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.

“So what Are You? Jewish or Christian?”

Recently, my teenage daughter experienced a formative moment: someone expressed negative feelings about her Jewishness. Frankly, I was thrilled. The fact that she has faced a moment common to all of us with Jewish identity means my plan to raise my children with strong connections to both Judaism and Christianity is working.

My children, with only one Jewish grandparent, could have passed as Christians. But that was not our family strategy. Our intention was to make them equally proud, equally knowledgeable, about both family religions, so that when this formative moment arrived, they would stand up as Jews, and feel the bracing sting of being outsiders, rather than duck and pass.

I am quick to identify myself as Jewish, particularly to Christians and Muslims, when I sense an opportunity to further the cause of interfaith dialogue, or to dispel prejudice or misunderstanding.

Ironically, with fellow Jews I am more likely to identify myself as an interfaith child. This is a defense mechanism (many wouldn’t consider me Jewish anyway because I’m a patrilineal “half-Jew“). But it is also another part of my mission to educate: I want my fellow Jews to try to understand bothness, interfaithness, the extent to which multicultural people cannot be described in binary terms. And I want them to understand that, although I don’t describe myself as a flat-out Christian for theological reasons (I do not believe Jesus was the messiah), I feel my interfaith status gives me permission to explore all that is inspiring and profound in Christianity.

I am Jewish. I am an interfaith child. I am both. And I claim the right to bodysurf these waves of fluid identity as the spirit moves me. I stand bobbing in the ocean, lifting gently off the sand for small waves, throwing my body ahead of the larger ones, catching exhilirating rides. I am not intimidated by the power of religious tides and spiritual currents. I am in my element, and the water is fine.

Interfaith Child at Thirteen: Coming of Age? Bar Mitzvah?

Yesterday, my son turned thirteen. We are still working on a format for his Coming of Age ritual: interfaith children may take longer to reach a point where they want to stand up in front of a community and talk about their religious identity and commitments. Anyway, I do not believe, and Judaism does not dictate, that such a ritual has to occur precisely at the stroke of thirteen. But I admit that a little alarm went off somewhere deep in my Jewish consciousness: Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah! Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah!

In our interfaith families community,  seventh and eighth graders spend two years going through our Coming of Age curriculum. Each student chooses a mentor and a project that involves a community service component. The program culminates in a group Coming of Age ceremony, where each student talks about their project and the community recognizes that they have reached physical maturity, passed through our interfaith education program, and reached an age when they must draw on the ethical principals they have learned to take responsibility for their own actions.

For many families, the group ceremony meets their needs.  But for some families, this community process, more akin to Christian (or Jewish) confirmation than it is to a Bar Mitzvah, is not enough. Some families want an individual ceremony. We want to be able to host extended family and friends from outside our interfaith community: to create a family event on a par with a wedding, to give elderly relatives something to look forward to, especially grandparents who might not be around for the weddings of their grandchildren. We want our children to have the experience of crafting and leading an entire ceremony, to meet a rigorous challenge that both draws on and instills confidence.

In our community, an individual Coming of Age ceremony may or may not involve a Torah reading, and the young person leading the ceremony may or may not read in Hebrew from the Torah. The family may or may not choose to label the ceremony as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Historically, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony evolved in recent centuries:  it is not required by Jewish law. In fact, traditionally, all Jews automatically become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (daughter or son of the commandments) at the age of 13 (twelve for girls), whether or not they perform any specific ritual. Reaching this age entitles them to lead services, obligates them to follow the Jewish commandments, and officially relieves their parents of responsibility for the child!

In its most essential form, the Bar Mitzvah ritual involves being invited to make an aliyah for the first time—which means going up to the bimah (pulpit) and saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Over time, and in different denominations, the tradition has expanded to involve reading the Torah portion itself, reading the haftarah, giving a speech (a D’var Torah) about the Torah portion, and leading many of the Shabbat prayers. But the requirements vary from congregation to congregation, and our family has been to secular humanist Bar Mitzvahs where the Torah was not even present.

When my daughter was thirteen, she chose to have a Coming of Age ceremony in which she chanted the blessings over the Torah in Hebrew—and then read the Torah portion in English. I thought this was a wise decision because she will hear Hebrew blessings throughout her lifetime in every Shabbat service she attends. A Torah portion memorized in Hebrew, while it is a formidable feat, is rarely used again later in life. And for my daughter’s extended family, three-quarters of whom are Christian, the reading of the Torah portion in English had far greater meaning.

So was this a Bat Mitzvah? My daughter and I do not presume to refer to it as such, though my feisty (Jewish?) side tells me she could. My own Bat Mitzvah was entirely “by the book”—Torah portion chanted in Hebrew, haftarah, D’var Torah, all the Shabbat prayers. Often, when people challenge my right to a Jewish identity, I use the fact that I learned to read Hebrew and had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony as Jewish credentials. The Reform movement has encouraged, and even required, that interfaith children accomplish such rituals in order to call ourselves Jews.

In the end, there are an awful lot of loopholes. What constitutes a Bar Mitzvah? And then, inevitably, who is a Jew?

And yet, despite the ambiguities, the essence of the Bar Mitzvah tradition has power, and I claim that power for my children. I stand up and speak to them about who they are, our pride in them, their role in the world. They stand up and learn that they can be poised and articulate in front of our community. They see that their family, their Jewish family and their Christian family, will go to great lengths to be with them at important moments in their lives. They connect to the ancient traditions of Judaism (and by definition, Christianity) and feel the continuity of the generations flow through them.  And they learn, they know, that they can claim all this, and experience the beauty of such a ceremony, no matter what we label it, and no matter what others might say or think about it all.

Deep Pause: Interfaith Sabbath

We are blanketed now in three feet of snow, the outside world has become muffled and distant, and we are forced into a pause one could describe as an extended Shabbat. On the first night of the storm, which happened to be Friday, we had a spontaneous music jam with close friends who walked and skied to our house to play saxophone, ukulele, guitar and viola. On the second night, still without power,  our family huddled by the fireplace, in a pile of pillows and blankets, with the dog, the cat and the guinea pig all snuggled with us for warmth. With no internet or television, my daughter read out loud from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not exactly the “good book,” but indeed a very good and thought-provoking book that she happens to be reading for 10th grade English. The entire experience was restorative (until it got too darned cold, at which point we moved to a friend’s house).

I was lucky to have many moments like this one in my childhood, growing up in a happy interfaith family. But we  rarely performed the specific rituals of the formal Jewish Sabbath. We went faithfully to religious school every week at our Reform Temple, and we celebrated Passover and the High Holy Days, but Friday nights were pretty secular–devoted to school or social events. My mother, raised Episcopalian, did everything she could to raise us as Jews. But the 1960s and 70s were an assimilated period in Reform Judaism–rather dry, without the joy and juice of the Renewal or Chasidic movements. None of our Jewish friends seemed to celebrate the Sabbath very often, either. It probably didn’t help that we lived in a very Protestant little New England town, filled with white steeples and dominated by a Puritan anathema for displays of emotion or exoticism.

My children, though we are raising them in an interfaith community and not exclusively as Jews, have grown up celebrating Shabbat rituals more frequently than I did. And as often as not, it is my husband who reminds us to light the candles and say blessings on Friday. My husband, who grew up as an acolyte in the Episcopalian church. My husband, who offered to agree to raise our children as Jews.

Instead, I found and embraced the  interfaith spiritual home I had sought all of my life. And my husband followed where I went, helping to pioneer this new pathway, even stepping onto the Board of the Interfaith Families Project after I stepped down as a Board Chair. We are deeply committed, together, and our children see this and it helps to water their deep roots in this radical interfaith soil. And it also helps that our interfaith community, along with many Jewish and Christian communities these days, infuses song, spirituality and even mysticism into old rituals.

So on Friday nights, my daughter is happy to put to use the silver Kiddush cup and candlesticks that she received for her interfaith Coming of Age ceremony when she turned thirteen. My 12-year-old son shows off his mastery of the prayer over the fruit of the vine. Together, we sing the English/Hebrew “camp” version of the blessing over the challah: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz, We give thanks to God for bread. Our voices raise in song together, as our joyful prayer is said: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam. Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Amen.”

While  this version of the blessing seemed hokey at first, I like the fact that it incorporates the English, so that if we have non-Jewish visitors, they understand the meaning of the prayer without having to wait for the translation. In our interfaith community, this version feels more inclusive of the Christian spouses, and of the children who are just beginning to learn Jewish rituals, because of the way it weaves in the context.

Even when it’s not Friday night, we try to pause before a meal with friends or family to acknowledge the communion of breaking bread together. Feeling thankful in this sense does not require a creed or dogma; it does not require a belief in God at all. Sometimes, a few words of thanks to our guests for being there is all that is needed. Or sometimes, we use a “grace” we learned at Appalachian folk dance camp. It sounds Buddhist to me: if anyone knows its origins, let me know. It is sung to a jaunty little tune, which can be sung in a round, and the words are: “Thank you for this food, this glorious, glorious food–and the animals, and the vegetables, and the minerals, that make it possible.”

As the snow continues to fall here, we pause to appreciate warmth, electricity, food and friends. Nature is reminding us to stop, unplug, experience the power of the blizzard, and take a deep breath of the frosted air.

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!

%d bloggers like this: