Video: An Interfaith Boy, an Interfaith Community

 

When my mother, an interfaith families pioneer, watched this video, she said, “Well Sue, you don’t need to go out on speaking tours anymore–just have everyone watch this video instead.” I think she was kidding. I mean I hope so. But she has a point, because this charming and thoughtful credo, in the voice and words of a 13-year-old, makes the case for interfaith education, in under five minutes. So please do watch “The Interfaith Musings of Raphael B.”

I have known Raphael since he was a small boy with deep questions: questions that drove his parents to seek out an interfaith community. This spring, Raphael completed eighth grade, and the Coming of Age curriculum at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). As part of that program, he spent a year reflecting on his interfaith education with psychologist Dan Griffin, his official mentor from the IFFP community. One result was this thought-provoking video, first screened at our group Coming of Age ceremony earlier this month. (And Rapha, thanks for the shout-out to my book, Being Both!).

So if you are worried that interfaith children raised with both religions will end up confused or disengaged, you could read my book for reassurance. Or, you could spend five minutes listening to Raphael as he describes how he feels, right now, about being an interfaith kid in an interfaith community.

 

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

 

New Family Traditions: Creating Rituals (Interfaith or Otherwise)

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As interfaith families raising children with two religions, we often find ourselves creating new rituals as we go through life honoring both family traditions. Starting with the design of an interfaith marriage, and moving on through welcoming an interfaith child, coming of age, and ultimately facing death, we draw from both religions and cultures, respecting the integrity of each, and yet compelled to also innovate in order to form a coherent whole that highlights the interconnections in our families. As a result, we are sometimes accused of being “inauthentic,” or watering down our religions, or creating a third religion. But those of us who live interfaith lives, through marriage or birth, escape early from the fear of change or innovation, and learn quickly the beauty and power of creating new rituals.

In The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day, author Meg Cox encourages all of us (whether interfaith or monofaith) to create our own family-specific rituals. She goes further, advocating for the right of all families to take inspiration from rituals of other religions and cultures. In the author’s preface to the revised 2012 edition of her popular book, Cox writes, “When it comes to ritual (and loads of other things), parents should feel free to borrow from good ideas that are already circulating, no matter that another family’s tree was planted in a different country or a different type of soil.”

Cox describes the rituals that different families have created for moments large and small, including bedtime, daycare drop-off, gardening, first menstruation, leaving for college, and both pet and family deaths. The book would be equally useful to those families that are secular, spiritual but not religious, or deeply religious.

Cox does describe many religious inspirations including Quaker and Buddhist blessings for meals, weekly family nights created by Catholic and Mormon parents, and Native American, Celtic and African traditions. The strength and heart of this book dwell in the ideas for everyday rituals and rituals for “non-religious” events such as getting a driver’s license or traveling by plane. Cox does not attempt to compile a compendium of world religious holidays, though she does have sections on rituals for Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, Easter and Passover. (This blog is mentioned in the Passover section).

As a parent, I wish this book had existed when my children were still small. As an interfaith parent, of course I have created rituals for my family, but Cox describes many more ways in which family life can be enriched by the intentional pairing of words and actions, imparting greater meaning to our lives. Some of these rituals work not just for parents, but for couples without children, singles, and empty-nesters. I intend to embrace more of them, starting today.

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.

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.

 

Interfaith Child: The Bar Mitzvah Plan

So the decision has been made, we have two rabbis involved, and we’re heading for a Bar Mitzvah this spring. Over the winter vacation, my son, 13, even got to study his Hebrew with my 86-year-old father, who happens to be his only Jewish grandparent.

Some folks are curious, bewildered, or even disgruntled, about why we would undertake the involved process of Bar Mitzvah preparation for a child raised in an interfaith community. Let me try to explain.

Many of our reasons should sound familiar: we want our child to learn the Sabbath prayers, affirm a deep connection to Judaism, celebrate his imminent manhood, and have the formative experience of standing up and leading a worship service. And we want to provide an opportunity to bring the generations of our family and friends together, to kvell and feel nachas and dance a joyful hora.

So why is this Bar Mitzvah different from all others? My child’s family tree includes more Christian than Jewish branches. Celebrating a coming of age together provides a chance to share with extended family the possibility of interfaith community. We will honor and acknowledge all of my son’s heritage in this rite of passage, including a blessing from our interfaith minister. Coming from our interfaith worldview, it would be both inauthentic and disrespectful to do otherwise.

Judaism’s Hebrew liturgy has survived through the millenia, through the diaspora, through the Holocaust. When my children learn to decipher Hebrew, and recite Hebrew prayers, they affirm their connection to this powerful history. But at the same time, all religions and rituals evolve over time, and Judaism is no different. In creating a coming of age ceremony that reflects the full heritage of my children, we realize that we are pushing boundaries.

In designing these ceremonies for my children, I try not to become completely paralyzed by the (often conflicting) “requirements” for a Bar Mitzvah, issued by various sages and authorities. The truth is that the Bar Mitzvah tradition is not an ancient one. Since I began planning for my daughter’s coming-of-age five years ago, I have spent a lot of time fending off the “a Bar Mitzvah has to include such-and-such” statements. With each of my children, I have tried to help them craft a rite of passage best suited to their own place in their spiritual journey.

Technically, a child who reaches the age of 13 becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (“son or daughter of the commandment”), whether or not a ceremony occurs. Originally, reaching this age simply meant the child could now fully participate in Jewish rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur or counting as part of a minyan. In the Middle Ages, this milestone began to be recognized by calling the Bar Mitzvah boy up to the bimah for the first time, to say the blessings over the Torah reading, in what is known as an aliyah. More recently, the tradition of the first aliyah at age 13 evolved into chanting all of the Shabbat prayers, the entire Torah portion, and the accompanying haftorah. My son will lead prayers, and chant from the Torah.

I know only too well from personal experience that as interfaith children we are constantly called on to defend our Jewish identities, and that saying I “had a Bar Mitzvah” helps to deflect these inquiries. In creating these ceremonies for our children, we arm them with a positive retort when questioned on this subject. This does not diminish the fact that the actual day of celebration for my daughter was truly a spiritual experience for her, for her parents, and for many of the Jews and Christians who shared it with us. And I know that it will be just as meaningful for my son, in the spring.

Interfaith Couples: No Longer Odd

Last Sunday,  I found myself serving as an après-theater panelist at that lively downtown institution, the DCJCC (Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center). Having spent much of my adult life as a sort of Jewish outlaw, wandering in the wilderness through two generations of intermarriage, I experienced both an illicit thrill and a sense of homecoming when I saw my bio on the DCJCC’s website.

Theater J at the DCJCC produced an affectionate and sophisticated revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 play “The Odd Couple.” Sitting between my husband and my rabbi in Theater J’s jewel-box theater, all three of us were snorting with laughter. I grew up watching “The Odd Couple”  television series in the 1970s, which wasn’t bad for television. But at Theater J, a perfect cast delivered each perfect line with perfect timing.

Then at the end of the show, I got to climb onstage and sit on the couch used by Oscar and Felix, alongside the other panelists: my husband, my two best rabbi friends, a Unitarian minister married to a Jewish woman, a Jewish woman married to a Hindu man, and a lesbian woman raised Jewish with a partner raised Catholic. Rabbi Tamara Miller organized the panel around the question of whether intermarried couples are “Odd Couples” in our society today.

Each of us answered, “no.” Collectively, as gay couples, interfaith couples, interracial couples, step-parents and adoptive parents, we don’t feel odd in 2010, at least not in our urban, progressive corner of the world. In fact, we have the chutzpah to feel we represent the norm. Rabbi Harold White suggested that rather than use the negative term “odd,” we define ourselves positively as in relationship with the “other,” keeping in mind that kadosh in Hebrew means both “holy” and “other.”

Theater J prides itself on pushing artistic and cultural boundaries, so “The Odd Couple” constitutes relatively tame fare for them. The next show to open there will be “Oy Vey in a Manger” starring the drag queens known as the Kinsey Sicks. By reflecting “The Odd Couple” through an interfaith lens, (in fact, by appearing on a panel at a JCC in the first place), I tried to provide a bit of controversy yesterday, though the audience was small. As I have often noted, many Jewish institutions find interfaith issues even more fraught than gay and lesbian issues: there are certainly rabbis performing gay marriages who will not perform interfaith marriages.

After my visit to the DCJCC this week–the first, I hope, of many–I was filled with cautious hope that some progressive Jewish institutions are finally beginning to acknowledge that those of us raising interfaith children really do want to stay connected to Judaism, despite our stubborn insistence on teaching our children about Christianity. During intermission at the play, I asked my rabbi if he would officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. His reply: “Of course.” Perhaps it is slightly, well, odd, for a child with only one Jewish grandparent to plan a Bar Mitzvah. If anyone wants to argue that it is somehow bad for the Jews for my son to learn the Sabbath prayers, bring it on!

Yom Kippur in Our Interfaith Family

 

I cannot quite let go of Yom Kippur yet. As happens in many years, my introspection on this Day of Awe was deep enough to have changed me, at least for now. I want to keep the sense of the new year, the desire to improve, as long as possible. I want to remember the benefits of unplugging, stepping back, tunneling inside my own head. And while many would (mis)characterize the observance of our interfaith families as somehow “light” on the invisible scale used to weigh Jewish practice, this Holy Day was utterly fulfilling for me.

First of all, I was pleased that my entire family (my Christian husband, both my interfaith teens) decided to fast together this year. For my thirteen-year-old son, this was his first time, and it served as reassurance to this Jewish mother that he is, indeed, coming of age, and that he, does, indeed, take pride in his Jewish identity, no matter what kind of ceremony or Bar Mitzvah we might end up creating to mark this transition.

In some years, I have found fasting alone to be difficult, especially if I did not have the luxury (living abroad in cities without synagogues, or as a mother of young children) of day-long services. This year, my fast was easier due to the solidarity provided by a whole family chorus of rumbling tummies, and to the accountability provided by many sets of sympathetic eyes when passing through the kitchen.

We met up with our interfaith families community for a final hour of prayer and repentance, led by our teen group, and to break the fast together. The service started with a moment of creative chaos. Luckily, being an interfaith “project,” we posess well-oiled flexibility. In this case, the staff person from the Unitarian church did not show up to let us in the doors. So, seeing as it was a gorgeous fall day, we all unloaded the folding soccer-mom chairs from our minivans and set up on the lovely deck under the trees, prepared to hold an outdoor Yom Kippur. Quite a few community members independently came up with some version of this wry metaphor: we may be marginalized as interfaith families, locked out, but we will persist in celebrating Yom Kippur anyway. It was a totally unscripted and unanticipated moment of interfaith community bonding.

In the end, we got into the sanctuary at the last moment (setting off an alarm, which added to the chaos). After a moment of centering, the service finally began. At the apex, a Jewish dad from our community, Bob, chanted the Kol Nidre, one of the central, haunting prayers of Yom Kippur. The gorgeous, resonant, minor melody floated over and through us three times, each time louder, each time with deeper emotion. In those moments, there was nothing “light” about our observance of this day. No professional cantor could have sung more soulfully.

The closing moment of the service was provided by my young friend Cheney. Cheney has autism, and he also has a mystical affinity for Judaism. He was given a shofar at his Bar Mitzvah (at which, yes, he did chant his Torah portion).  So at Yom Kippur, my sixteen-year-old daughter, who has been friends with Cheney since she was born, had the honor of calling out the final Tekiah Gedolah to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast. And Cheney, looking radiant and positively rabbinical with a full beard on his teenage chin, stood in front of his congregation and blew a perfect, long note on his shofar. I plan to hang onto the echo of that note for as long as possible. I am thinking it will carry me all the way to next year.

Interfaith Teens: Staying Engaged

This weekend, my thirteen-year-old son officially began his Coming of Age (COA) year by going whitewater rafting on the Potomac River. The trip fosters bonding among the teens and other “COA kids” from the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I suppose this kind of rowdy, outdoor adventure kicks off the year in all sorts of teen groups–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular humanist. What makes this trip unique is the fact that these particular kids are coming of age surrounded by and supported by other interfaith teens.

Most religious institutions struggle with keeping teenagers engaged. After formal religious school ends, parents ease up on attendance, and it can be tough to compete for time with the AP classes, the high school sports programs, the college searches. But in our family, our kids know better than to take our interfaith community for granted. They know that many interfaith kids do not have such a community nearby. And they know that both of their parents have dedicated a lot of time and thought to building and maintaining this community for them.

So yesterday, my 16-year-old daughter woke up and spent her last morning of summer, her last day before starting her junior year, singing Hinay Mah Tov and even dancing with me under a spreading oak tree at our first IFFP Gathering of the year. Some folks traveled up to an hour to celebrate the start of the year with other interfaith families. This pull, the desire to be with those who fully share our interfaith experience, is strong indeed.

During the hour-long Gathering, my daughter did whisper at times with a friend, and crammed in a little bit of last-minute summer Spanish homework. But she also smiled over at me during favorite songs and at moments when a phrase or thought resonated with her. She may have been half-listening, but she was also continuing to soak up good stuff, including the sense of support from a multigenerational community, and intellectual content including a reflection on the pre-Judaic origins of the Sabbath among the ancient Sumerians.

After the Gathering, a hundred interfaith families potlucked together, and silkscreened gorgeous T-shirts in rainbow colors with our logo: the Venn diagram that represents our interlocking religions. A couple of teens helped with the silkscreening. The teens also met briefly under a tree about the Yom Kippur service they will lead next month. Then my daughter went to a planning meeting with the two dads (one Jewish, one Christian) who will teach the kindergarten class in our interfaith Sunday School this year. They are new to the classroom, and she is the old-timer now in her third year as a teen assistant, advising on which craft projects will be successful, and classroom management.

This year, my son will join his big sister in giving back to our community. On the Sunday mornings when the Coming of Age class does not meet (because sometimes it meets in the evenings, to make it more exciting), he will wake up anyway, and accompany the rest of the family to IFFP. There, he will work in the nursery, following in his sister’s footsteps, being a cool interfaith teen role model. Both my children have a lot of competition for their time: heavy academic workloads, and active social lives. But they also understand how lucky we are to live in this time and place, pioneering an interfaith community.

Interfaith Coming of Age: Group Ceremony

I have taught every grade level from kindergarten through high school. But my favorite students are middle schoolers: just opening to the world, still tender, but surging with energy. Adolescence is a threshold, a liminal state, a state of being both child and adult, and I am inordinately attracted to the liminal, to bothness.

Yesterday, we celebrated our annual group Coming of Age ceremony at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) with songs and blessings for the eighth-graders completing our dual-faith religious education program. During this gathering, each of the teens gave a speech or presented a project, bravely baring their adolescent souls and musing on topics both intimate and philosophical: the unconditional love of pets, the  power of music, exclusion and inclusion, the intertwining of two faiths, kindness, the shadow of the Holocaust, the existence or non-existence of God.

Our minister, Julia Jarvis, reminded us all that the community is still there to support these teenagers as they emerge into adulthood. She charged the adults: “You are a container that holds them right now, like the glass holds the wine.” And our rabbi, Harold White, addressed the teens: “You now assume responsibility to become a part of a community. This is not a graduation from IFFP, it’s becoming a more integral part of it.”

The rabbi recalled his own Bar Mitzvah, 65 years ago, in the midst of World War II. Both his older brothers were fighting in the Pacific at the time, and his portion from Isaiah included the very relevant, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” The rabbi went on to list all the wars he has lived through in the intervening decades and told the interfaith teens: “Your challenge for the future is to be ambassadors of peace.”

Then, each teen came up to speak. The first made liberal reference to his influences in the Christian, Jewish and secular worlds, citing Martin Luther King, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and the Torah. His summation: “both religions have a lot to teach the world.” Another concluded: “I don’t have the answers but now I have a better idea of what the questions are.” A third had the community listen to mixed-race musician Michael Franti‘s anguished peace anthem “Hey World.” Said the interfaith teen, “What if you lived life as a kind person in one religion, and then died and found out you should have been a Catholic?…If life is all about choosing the right God, then life has a few flaws.”

Then, together, we celebrated the shared ethical heart of Jewish and Christian traditions. The rabbi chanted the Ten Commandments from a torah that survived the Holocaust. The reverend read the words of Jesus on the greatest commandment, from the Gospel of Mark. And then Rob Liebreich, one of our marvelous Coming of Age teachers (a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman with two young children born into our community) reenacted Rabbi Hillel reciting the essence of the Torah while hopping on one foot.

Rob and his co-teacher Joan Bellsey spent the past year shepherding these students through individual community service projects, white-water rafting, the Holocaust Museum, planning a fundraiser for Haiti, and a solo wilderness excursion. Rob described the Coming of Age program as creating “voices that understand they have power to express what they feel…this is what we nurture.” And he added that these very young and very thoughtful adults “have faith. It may not be the faith you want them to have, but it’s theirs.”

I suspect that for many of our children raised in two worlds, whether or not they settle into the practice of a single religion, drawing on both sides of their identity will continue to provide energy to fuel their bridge-building activities. As it does for Michael Franti, and for Barack Obama. For me, as for many of these emerging adults in the vigorous hybrid generation, choosing is not the issue; the issue is explaining to the world the vital essence of bothness.