7 Ways for Interfaith Families to Find Community

This year, I posted my annual roundup of communities that welcome interfaith families over on my Huffington Post blog, in order to reach more interfaith families looking for comfortable spiritual or religious or secular homes. I hope you’ll take a look. It includes mention of Jewish, Humanistic Jewish, Ethical Society, Unitarian-Univeralist and interfaith family communities…


Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are about to become interfaith parents. And as interfaith parents, they are about to face an ongoing series of decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith children. This time of year, with the nip of autumn in the air to remind us of the passage of time, and the Jewish High Holidays fast approaching (September 24th and October 3rd), many interfaith families are making the annual decision on whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both…  Click here to continue

Chelsea’s Marriage as Interfaith Story of the Year: Top Five Reasons

After scouring the various lists of “top religion stories of the year,” I was frustrated, but not surprised, to find nary a mention of interfaith families, let alone Chelsea Clinton’s interfaith marriage last August.

About 100 reporters from the Religion Newswriters Association voted on their top 20 religion stories from 2010. Many of the top stories were not about religion, per se, but religious angles on major news events: the Haiti earthquake, the rise of the Tea Party, bullying of gay teens, immigration reform. Somehow, Julia Roberts got mentioned for converting to Hinduism after appearing in the movie version of “Eat, Pray, Love.” But strangely, the word “interfaith” does not even appear anywhere on this list. Too often, religion reporters seem to gravitate to the religion beat because of their own faith, whatever faith that may be. They do not seem to understand, or give much press to, those of us who cross religious boundaries.

Over at Huffington Post, crowd-sourcing produced what seemed to me to be a more thoughtful and savvy list of nominees for Religion Story of the Decade, including the growth of the “Interfaith Movement.” The Interfaith Movement is not synonymous with the Interfaith Families Movement: most clergy engaged in religious dialogue have yet to fully acknowledge the vast numbers of dual-belonging and intermarried folks, and fully include us in their parliaments and pow-wows. Nonetheless, HuffPo’s acknowledgement of religious bridging, if not literal religious cross-fertilization, provides a certain satisfaction.

Since no one else seems to be picking Chelsea’s wedding as religion story of the year, I will just have to go ahead and do it myself. Interfaith marriage has occurred since ancient times. So why was this celebrity wedding such a big deal to interfaith families? Here are five reasons:

1. This wedding brought all of the issues surrounding intermarriage to the national and international media and launched a thousand blogposts and editorials. While some of the Jewish bloggers were angsty and even negative about the marriage, the opportunity to post comments led to a thousand discussions on my favorite topic. And discussion is good.

2. This wedding normalized interfaith marriage in the American political elite and highlighted respected leaders (Bill and Hillary) as gracious in-laws who did not issue so much as a peep of protest or concern when their daughter married a Jewish man under a chuppah. Truly, times have changed.

3. This wedding stands in to signify what I think is the most important trend in American religion.  A year ago, the Pew Research Center released a report concluding that “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” This news did not come as a shock to anyone in an interfaith marriage, since intermarriage is one of the driving forces behind this trend.

4. This wedding created an opportunity for intermarried couples to relive a key moment in their own stories. Did you find a rabbi and a minister willing to perform your intermarriage? If not, how did that impact your choice of religious affiliation? A recent, poignant essay recounts the pain caused when “Chelsea’s rabbi” refused to marry another interfaith couple, years ago. After Chelsea’s wedding, Rabbi James Ponet wrote of how his thinking, and the thinking of many Reform rabbis, has evolved to allow him to perform interfaith ceremonies. He writes eloquently of the Jews as an “ever-evolving” people.

5. This wedding created a moment of festivity, of vindication, of positive energy for interfaith families around the globe. In a year when major media continue to twist the slim research and publish opinions to discourage interfaith marriage, I could not help but enjoy the chance for national celebration of the growing acceptance of interfaith unions.

So thank you to Chelsea and Marc, and to Bill and Hillary, and to Rabbi Ponet and Reverend William Shillady, for brightening my interfaith year.

100 Essays: Interfaith Children, Interfaith Parents, Interfaith Families

I have now posted 100 essays on this blog: essays on interfaith identity, interfaith community, interfaith parenting, interfaith marriage. And yes, these are essays, not just “blogposts.” For 25 years, I wrote for Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, New Scientist…and now I write for this blog. So I defend my online work as writing, while also claiming the blogger title.

Early on, I decided to buck the conventional wisdom that blog-readers do not want to read more than a paragraph or two. As much as I like to “drive traffic” to my blog, my primary goal here is to create a body of reflections on interfaith life, and to provide hope and encouragement to interfaith couples who continue to wrestle with distressed relatives, with misinformed or disapproving clergy, with the constant refrain of “you have to choose one.” To explain our complex and controversial approach to “doing both,” to provide detail and humor and depth, requires a longer essay format. So thank you for staying with me, and not clicking away after 200 words. The community connected through this blog continues to grow, and to spread geographically, so I do not think I overestimated your attention span.

While writing these hundred essays, I have witnessed a sort of coming-of-age for the idea of a more fluid and flexible interfaith identity. The election of our biracial President, a man raised in multiple cultures in two countries, exposed to multiple religions, brought widespread public attention to the idea of our shared hybrid future. The high-profile interfaith marriage of Chelsea Cinton marked another great “coming out” moment for interfaith couples. Meanwhile, surveys have been uncovering what many of us in interfaith families have known all along: that people will define their own spirituality, choose the rituals that still have meaning for them, and switch religious affiliations as adults. And, finally, prominent rabbis have begun to speak out about the need to accept the fact that some interfaith families are going to choose to educate their children about both religions, and they have even begun to imply that this might not be the end of the world, or even the end of the Jews.

The idea of a “half-Jewish” identity is now so de rigeur in the Jewish community that even those who are not half-Jewish are trying to ride the wave: I was amazed and amused recently to read the title of a one-man show currently touring Jewish community centers and theater festivals: “Elon Gold: Half Jewish, Half Very Jewish.” Gold was raised Orthodox, went to Jewish day school, keeps Kosher and doesn’t perform on the Sabbath. This comedian is 100% Jewish, almost any way you want to define it. But he’s riffing on the fact that it’s a half-Jewish zeitgeist out there right now. And he’s probably trying to appeal to all the Jews with interfaith marriages in their families, which is just about all of them, as Jewish intermarriage has reached 80% in some cities.

Meanwhile, Krista Tippett, the host of the most influential religion show on public radio, is changing the name of her program from “Speaking of Faith” to “On Being.” I like to think she’s been reading this blog. But the truth is that both of us have been charting the shift away from religious doctrines and institutions, and toward independent spiritual practices and communities. Tippett’s canvas is broad, all-encompassing, wide-ranging, while I continue to try to chart the untold story of one category of star-crossed interfaith lovers, lovers often forced to defy their families, their institutions, their tribal rules.

So far, publishers have had trouble understanding how to market a book on “being both.” They fret, “It doesn’t fit into any of our categories.” The irony, of course, is that not fitting into those little boxes is precisely the topic at hand. At some point, publishers will understand who we are, understand “being both.” Whether or not you are in an interfaith family yourself, all of you who follow this blog understand that if we venture out of our boxes to dance and converse and study together, the world will be a better place.

Chelsea’s Interfaith Wedding: Recognition and Transcendence

An interfaith wedding took place yesterday, co-officiated by a Rabbi and a Minister: not a novel or remarkable event in my world, or for readers of this blog. But because, in this particular case, Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky, a lot of new voices suddenly joined our ongoing discussion on interfaith families.

As someone who thinks about and writes about little else, tracking the sudden proliferation of writing on interfaith marriage has moved me to sorrow, worry, gratitude and delight.

I feel sadness, because the comment sections on many posts have been filled with ignorance, tribalism and general small-mindedness from folks purporting to represent several different religions (and no religion). I am all too aware that I am raising my interfaith children in a progressive bubble, in a sophisticated urban center, and my heart goes out to interfaith families who have frequent and corrosive contact with such intolerance and bile.

I feel protective concern for the wonderful Rabbi James Ponet and Methodist Reverend William Shillady, who co-officiated at Marc and Chelsea’s wedding. Rabbi Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale University since 1981, now faces the wrath and disdain of Orthodox and Conservative Jews, who do not allow Rabbis to officiate at intermarriages (or allow marriage to start before sundown on the Sabbath, as this one did). He has also placed himself in the center of the continuing struggle in his own Reform Jewish movement over how far to go in welcoming interfaith couples. Some Reform rabbis refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings, some officiate but would not co-officiate with a Minister, some officiate only with the (unenforceable) condition that children be raised Jewish.

Those who draw these lines and struggle to maintain them await Rabbi Ponet’s words on how and why he decided to marry Marc and Chelsea. The rabbi is brilliant and thoughtful, as one would expect a rabbi at Yale to be. In an essay on the meaning of Hannukah, he wrote of “the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging.” Reading these words, one senses the how and the why of his decision.

I feel thankful for the spiritual and intellectual freedom afforded to clergy who work as university chaplains, rather than for congregations or denominational institutions. In a university setting, our priests and imams and rabbis and ministers can engage in deep and sustained interfaith collaboration, teaching and counseling together, modeling respect, sheltered to some degree from church and synagogue politics. Not coincidentally, both the minister who co-officiated at my own interfaith marriage (the Reverend Rick Spalding), and my beloved current rabbi (Rabbi Harold White), both of them pioneers in the interfaith field, work for universities.

Finally, the flurry of interfaith blogposts this week brought one thrilling moment: the deep satisfaction of feeling completely understood, known, seen. Rabbi Irwin Kula, a prominent author, posted a groundbreaking essay on Huffington Post that I hope will permanently shift the official discourse on interfaith families. Rabbi Kula concludes, “the more people love each other, and the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.”

Rabbi Kula is co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His co-President (and partner on a radio show) is Brad Hirschfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi.  Rabbi Hirschfeld recently published his own mind-blowing essay, in which he refuted the idea that exposing children to more than one faith will confuse them. Clearly, these two visionaries have been talking about all of the available pathways for interfaith families, and how to support those of us who have been supporting ourselves for a long time, outside of institutions and denominations.

For many years, I have been frustrated with “interfaith dialogue,” as spiritual leaders embraced each other at conferences and then urged everyone to retreat to their separate corners after the embrace, sidestepping the growing reality of interfaith families. Now, after the somewhat random occurrence of a celebrity wedding, as more and more clergy speak out about our reality, interfaith families have a chance to feel less invisible, more recognized. Recognized, not as a dilemma, a problem, an issue. Recognized as constructive, inspiring, even transcendent.

Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Why Do You Ask?

My Jewcy.com editor suggested I write a response to all the Jewish media interest in whether or not Chelsea Clinton is going to convert to Judaism. See my letter to Chelsea here. My heart goes out to Chelsea: she has to go through the entire interfaith journey in a very public way. You have to wonder if it made her hesitate about marriage. So many busybodies are going to have an opinion on how she should go about getting married, raising children, and having a fulfilling spiritual life. So I’m trying to avoid being one more busybody, and give some calm advice on staying strong and tuning out some of the extraneous voices. I’m hoping she will take time to walk labyrinths and meditate and listen to music and otherwise call on her own wise inner voice.

But my best advice is to have a really, really short engagement. That’s the way my interfaith parents did it. That’s the way my husband and I did it. Like me, like my parents, Chelsea and Mark  spent many, many years in courtship. Once you’ve made the decision, just go for it. Don’t give the buttinskys time to tell you how to do it or why it won’t work. Can I suggest February 13th? It’s my parents’ anniversary (yes, we started celebrating it three months early this year), and works nicely as a prelude to Valentine’s Day…

%d bloggers like this: