video created by two pop culture stars who are black and Jewish inspired this post. It represents a pushback against the idea that Jews are by definition white, and a reminder of the rise of racial and religious intermarriage in our increasingly multicultural world.
  8. Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again. This post critiques a Washington Post opinion piece that described interfaith marriages as doomed to frequent failure. The author is affiliated with a conservative think tank, and was fired this year from a blogging position at the Chronicle for Higher Education over a post described by some as racist. People searching for news of successful interfaith marriages stumble on this post, and I am glad that responding to an anti-intermarriage piece provided me with an opportunity to connect with more readers and bring them news of happy intermarriages.
  9. Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century. This post in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday refers to his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King. I go on to describe how my community of interfaith families, composed of intermarried Jews and Christians, and intermarried blacks and whites, celebrates King’s birthday holiday and the Civil Rights movement.
  10. Interfaith Children: Born This Way. I wrote this post to respond to the blogger who was dismayed by the idea that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. While making reference to Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and her hit song “Born This Way,” I describe how children from interfaith families benefit from claiming our interfaithness and discovering all that is positive about bridging two religions and two cultures. I am glad the idea that families can and should instill pride rather than shame in their interfaith children, made it into the top ten posts.

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

 

Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse

At first, it seemed somehow inappropriate to write about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her interfaith family. We have all been in shock, hoping or praying for her survival and recovery, mourning for those lost in Tucson. As a Washingtonian, I have many friends who work on Capitol Hill, and some of them know Giffords and knew her aide Gabe Zimmerman. To write about Giffords’s parentage and interfaith connections seemed frivolous, off-topic.

And yet, the moment I saw her photo, heard the name of the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, my half-Jewdar went off. The confirmation came immediately. Gabby Giffords, like me, is a patrilineal interfaith child married to a Christian spouse. Her mother was a Christian Scientist. Giffords chose Judaism in adulthood after an epiphany in Israel, and has been accepted into a Reform Jewish congregation.

Within hours of the shooting, the religion blogosphere lit up with the eternal debate. She’s Jewish, how dare you say otherwise at a time like this? She’s not Jewish, her mother’s not Jewish, she didn’t convert, sorry for what happened but nonetheless she’s not Jewish.

As always, those of us who are interfaith children must relive the sting of rejection from those who adhere rigidly to a tribal law written thousands of years after the Biblical era, an era when the great intermarried patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism often seemed to enjoy a more inclusive and expansive and fluid definition of belonging.

And as always, we struggle with the hypocrisy of those who claim beautiful interfaith celebrities (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who is actually a cousin to Giffords), top athletes,  and political heroes as Jewish, and then turn around and refuse to marry interfaith couples, or refuse to accept their children into religious schools, or refuse to bury them together in cemeteries. Although an editorial this week in the Jerusalem Post advocates for accepting Giffords as Jewish inspite of her halachic status, an inevitable and promising shift from a major Israeli newspaper.

Giffords represents proof that interfaith couples, even when they allow their children to choose a religious path, even when their children face rejection from Jewish institutions, can give the world children who wind up as outspoken and committed Jewish leaders, rather than confused or alienated non-participants.

But I was not going to weigh in, partly because it has seemed fairly clear that mental illness is the main culprit in this tragedy, not anti-Semitism, so why view this tragedy through a religious lens at all? But then Sarah Palin pushed me over the edge with her bizarre reference to a “blood libel.” For a deep and nuanced analysis of the way the “blood libel” has been used against Jews, read history professor Susannah Heschel’s piece from yesterday. We can only hope that Palin actually did not understand the meaning of the term “blood libel” when she used those words to describe how she feels journalists have blamed her for violent rhetoric. As we head into Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday weekend, it seems particulary appropriate that Heschel, the daughter of Dr. King’s dear friend and colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is weighing in.

Tomorrow in Washington, at an annual interfaith Shabbat, Jews and Christians will join to celebrate the non-violent activism of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The timing could not be better to reaffirm our ardent communal dream for a time of peace.

For me, it remains clear that interfaith children can play a special role in bringing us closer to that dreamtime. In Giffords, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, a congresswoman known for reaching out at public events, reaching across boundaries of race, class, religion and politics, I see the hallmarks of someone raised outside the box. I acknowledge the Jewish label she chose for herself, I acknowledge the danger of applying labels to others. Nonetheless, I cannot help noting our shared experiences as interfaith children who insist on staying connected to Judaism.

Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century

This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.

On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.

Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews).  But none of this is new.

Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.

A Rabbi and a Minister…

My rabbi often expounds on “radical amazement,” a concept that his teacher, philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to describe our response to creation. Me, personally, I am radically amazed that I have a rabbi. And I am equally, if not even more radically amazed that I have a pastor. We are living in strange and wondrous times, when a person, an interfaith person, can have both.

Here’s how it works. Rabbi Harold White and minister Julia Jarvis lead the Interfaith Families Project in song, prayer and reflection twice each month. That means sometimes the rabbi will give a reflection about Lent, and the minister will give a reflection on Sukkoth. It sounds meshugenah but this cross-fertilization leads to dazzling insights. And for those of us who are interfaith children, it leads to profound opportunities to feel like an integrated whole, rather than a half-something.

I never thought I would have a rabbi again. I had reconciled myself to a life of exile from organized Judaism, and I assumed that meant exile from the likes of Rabbi White, who combines warmth and crinkly smile lines with deep wisdom and erudition. My exile began, like that of many other intermarried Jews, the day my father went to our family rabbi and asked if he would officiate at my marriage to a lapsed Episcopalian. The answer my father brought back was, “He says he can’t touch it.” Later, I learned that many synagogue Boards forbid their rabbis to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment. This may help to explain why I have returned to a rabbi, but not to a synagogue.

I never dreamed I would have a minister, nor did I pine for one, since I never had one growing up as a Reform Jew. But it turns out that everyone can benefit from a minister. Clergy of all stripes actually know this—they often benefit from spiritual direction from different faith traditions. Julia Jarvis is a gifted empath who has given me personal support, and creative dedication to the task of raising healthy interfaith children in our community. She has given me the courage as a Jew to accept the help of a pastor. It may seem radical. But it is also amazing.