Template: Interfaith Coming of Age or B-Mitzvah

Families celebrating more than one religion can, and do, design interfaith coming of age celebrations for their children. These ceremonies sometimes start with, draw on, or incorporate the B-Mitzvah traditions in our heritage. Our Jewish and Christian interfaith family, along with beloved clergy, created ceremonies for each of our children (who are now 28 and 25). Over the years, I have often been asked for a coming of age ceremony template. And a reader asked again just this week. And so, I am finally posting a template!

The template below “leans Jewish” in that it includes the essence of a Shabbat Torah service, which is what many consider the essence of a B-Mitzvah. And, the whole idea of an individual coming of age, as opposed to a group confirmation, is a more Jewish than Christian tradition. Whether or not you want to include all these elements is up to your family. You can find a deeper discussion of the different choices my family made, and the choices available to you, in the Coming of Age chapter in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. There is also more of the backstory on our particular experience with our younger child, on my blog here, here, here, here and here.

For the sake of brevity, I did not include the actual prayers here, but they are widely available. I recommend including Hebrew, transliteration, AND gender-neutral English translation for every Hebrew prayer, as an educational tool, and to be most inclusive. The explanations of each prayer, important for a mixed multitude, can either be read by the reader, or simply included in the program for people to read on their own.

Interfaith Coming of Age and B-Mitzvah

Intro. Our programs started with a letter (which people can read to themselves while they wait for the ceremony to start) as an introduction from the parents. It explains the religious education and training that the young person has undergone, and thanks the various religious communities supporting them. It goes on to thank important mentors, clergy, and godparents.

Opening Song. Throughout the program, there are traditional Jewish songs for peace and Shabbat (Bim Bom, Lo Yisa Goy, Hine Mahtov, It is a Tree of Life). And, there are songs drawn from other sources (Morning Has Broken, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Let the Life I Lead, Peace Salaam Shalom).

Welcome from the clergy (in our case, both a rabbi and a minister spoke)

Opening Responsive Prayer (Led by the minister. Adapted by Susan Katz Miller from the Palo Alto interfaith families community)

Reader: We gather here as an interfaith community to celebrate the Coming of Age of (Name).

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel, some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Our influences are many.

Reader: May (Name), and all of our children, be nourished by strong family roots, and may all the branches of our family trees thrive.

All:  May they grow in compassion for all peoples and cultures, seek to heal the earth, and strive for justice around the globe.

Reader: May they use their understanding of the many different pathways to become bridge-builders and peacemakers.

All:  And may we all go forward into the world, knowing in our hearts that deeper unity in which all are one.

Shehecheyanu (Rabbi)

The rabbi explains that this is a Jewish prayer giving thanks for reaching any new or important moment.

Introduce the Torah. The Torah is a continuous scroll consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each Torah is handwritten by a trained scribe, using a quill and vegetable ink on parchment.  The Hebrew calligraphy used to write these scrolls has been the same for more than 2,000 years.  The Torah we are using today belongs to Georgetown University, where Rabbi White is a chaplain and professor.

Please stand.                       

Barchu and Shema (led by the person coming of age)

The Shema is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. In it, Jews declare their belief in one God, who is the God of all people.

Please be seated.

V’Ahavta (led by the person coming of age)

In this central prayer, each generation passes knowledge of the law and of Jewish ritual to the next. This prayer is included on the parchment scroll inside a mezuzah, posted on the doorframe of many Jewish homes.

Aliyot. The rabbi explains that an Aliya (plural is Aliyot) is the honor of saying the blessing before and after part of the Torah reading. Leading this blessing is often considered the central act of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Aliyot by parents, grandparents, any older siblings, and finally, the person coming of age.

Blessing before the Torah

Torah Reading. (In English or Hebrew. If it’s only in Hebrew, print the English in the program).

Blessing after the Torah

Reflection on the Torah portion (D’var Torah by the person coming of age)


Reading from the New Testament (read by a Christian grandparent or mentor). It was our beloved rabbi who insisted we do a New Testament reading. (Read all about this twist in Being Both).

We Remember Them (Minister. Written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)

At this time we remember those who are gone but are here with us today in spirit, especially (name any grandparents or immediate family members or close mentors who have died).

Reader: At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.

All: At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

Reader: At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

All: At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of the summer, we remember them.

Reader: At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

All: At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

Reader: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

All: When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

Reader: When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.

All: When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.

Reader: When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.

All: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

Mourner’s Kaddish (Rabbi)

The Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is written primarily in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews living in Babylonia and Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and the language later spoken by Jesus.  The Kaddish is traditionally recited for those who have died, yet there is no mention of death.  Instead, the prayer praises God and promises peace. For many, the rhythmic repetition of syllables serves as a chanting meditation. 

Song: Oseh Shalom 

“Universal Prayer,” an interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, by Rev. Cora Partridge.

Please read together:

Great Spirit of goodness and justice, our friend. We know you by many names, and in many languages, and by the manifestations of your great works in the universe. We want your influence of goodness to develop on this earth. Please provide all of us with what we need each day. Forgive our sins to the extent that we forgive others. Give us strength to resist temptations and willful wrongdoing, and protect us from evil thoughts, opportunities, and misfortunes that beset humankind. You are the everlasting good. We thank you. Amen.

Remarks by Parents

Remarks by Godparent/Mentor


Laying on of Hands. Clergy put their hands on the head of the person coming of age to bless them, and the whole community then connects to each other in a supportive physical web. For further explanation, see Being Both.

Parting Words (Responsive reading led by minister)

Will you be there for (Name) when they need you to listen? All: We will.

Will you model love for one another and for all peoples? All: We will.

Will you surround (Name) with joy, music, poetry and art? All: We will.

Will you help them work for peace, justice and a sustainable world? All: We will.

Then go now, remembering always the community that we have become today, a community that envelopes and surrounds and supports (Name) with our love.

At the reception:

Hebrew/English blessing over the Wine

Hebrew/English blessing over the Bread

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).

Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

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

Passover and Easter: Interfaith Family Afterword

The hardest part about celebrating Easter and Passover with my extended interfaith clan in Florida is extricating ourselves from the multigenerational lovefest–and leaving behind all the leftovers when we fly home. My family gathers from England, California, New York and Washington. For three days this year we planned, shopped and cooked for the Easter dinner and the Passover Seder. When we drove to the airport to get the kids back to school at the end of their spring break we regretfully left behind the leftover brisket, roast potatoes and carrots, matzoh ball soup, charoset, and chocolate-toffee matzoh for my siblings and cousins with later school vacations. Oh, and a spiral-cut honey-baked Easter ham (from one of those “Hams R Us” stores), and lots of Easter candy.

Once again this year, my 87-year-old father was there to preside over our Seder. Each year  seems unbearably precious to me, and we move heaven and earth to be there. We also illegally move giant glasstop dining tables from three condos into one, to fit all 20 family members. And my father hires a piano company to move a piano in for two weeks, so that he can play the jazz standards and Pennsylvania polkas and Irish reels that form the soundtrack to our multicultural lives. We make a joyful noise: one year we were threatened with eviction.

My sister from New York is raising her kids Jewish–my nephew is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. (My mother is his only Christian grandparent). My brother and sister-in-law from California are raising their three kids Catholic. (My father is their only Jewish grandparent). My seven-year-old niece is attending CCD classes, preparing for her First Holy Communion, and she said a lovely grace at Easter dinner, dressed in her spring dress and tiny gold cross.

My niece, and her siblings, attend a Catholic Montessori school, and they had just taken part in the school’s reenactment of The Last Supper during Holy Week. After years of Passover in Florida with us, they understand The Last Supper as a Seder.

So this year at school, my Catholic nephew, age 9, who has a prodigious memory, stood up and sang “Dayenu” at The Last Supper. His Catholic teachers know that his father is Jewish, and are accepting and encouraging of the Jewish knowledge he brings to their community. Apparently, they egged him on, asking for more authentic Passover material, at which point he recited the entire “Chad Gadya” in English (“…then came the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat…”).

It is doubtful that the apostles sang Dayenu (apparently a medieval German melody) and Chad Gadya at The Last Supper (though Chad Gadya is written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and may date back to that ancient period). And I worry that the violence of Chad Gadya (which may or may not be an allegory for all of the empires that conquered the Jews throughout history) may have puzzled my nephew’s Catholic schoolmates.

But I have to love my nephew’s pride in his Jewish knowledge and interfaith family, and his mastery of Passover ritual. It also happens that he found the afikoman this year, for the third consecutive year, and was rewarded by his Jewish Grandpa. Last year, he read the four questions (in English). At times in the past, he has worried about the fact that his father is Jewish, about his father’s anomalous religious status in their nuclear family. And he seemed comforted to learn, recently, that his father has a strand of Catholic ancestry. Though we were raised as Jews by our Protestant mother and Jewish father, our great-grandfather Michael Gorman probably was born a Catholic in Clonmel, Ireland (before emigrating to America and marrying a Protestant). With the convergence of Holy Week and Passover this year, interfaith children had a chance to better integrate their own interwoven families, the connections between the religions, and the Jewishness of Jesus.

My Catholic nephew will always have a visceral memory of his Jewish heritage–the surprising bite of horseradish, the comforting scent of soup, the rhythmic clapping of aunts and uncles, the thrill of discovering the hidden matzoh. And I bet my Jewish nephew will remember his little Catholic cousin reciting grace at Easter dinner. Whether given one religious label, like my nieces and nephews, or two (like my teens), I hope, I believe, that interfaith children immersed in family religious ritual, in their own complex ancestry, will naturally mature into ambassadors, teachers, and bridge-builders between religions.


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

Authenticity, Judaism, and Encounters with Menachem Youlus

I will admit to experiencing a moment of schadenfreude this week when I read of the indictment of the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones,” Rabbi Menachem Youlus, on charges of fraud. Youlus presides over our local Jewish bookstore, and I often shopped there, and listened to his elaborate stories of rescuing torah scrolls hidden from the Nazis. Prosecutors now charge that he was telling tall tales, and embezzling funds from his own “Save a Torah” foundation. But why should I gain any satisfaction from what now appears to be an appalling scam?

I am confident about my own strong connection to Judaism. And yet, entering a Jewish bookstore like the one Youlus runs can be intimidating and frustrating for members of interfaith families. I know I am going to run smack into questions like “what shul do you go to?” It is always hard to explain why I am shopping for ritual objects for my children (a Torah study guide, a mezuzah), and why they would be learning Hebrew when they are (patrilinial) “quarter-Jews,” and why we don’t belong to a shul at all. I understand that a Rabbi who runs such a store will often come from an Orthodox background, and will not consider me or my children Jewish, but I really don’t want to get into defending my identity when I’m just trying to buy a Bar Mitzvah gift. In Wheaton, it was always hard not to engage with the loquacious and entertaining Rabbi Youlus.

Growing up in an interfaith family practicing Reform Judaism, I had no real cause to shop for ritual objects. My Jewish father had the necessities: a kiddush cup, Shabbat candlesticks, a brass menorah. In Sunday School at our temple, my siblings and I embroidered a yarmulke for my father, a challah cover for our Sabbath table, a matzoh cover for the Passover seder. We needed little else.

After forming my own interfaith family, my self-designated religious role has been to build my children’s knowledge of and affection for Judaism to the point where they feel a right to claim that identity in adulthood (while remaining open to the possibility that they will choose a Christian identity, or some other identity). Part of that process has meant exposing them to as much “authentic” Jewish practice as possible, in some ways going beyond the somewhat minimalist practice of my own Reform Jewish childhood. Ironically, part of that exposure has included exploring our local Jewish bookstore, owned by Menachem Youlus.

So, on multiple occasions, starting about five years ago when we were planning my older child’s interfaith coming-of-age and Bat Mitzvah ceremony, we have shopped at Y0ulus’s musty emporium, crammed to overflowing with phylacteries and havdalah spice boxes, yads and Hebrew lotto sets, tomes of Jewish history and prayer books. The shop happens to be located in one of my favorite urban corners of the world, in the diverse and bustling DC suburb of Wheaton, within a block of both West African and Brazilian food (and thus a corner that seems to represent my entire cross-cultural journey, which is somehow very satisfying).

Usually, we have been the only customers in the bookshop, and we would immediately face the well-meaning but irritating questions from the shop clerks, playing Jewish geography and probing our tribal membership. For our interfaith family, and many others, you could say this membership exists only through the force of our stubborn collective imagination.

Perhaps as a strategy to deflect simple identity questions with complex answers, I fell into a pattern of redirecting Rabbi Youlus (which was easy to do) to regale us with his swashbuckling exploits of rescuing torahs from former concentration camps and other exotic locales. We would visit his workroom, piled with scrolls in various states of repair. We admired torahs already purchased and awaiting pickup, displayed in velvet mantles with the names of benefactors embroidered in gold.

I feel sadness now for those apparently bamboozled by Youlus, for the patrons who paid high prices for his torahs and repeated what now appear to be romantic confabulations as truth. As a self-identified member of the tribe, I also share the sense of collective shame as Youlus joins the notorious “not good for the Jews” roster.

But for me, and for my children, the comeuppance of Youlus, if he is found guilty of these charges, will also serve as a reminder that neither tribal membership nor elaborate practice with all of the correct ritual objects serves as proof of goodness, or even, as far as I’m concerned, proof of superior or essential Jewishness. Objects are necessary for ritual; their value is based in part on esthetics and in part on family and communal history. And the torah plays a central role in Judaism. But fetishizing objects, and their history, can be risky. The Judaism (and the Christianity) I want for my children is about justice, kindness and truth. These values can’t be purchased at a religious bookstore, even from a Rabbi.

A Small But Significant Torah: Interfaith Musings on Shavuot

The Jewish festival of Shavuot starts tonight, and the Christian celebration of Pentecost arrives Sunday. Shavuot commemorates the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. My rabbi waxes wise and eloquent, as always, on how these two holidays intertwine. But I have to admit that my interfaith family will not take much notice of either one this year: we are still exhausted from our profound Bar Mitzvah experience, and both my teenagers are in the middle of finals in school and must stick to secular studies this evening.

I love the idea of studying Torah all night long, a Shavuot custom, or of attending some hipster downtown alternative (like the ones at Jews United for Justice, or the Historic 6th and I Synagogue). But the truth is that the most I will probably do this year is buy some cheesecake from our fabulous local bakery, run by an interfaith family who promote cheesecake-consumption for Shavuot. The tradition of eating dairy products on Shavuot apparently evolved from the fact that animals were weaned in late spring, creating a sudden abundance of milk.

But coincidentally, or not, the Torah has been much on my mind lately. Over the last few weeks, we had the great privilege to live with a Torah that is loaned to our interfaith community by a member who inherited it from her grandfather. I call it the teeny-tiny-Torah. It isn’t as small, of course, as the little toy plastic-and-paper Torahs my temple gave out on Shavuot or Simchat Torah in my childhood. (I just came across a lovely essay about those toy Torahs, and the idea that both sacred objects and sacred texts have meaning.)

Our Torah is, in fact, exactly the right size for my adolescent son to cradle and prop affectionately on one shoulder like a baby. I love the simple blue velvet mantle our Torah wears. I love the patina on the deco amber and ivory beaded finials (called rimonim since they resemble pomegranates growing on the wooden spindles, known as eytz chayim or trees). I love the simple pine ark our Torah lives in, made by an interfaith teenager who created it, complete with a curtain of golden cloth, as part of his coming-of-age community service project. I am profoundly grateful that we could spend time with this Torah, while my son mastered reading the Hebrew calligraphy lettered onto the parchment.

Anticipating our ceremony, I thought often of the radical Shabbat service I attended during the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Families National Conference, in Chicago, in 2002. Chicago has pioneered support for interfaith families celebrating both religions: progressive Catholic clergy have long worked with progressive Jewish clergy to help interfaith couples achieve both balance and depth. On that Shabbat, the Makon Shalom synagogue welcomed the conference participants–interfaith families, outreach workers, clergy of all stripes–and we passed the Torah from lap to lap, around the sanctuary, so that every single person could commune with it. For some of the Christian spouses, who may have been barred from handling the Torah in their own family syngagogues, this act was radical and cathartic. Many wiped away tears.

So I was determined to share our tiny Torah with as many people as I could while I had the chance. At our ceremony, we passed it carefully down through all three generations of grandparents, parents, and children in our family, incuding both Christian grandmothers. For they, too, had ancestors who received the ten commandments from Moses. What’s not to share? And we processed through the sanctuary, singing, and showing off our tiny Torah for all to see and touch.

Much later, as I was packing up to leave the Unitarian Universalist (UU) sanctuary where we had our ceremony, the church administrator admitted that he had never seen a Torah up close, so we sat down again to show it to him. He very much appreciated this gesture, and repaid us by telling this UU joke: “A priest, a rabbi, and a UU minister are commiserating in a bar. All three of their houses of worship have just burned down in a terrible fire. The priest says, ‘At least I was able to run back in and save the carved wooden crucifix.’ The rabbi says, ‘At least I was able to run back in and save the Torah.’ And the UU minister says, ‘At least I was able to run back in and save the coffee urn and the copy machine.'” Like a lot of interfaith dialogue, this moment was both amusing and awkward.

This year, on Shavuot, I am grateful for the time I spent over the past year struggling over my son’s difficult Torah portion with him. I am grateful for the Ten Commandments, which seem miraculously relevant and not particularly archaic at all. I am grateful for the up-close-and-personal opportunity my family had with this Torah, with this compelling and resonant sacred object, filled with ancient mysteries.

My Interfaith Son: The Bar Mitzvah and Coming of Age

My son chanted from the Torah with a new silk tallit (a Jewish prayershawl) draped around his shoulders last Saturday, flanked by two rabbis, and my 86-year-old father—his only Jewish grandparent.

Yes, we have chutzpah.  We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because his Judaism is patrilineal. We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because he has been educated in both of his family religions—Judaism and Christianity.

We listened respectfully to everyone who told us what a Bar Mitzvah should or should not include, and then we made our own decisions, and chose our own labels.

Our boy is becoming a man, not just as a Jew, but as a whole person, with an exuberantly complex and rich set of traditions. So this coming-of-age ceremony, from our perspective as an interfaith family raising our children in an interfaith community, needed to acknowledge and celebrate both his Jewish and Christian heritage. Preparing the way over the past year, together with my son, my daughter, my husband, two rabbis and a minister, confirmed for me, once again, that we are on a pathway that can inspire deep spirituality.  We feel whole, as a family, and as a community, honoring both religions at this tender moment of transition in my son’s life.

So, we included the Torah reading, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah, the mourner’s Kaddish. We drew on the Shabbat theme of Shalom, of peace. My daughter, the proud big sister, led us in the haunting traditional Reform melody of “Oseh Shalom.” We sang a klezmer rendition (complete with sax and clarinet) of another peace song,  “Lo Yisa Goy” (from the Biblical verse about beating swords into ploughshares). And when my son led a procession around the congregation holding the Torah, we clapped along to “It is a Tree of Life” with the refrain of “Shabbat Shalom” (Sabbath Peace).

All of this might have happened at any Bar Mitzvah. But then, an uncle, who is studying for the Episcopal priesthood, read from the gospel of Mark, from the passage in which the young Jesus affirms the importance of the central prayers of Judaism, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah. Our rabbi then reflected on this passage. Both Christian grandmothers gave readings. And we had two Christian hymns related to the environmental theme of my son’s Torah portion. One hymn was led by a band composed of one Sufi raised Christian, one agnostic Jew, one Buddhist Jew and one pastor’s daughter who prefers Judaism. My Jewish father pounded out the other hymn on the grand piano.

It was my husband who came up with the idea of asking the minister to give her final blessing during a “laying on of hands,” in which every person in the room connected to the people around them, and ultimately to our son. While this ritual may be most familiar to Christians, from both ordination of clergy and confirmation of adolescents, it has roots in Judaism.  In Genesis, Jacob lays hands on his grandsons as he blesses them, and Jewish parents bless their children on Shabbat, placing hands on their heads as they do so. In our version, both grandmothers, but also both rabbis and the minister, reached out to connect with our son, initiating what ended up as a giant, group hug. So what may have seemed to some like a startling Christian element grafted on to a Bar Mitzvah, to us felt like a completely appropriate acknowledgement of the echoes and synergies in the sibling relationship between these two Abrahamic faiths.

We are neither forging a third religion, nor cowering safely in a “Kumbaya” common ground. We acknowledge the angular differences between our two religions, in the delicate politics of including Jesus in the ceremony, and in the arduous hours my son spent learning how to read the cantillation marks that guide the ancient melodies for chanting from the Torah. Our ceremony honored the shared space, but also the particularities.

On the day itself, I managed to stop worrying about balance and inclusion, and to be in the moment, feeling the love of all who were there as they shared this peak experience in our interfaith journey. Afterwards, non-Jewish friends and family remarked wistfully that they envy the Jewish tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. This week, we claimed that tradition for our interfaith son, as we did for our daughter three years ago.

We have so much to celebrate. We celebrate our son’s arrival at physical adulthood, his desire for independence, his readiness for mature responsibilities, and his years of study in the religions inherited from both sides of his family. We celebrate him as a full member of our interfaith community, and as someone ready to make informed decisions about his own religious future. How often will he use his new tallit? Or his uncle’s gift of an Episcopal hymnal? He may continue to use both, or neither. None of us can know where life will lead our children. Children grow up, and make their own choices, whether they are interfaith children or monofaith children. All we can do is prepare them with love, and with deep knowledge of our own traditions. And that is what we have done.

Bar Mitzvah of an Interfaith Child: Creative Ferment

In the final days before my son’s Bar Mitzvah and interfaith coming-of-age ceremony, we have been blessed with many opportunities for philosophical discussion (as well as a certain amount of inevitable logistical and sartorial tussling). Last Friday night, our Rabbi and our Reverend, who will co-officiate at the ceremony, came for Shabbat dinner, and we reflected together on the balance of the songs and readings: Judaism and Christianity, King David and Walt Whitman, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I left my son at the computer, with instructions to finish his D’var Torah: the speech reflecting on the Torah portion he will chant in Hebrew. When I returned a while later, I discovered that instead, he had been researching quotes that inspire him from Buddhist thinkers, for possible inclusion in the ceremony. Well, okay, great idea! We talked about all of the people in his life (including our minister and his official, chosen Spiritual Mentor for his coming-of-age year) who practice Buddhism. Then he wanted to know the definition of dharma. I could tell him that the dharma concept is common to a set of Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), in contrast to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Then we huddled over the laptop together, surfing through pages on the many meanings of dharma.

I remembered that at about my son’s age, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. In more recent years, I  have tried to keep up with all the brilliant contemporary novels by Indian writers (Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Abraham Verghese). This year, I bought my son a signed copy of Rushdie’s current coming-of-age tale, Luka and the Fire of Life, and he enjoyed the mix of adventure and philosophy. Part of the tremendous excitement of coming of age, to his bookworm mother, is that my son can now begin to devour all of the great literature of the world.

So, after an evening of possibly tangential but certainly important research and discussion on world religions, the speech remains incomplete. But we are both, mother and son, more enlightened (or at least educated)  than we were yesterday. My life has also been enriched by the daily decision-making required by the ceremony, through constant consultation with my two teenagers, my parents, my husband, our siblings, our clergy. Could my mother (Episcopalian by birth) read her favorite Bible passage from Genesis, or will she be interpreted as a creationist? (Hmmm, thinking). Are my son’s keen young eyes strong enough to read from our community’s tiny Torah, the one that will fit him so perfectly in the procession around the sanctuary? (Yes!) How do we handle being called to the Torah, when many of our family members (including my Jewish father) do not have Hebrew names? (Consult the rabbi).

We are creating this new interfaith tradition as we go along, guided in our decisions by the environmental theme  in my son’s Torah portion, and evident in his life, and in the life of our think-global-act-local family. Long before we chose a Bar Mitzvah date, my son had plunged in the freezing Chesapeake to raise funds for climate action, and written a ballad about global warming. In this spirit, could he wear one of my brothers’ (barely worn) timeless blue blazers from the 1980s, instead of buying an entire suit he will outgrow next month?  Yes. Could there be a perfect pair of penny loafers at Value Village, the used clothing store? Yes. But perhaps we should spring for the colorful Fair Trade yarmulkes imported from Guatemala by a former Peace Corps volunteer? Yes.

I am trying to find calm in these last whirlwind days before my son officially becomes a man. I love the idea of meditation: I have had little success with it, personally. My monkey mind races, my to-do lists proliferate. I do stop, at times throughout the day, to take a deep breath or two. And to focus on thankfulness: to my son and daughter and husband for taking on this challenge, to my extended family and friends for understanding the importance of the day, to my interfaith community for pioneering such a radically-supportive context.

Easter Approaches: Talking with Interfaith Children About Jesus

Hyacinths and daffodils are splashing new color through suburbia, signaling the approach of Passover and Easter. For those of us dedicated to educating interfaith children about both holidays, this is the moment for some complex but essential conversations. Today, I was reading in my son’s Bar Mitzvah study guide that in 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a policy statement on Jewish traditions, in which it states that Reform Jews (like me) are called on “to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” And that’s exactly what I feel I’m doing in raising interfaith children, and educating them about both family religions.

But what does this education look like on a day to day basis? And in the Easter season, how do we, as interfaith parents, approach the topic of Jesus? This week, another parent in our independent interfaith families community shared with me a recent conversation he had with his daughter, and agreed that I could share it with you. How do these conversations happen in your own family?

Today after Sunday school Myka and I bicycled to the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring.  Over grilled cheese and a Greek salad we had our most extensive theological discussion to date.

For those who don’t know, I’m co-teaching Myka’s first grade class at the Interfaith Families Project. This morning we told the story of the 12-year-old Jesus coming to the temple and impressing the rabbis and other elders with his knowledge and questions. Except for the Christmas story and a couple parables told by an unnamed “teacher,” we haven’t focused much on Jesus yet. So as we started eating, I asked Myka if her classmates understood where Jesus fit in in relation to Abraham and Sarah and Judaism. She said she thought some of them did but a lot were confused. I asked if she wanted to know more about the Jesus story, and she did.
For the next 30 minutes I laid out as objectively as I could the story of Jesus. She said she understood that Jesus was a Jew. I told her about how he had been raised in the Jewish tradition but that he also disagreed with some of the teachings in the temple at that time. I told her about Jesus finding his disciples, including the fishermen – “I will make you fishers of men” – about his traveling around the countryside and saying good things for three years. I told her about the Romans and the governor where Jesus lived and how the government grew concerned about this man with such a following. White donkey. Palm branches.  Barabbas. We covered a lot of ground.
Then I told her where all this had come from, what the Gospels were and when they were written. I told her that, because there were no tape or video recorders back then, and because those books had been written so many years after Jesus died, it’s not clear how much in them is true.
“Why would people write something that wasn’t true?”
Sharp kid.  I said some people think parts of them were written to blame the Jews for bad things, including killing Jesus. I said we clearly know that much is wrong. The Romans killed Jesus.
Then I told her the story about Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. I told her about the women finding the stone rolled away, about Mary Magdalene and how Jesus said to her, “Don’t you see that it is me?” I told her how he showed his nail holes to “doubting” Thomas.
“I think Jesus after he died was kind of scary.”
I had to agree to that.  I finished up with the story of the Ascension.
Then I said that it’s because of this story about Jesus coming back to life that we celebrate Easter, and that Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus supposedly rose from the dead.
Myka was immediately stunned.  “Then what about the Easter Bunny and chocolate and eggs?  They’ve got nothing to do with Easter!!”
I said that was true, except probably for the part about the egg.  We then briefly touched on the seder and its origins, and about Christianity borrowing from Judaism.
On the bike ride back home I said the Easter Bunny was kind of like Santa Clause — both Easter and Christmas are supposedly about Jesus, but neither the Easter Bunny nor Santa has anything to do with them.   I asked Myka if she wondered how it got started that we have the Easter Bunny and Santa.
After a second she answered, “They were waiting in the non-human category for a job to open up.”
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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Israel and Interfaith Families: How Big is the Tent?

Many of us in interfaith families are squeamish, ambivalent, conflicted about Israel. Usually, I try to stay clear of the topic altogether. But I was scanning the program for the J Street Conference, and saw that there was going to be a sneak preview of a film, “Between Two Worlds,” touching on interfaith families. The title caught my eye, because, strangely, it is also the title of the first book written by and for adult interfaith children. And then I noticed that there was also going to be a breakout session on how to engage young Jews on the subject of Israel. Surely, the question of intermarriage would arise in that discussion as well. So I found myself with some 2000 other people this week, at the Washington Convention Center.

It was hard to resist the progressive spirit, the ebullient mix of older hippie activist rabbis and energetic millenial students, the embrace of the Palestinian “other,” the ardent longing for peace. I got to chat with Medea Benjamin, founder of the brilliant and rambunctious anti-war Code Pink movement. I was moved by Alan Stopper, a sort of Johnny Appleseed figure, personally handing out cards for his start-up “Fruit of Peace” project to plant olive tree saplings in Palestine. I ran into a friend who works for the New Israel Fund, a major sponsor of the conference, which advocates for religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel. And I ran into the rabbi who is tutoring my son for his Bar Mitzvah. Despite my ambivalence about Israel, about so many things, despite my own “way out of the box” journey, I felt like there was room for me in this huge and colorful tent.

“Between Two Worlds” addressed the very relevant question, “Who is entitled to speak for the tribe?” Filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman point out that there is “no Jewish pope,” no official Jewish opinion on anything. While the film centered on how the Jewish community has been divided over Israel, the tale of Kaufman’s interfaith family (her sister converted to Islam) is woven through the story. The intent of the film is to “provoke a new kind of conversation” because “we all face censorship and exclusion.” Interfaith families will certainly find resonance in that statement.

So how do the themes of Israel and intermarriage interplay? At a conference session entitled “Can Young Jews Reclaim (or Redefine) a Robust Connection to Israel?” the presenters set forth at least two theories for why so many young Jews are alienated from Israel. One theory, highlighted by Peter Beinart in a controversial piece in the New York Review of Books, posits that “leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens,” thus alienating young progressive Jews. Intermarriage was not even mentioned in Beinart’s piece.

In contrast, at the conference this week, researcher Steven M. Cohen repeated his assertion that “all of the decline” in attachment to Israel is caused by intermarriage. A lot of debate ensued, but no actual interfaith children spoke out. So I found myself at the microphone, making a statement along these lines…

As an interfaith child and parent, I am averse to strict dichotomies, to the “either/or.” It is not either intermarriage, or distress over civil rights issues in Israel, causing our alienation. The two causes are inextricably linked: a classic “both/and.” As interfaith families, we are more affected by dissonance in Israel. As people with Christian and Muslim family members, we cannot help empathizing with more than one side. And if we are “patrilineal Jews,” we live with the irony that the Jewish state does not allow us religious marriages or burials.

Nonetheless, I left the conference with a sense of hope. Hope, that the new Jewish communities and organizations being created by a millenial generation with greater tolerance for complexity will make more space for interfaith families. And more space for both peace and more democracy in Israel.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press. Paperback release on October 21, 2014.

Interfaith Bar Mitzvah: A Planning Report

We are an interfaith family, but in many respects, we are preparing for a “typical” Bar Mitvah. I am busy figuring out how to whittle the gargantuan guest list to fit the intimate space and the vision of a meaningful day with the people who truly know and love my son. I am working with the caterer on a menu free of crabcakes and Smtihfield ham (not easy in the Chesapeake watershed). Do we need a photographer? Do we need flowers?

Meanwhile, my son has mastered chanting the blessings for before and after the reading of the Torah. He’s working on learning his Torah portion (called a parsha) and on some of the other central prayers he will lead in this Shabbat service. And he is thinking about the meaning of his parsha, discussing it with rabbis and mentors, and figuring out what he will say about it in the speech known as a D’var Torah. All very traditional tasks.

But at the same time, we are very mindful of the fact that Jews are a minority in our community of friends, and in my son’s family tree. And we want to convey the fact that my son is transitioning into adulthood at the heart of an interfaith community, the community we chose when he was still an infant. So we are designing a service and a program that will explain every element of the ceremony, every prayer and ritual, instead of using a standard prayer book. The intent is to be as welcoming, inclusive, personalized and comprehensible as possible.

When we say the Sh’ma, we will explain the central role of this prayer in Judaism. When we say the Shehechiyanu, we will explain how this prayer is used to celebrate reaching any joyous occasion (even a meshugganah interfaith Bar Mitzvah!). When my son says the V’ahavtah, we will not only include the English translation (“Thou shalt love the Lord…”) but we will explain that this is the prayer from Deuteronomy found on the scroll in every mezuzah, (which will also mean explaining, “What’s a mezuzah?”).

And we will point out the words in the V’ahavtah, “thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children,” because that is the point, or at least one of the points, of gathering our family and friends as our son comes of age. My father married a Christian, but he made sure I learned this prayer. I married a Christian, but I made sure my children learned this prayer. Our family may be wild and woolly, patrilineal renegades, motley, mixed, outside the box, beyond the pale. Some think we are sadly mistaken. And yet we are serious, willing to put time and considerable effort into the religious education of our children. We strive to be diligent.


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