High Holy Days 2017: Finding Interfaith Community

Rosh Hashanah Apples, photo Susan Katz Miller

September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.

The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.

Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.

Jewish religious educators and clergy have created programs to serve interfaith families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), provides a full set of four traditional (yet progressive) High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, now led by Rabbi Rain Zohav. IFFP also provides specific children’s services on both holidays.

Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community,  to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!

But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my  tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

Network of Interfaith Family Groups: How to Create New Communities

Autumn Maple Leaves

The days get shorter, the school year begins, and the Jewish High Holy Days start this week. Are you looking for the joyful company, the wise counsel, the loving support of other interfaith families? In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the national grassroots movement to find and form interfaith family communities celebrating both religions, and I describe how the established communities meet the needs of families.

But how do you go about creating a new interfaith family community?

Here I suggest a number of steps and strategies for families who celebrate more than one religion, and want to find like-minded people.

  • Join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups on facebook. The Network launched this year to help families across the country find each other, to join in on-line conversation, and ideally form new regional groups. The Network page lists contacts for the following regions: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Harrisburgh PA, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, central NJ, New Orleans, Raleigh NC, Richmond VA (Christian/Jewish or Christian/Muslim), San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul MN, western MA, Wheaton IL, and north woods Wisconsin.
  • Find other families celebrating both religions in your region, by networking with the clergy who officiated at your interfaith marriage, or who perform such marriages locally. They probably have married other couples who are planning to stay connected to both family religions, and can connect you.
  • Start small. Get together with two other young interfaith couples and have a Shabbat or a brunch. Or, get together with two other interfaith families with young children to celebrate a holiday, and inject a little bit of learning for everyone. As the group grows, take a look at the website and engaging programs at the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, a small group that thrives on volunteer power, and without a lot of infrastructure.
  • If you are struggling to figure out the group model that will work best for your region, or having trouble fitting all the pieces together, I’m now available as an interfaith community coach.

In the fall, the abundant Jewish holidays provide inspiration to create multi-sensory experiences for young children. Even if you do not yet have a community where you feel comfortable, engage your children in these traditions. Dip apples in honey for a sweet new year. Walk to a creek or river or sea, and drop in bread crumbs or sticks or leaves to represent qualities you want to give away, in the Tashlich ritual. Children remember such things.

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.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Interfaith Families, 2015

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(Each year, I adapt this post with new links to upcoming High Holiday services for interfaith families.–SKM)

Shofar blast! The Days of Awe (the Jewish High Holidays) begin early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 13th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 22nd. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Jewish communities are becoming more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families, with the help of national programs like the new #ChooseLove campaign. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. To connect with other families in your area celebrating both religions, you can now join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

The High Holiday services these interfaith family communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holiday services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community affiliated programs in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut will gather for the holidays both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities. The Long Island Interfaith Community meets at a unique Multifaith Campus (Muslim, Jewish, Interfaith, and Christian communities all sharing space). They will have services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days. This year, Rabbi Allen Secher, the beloved original rabbi affiliated with the Family School, will be returning to Chicago to lead services at Makom Shalom, the Jewish Renewal synagogue he founded, where many interfaith families will gather to observe the Days of Awe together. In the Chicago suburbs, many interfaith families from the Union School for Interfaith Families, and the Interfaith Union, will gather in Mount Prospect to worship together with Congregation Am Chai.

In Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. IFFP now hosts five progressive High Holiday services, specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by our new rabbi, Rabbi Rain Zohav. We also have two separate Children’s Services (on the mornings of both holidays).

And in the Philadelphia area, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, founded by an IFFP family who moved to Philly, will again celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year with an apple-picking trip. Growing up, my family always went apple-picking on Rosh Hashanah, to usher in the sweet New Year.

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

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.

High Holy Days: Now With Great Poetry

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Two blog posts this week hinted at the struggle many interfaith families, and many Jewish families, have with the intimidating length and inaccessibility of traditional High Holiday services. In The Forward‘s interfaith advice column, I responded to a woman who feared these services would alienate her interfaith husband from Judaism. And over at Kveller, a mother admitted she was not going to require her children to attend services, even though they are an otherwise deeply-engaged Jewish family. One response to such questioning has been to blame those who are disaffected: if you only knew more Hebrew, and more Torah, (if only you hadn’t intermarried), you wouldn’t be fidgeting at the three-hour mark. And in the other corner, we have Rabbi Rami Shapiro (a self-defined Holy Rascal), explaining why he avoids the “medieval worldview” of conventional High Holiday services himself, calling them unfulfilling. He says he would rather go take a contemplative walk in the woods.

Meanwhile, many of the most progressive Jewish communities have been working to create services that will honor tradition, while also breathing new life into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as all the rest of the days in the Jewish calendar). One of those visionaries is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, an accomplished poet and Jewish Renewal rabbi often known by her blogging moniker, The Velveteen Rabbi. This year, Rabbi Rachel has published (with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) a gorgeous new Machzor (the prayerbook specifically for the High Holidays). Days of Awe inspires with new translations, lively illustrations, and poetry that avoids platitudes. Along with her own marvelous poems, she includes poems from Yehuda Amichai, Leonard Cohen, Marie Howe, David Lehman, Alicia Ostriker, Omar Khayyam, Phillip Schultz, Hannah Szenes, Herman Taube, and Rumi. The translations and interpretations come from rabbis including Shlomo Carlebach, Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, David Shneyer, Hannah Tiferet Siegel, and the much-beloved Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal.

In addition to infusing the services with carefully curated poetry and translations, this prayerbook invites and welcomes all (interfaith, disaffected, seeking) by explaining the sense and structure of the services. For instance, the repetition of the Kaddish through the services can seem bewildering and stultifying. Rabbi Rachel stops to explain that the Kaddish acts as a door to mark the transition to each new section of the service, and her Machzor illustrates this concept with a series of lovely photographs of different doors inserted with each recurrence of the Kaddish.

One poem from Days of Awe holds perfectly the tension between the desire to return to ancient communal prayer, and the desire to renew with a walk in the woods instead. Do both. (Ah, bothness…the favorite theme of all interfaith children). In the moving and elegiac poem “For I will consider your dog Molly,” by David Lehman, the poet takes us from a Rosh Hashanah morning service, in which he mourns his father and is comforted by “Hebrew melodies,” to an afternoon ramble with a companion and her dog to perform the traditional Tashlich ritual of throwing sins into the water. This poem, a narrative with characters and unexpected moments of humor and pain (and echoes of Ulysses), has nothing in common with some of the bland, cheesy verses that seem to end up in prayerbooks edited by committees.

As a small child in New England, the highlight of Rosh Hashanah for me was indeed the family tradition of afternoon apple-picking, not the long hours of services, though eventually I did grow to love the services too. With Days of Awe as a prayerbook, more families, interfaith and otherwise, will be able to both return and renew. Rabbi Rachel writes, “Take risks. Try new things. (Try old things!)” I expect Days of Awe will become the standard prayerbook in many Jewish Renewal communities, and, I hope, exert an influence throughout the increasingly diverse and complex Jewish world.

 

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Interfaith Connections

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, we have the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who spent 40 years in a Jesuit environment at Georgetown University. Recently, he shared some interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration or thanks, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language. None of this is easy, but it is still essential experiential education for any family connected to Judaism. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and promotes bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

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.

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