“But Do You Actually Worship Together?”

Oak Tree II

On Sunday, our interfaith community met in the shade of an ancient oak tree. We spread blankets under the leafy canopy—new parents with babies, engaged couples, empty nesters. We stood, and chanted the Shema, and the Lord’s Prayer, and sang an Irish blessing. Those struggling with illness or sadness got up to place pebbles in a bowl, to share their burden with the community. Our minister reflected on the story of Jacob and Esau. Then, we sang the Hamotzi over our potluck feast. I crossed the lawn to greet our rabbi, a chaplain at Georgetown, who was decked out in a jaunty T-shirt reading “Georgetown” in Hebrew.

Our community encompasses Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Buddhists, Jews of every stripe, agnostics and atheists. We come together in spite of our diverse and divergent theologies. But for many interfaith families, we are the only spiritual home, the only place they feel comfortable. I don’t call what we do together worship, because for me, theology is not the point. Rather, the community itself, and the primal experience of singing together and sharing our joys and concerns, creates the neurological response that humans label spirituality. It has little to do with belief, and much to do with making art together and providing support for each other in times of trouble.

In our community, we call this a Gathering rather than a worship service. Each Gathering begins with this responsive reading written by Oscar Rosenbloom, a founding member of the Interfaith Community of Palo Alto:

Reader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community

To share and celebrate the gift of life together

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel

Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth

Some of us gather influenced by each

Reader: However we come, and whoever we are

May we be moved, In our time together

To experience that sense of Divine presence in each of us

Evoked by our worship together

All: And to know in the wisdom of our hearts

That deeper unity in which all are one.

Ten years into our journey with this interfaith community, my chidren have memorized the Shema, the Hamotzi, the Lord’s Prayer. They also recite by heart that interfaith responsive reading. They can articulate their sense of connection to this community, and the songs and readings stir their souls. Our community is an immense tree with branches growing in all directions, representing Jewish, Christian and other beliefs. No matter how much it irks some religious institutions, we insist on standing together to create a motley but massive trunk for this tree, a strong support for our children to climb and explore.

 

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

Back to School: Dual-Faith Religious Education

Interfaith Families Project--"stained glass" made in Sunday School

Tomorrow our community of over 100 interfaith families will picnic together for the kickoff of the school year. In our Sunday School, children learn about both Judaism and Christianity. It is a radical concept, but one that is spreading to new cities each year as more and more interfaith families choose to educate their children about both religions.

My children have attended this program since kindergarten, and they are now 15 and 12. When my daughter graduated from Sunday School at the end of 8th grade, she chose to keep coming with us on Sundays and became a teacher’s helper in the kindergarten class.

Many adults grew up hating Sunday School. Our community strives to make the experience as interactive and multi-sensory as possible, using storytelling, music, art and field trips. My daughter helps the kindergartners learn songs they will encounter in synagogues and churches—the roving music teacher comes into the class with a guitar to sing “It’s a Tree of Life” as well as “This Little Light of Mine.”

My daughter helps the children with craft projects: maybe constructing a tzedakah (charity) box to put coins in. Or decorating a cloth matzoh or challah cover with fabric markers. Or making “stained glass” with translucent gels on plexiglass. In fourth grade, after learning about the Christian story of the loaves and the fishes, her class used real fish to make Japanese fishprints on T-shirts.

My son, at 12, is just entering the two-year Coming of Age program. Last year, his classes included Hebrew literacy as well as a historical and theological survey of the Jewish and Christian denominations. They went on field trips to a local Reform Shabbat service, a Jewish museum, a Quaker meeting, and a Catholic mass. Each student presented reports on different denominations. My son chose to study the Mennonites, one of the religions in his complex personal ancestry. He also thrilled his classmates in his presentation on Chasidic Judaism by showing a youtube video of rapper Matisyahu and analyzing some of his lyrics.

As my son enters the two-year Coming of Age process, we will help him to decide how he wants to mark his passage into adulthood. We know he will participate in our group Coming of Age ceremony at the end of those two years. He could also have an individual ceremony, as his sister did. Will it be labeled a Bar Mitzvah? Will he read from the Torah? Does he want a Christian confirmation? Or will it be an integrated Jewish and Christian ceremony? Does he have to choose now, at the brink of 13? Does he have to choose later? Does he have to choose? To follow the story, follow the blog!

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.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.

A Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. 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 benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

Perfect Pitch, or Polyrhythms

A fascinating story in today’s Washington Post describes how some Japanese children develop perfect pitch after their parents train them throughout the day, over a period of years. I admire these parents, just as I admire the parents who work hard to instill Jewish identity in their children through daily practice and sacrifice. I certainly admire my own mother, who schlepped us to Hebrew school, came with us to temple, and even tried studying Hebrew, though she never converted to Judaism.

I regret a bit that I did not work with my children to help them develop perfect pitch. It seems like a magical quality. But at the conclusion of the article, an American music professor states that he’s not sure many Americans would want their children to be so specialized at such a young age. He says, “In our culture…we seem to want our children to be well-rounded, involved in a multitude of activities.”

In choosing dual religious training for my children, I decided I wanted them to be well-rounded, even though I knew I was forgoing the benefits of total immersion in one religion. The musical metaphor for their training might be polyrhythms—the simultaneous playing of more than one independent rhythm.

Is it possible to become a musician without perfect pitch? Of course. I suspect American musicians even have some easy, swinging quality they might not have had with more rigid musical training early in childhood. Is it possible to become a good Jew or a good Christian after a childhood straddling both religions? Those who convert later in life often have a zeal, or flair, which comes from the experience of choosing a religion as an adult.

I made my choices for my children, knowing that there would be benefits and drawbacks. I realize they may never have the ability to name the individual notes in a piece of music, as if hearing in a third dimension. And it will be harder for them to develop fluency in Hebrew or the sense of unquestioned belonging in either religion. But if they decide they want to convert to Judaism, or Christianity, they will have a well-rounded religious training on which to build. I don’t have any expectation that they will choose one religion, or not choose. I do expect them to improvise, to swing, and feel music and spirit in their bones, whatever music it may be.

To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew

I appreciate the in-your-face “we can call ourselves whatever we want” quality of the half-Jew movement. Many of us have issues with the fact that Jews can’t even agree on who is a Jew, and yet they try to tell us we can’t call ourselves half-Jews.

Traditional Jewish law known as halacha specifies that either you’re a Jew (because your mother was a Jew) or you’re not. Your Jewish father? He’s, uh, chopped liver. But since 1983, Reform Jews have officially accepted either matrilineal or patrineal half-Jews as Jews, as long as they have been “raised Jewish.” The seemingly endless arguments over “Who is a Jew” continue to alienate interfaith families.

Meanwhile, many of us insist that being half-Jewish is a unique and even positive state, despite widespread disapproval. A spunky website called halfJew.org died an untimely death after vicious flaming shut down the comments section. But in the 21st century, it will be hard to ignore half-Jews as we come into our own. By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America. As Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network points out, “If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.” You can read great blog posts just this month about being half-Jewish at jezebel.com and thefbomb.com.

Personally, while I’m cheering on the half-Jew movement, I usually identify myself as an interfaith child rather than a half-Jew. I like the positive associations of interfaith—of cooperation, of interweaving, and even the possibility that we are talking about faith or spirituality, as well as culture. I don’t like the way “half-Jew” ignores and diminishes my other half. I identify myself as a whole, not as a fractional Jew. And I have common ground with interfaith children who aren’t Jewish at all—whether they’re Muslim/Hindu, or Christian/Buddhist. Finally, I think about my own children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” patrilineal quarter at that. Our family shares a label, a community, a history now. We’re not a half-Jewish family. We’re an interfaith family.

My Interfaith Declaration

I’m an interfaith child. I’m not confused or lost. I embrace my Jewish and Christian family. I explore the history and rituals of both religions. It is natural for me to switch off between my Jewish and Christian lenses, the way I switch between my reading glasses and my distance glasses. Each pair is useful. I carry them both with me. I need both perspectives.

I’m also an interfaith parent. My children are not confused or lost. They have been raised to celebrate both their family religions.  They have learned about both traditions in a religious education program with over 100 other interfaith children in Washington, DC. Our interfaith community here is part of a growing, international movement of interfaith families who do not want to choose one parent’s religion over the other. My children know that this choice is still unusual and highly controversial. They take pride in being different, in learning both Hebrew and parables. They wear the progressive lenses that fuse two ways of looking at the world.

I have hesitated for years before launching this blog, in part because I know it will attract some anger from both individuals and institutions. But as I advise interfaith families and groups around the country, as we forge this hybrid universe together, I wanted to create a forum to share our stories. I invite you to be brave, and do just that.