Listen, Include, Engage: Progress for Interfaith Families

 

My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89
My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89

 

A couple of years back, the venerable Jewish Daily Forward published a blogpost in the form of a letter attacking my family for celebrating Christmas. I waited several days before responding. Meanwhile, readers and bloggers rushed in to decry the “snide” “condescending” “offensive” “anti-interfaith family” tone of the original post. One wrote that it “paints a scary picture for interfaith families in the Jewish community.”

But in the six months since the publication of Being Both, I have witnessed a different picture emerging. I have been honored to give talks sponsored by synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, and a group of rabbis. I was invited onto an interfaith family task force by my local Jewish Federation. And The Forward chose my beloved rabbi, Harold M. White, the Jewish Spiritual leader of my interfaith families community, when I nominated him as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America for 2014.

Granted, progress comes in fits and starts. Sometimes a leader from a synagogue discussion group calls asking me to speak: these congregants are worried about intermarried children and grandchildren who are often “doing nothing.” They wonder if “doing both” might not be a richer experience for their grandchildren, and a better bet for Jewish continuity. Whenever I receive one of these invitations, I have to ask if they have checked with the rabbi. More than once, I have received a call back from a frustrated and embarrassed congregant dis-inviting me, and explaining that the rabbi sees my mission as counter to the mission of institutional Judaism.

And yet, everywhere I do speak, I see the religious landscape shifting, with extended families and religious institutions far more willing now to support interfaith couples and children, even when they must “share” them with another religion. And that means that interfaith families have many more good options for finding community than they did a generation ago, whether that community is Jewish, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist, secular humanist, or (like my own Interfaith Families Project) intentionally interfaith.

Just this spring, I realized once again how far we have all come when The Forward, the same media outlet that published that scathing letter addressed to me two years ago, asked me to join the roster of experts for their new interfaith relationship advice column, The Seesaw. The expert panel includes an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, a Christian spouse, and Rabbi James Ponet (Chelsea Clinton’s rabbi). I am the only panel member raising children with any formal religious education beyond Judaism.

If I were to design my own roster of experts to give advice to interfaith families, I would of course choose people raising children on many different religious and non-religious pathways. But given the chance to represent something other than the “you must raise kids exclusively Jewish” perspective,  I said yes. The comment section on The Seesaw is at times filled with sarcasm and intolerance, and at least one of my fellow respondents regularly despairs over my responses. But over all, I enjoy seeing how the respondents reflect diverse Jewish viewpoints, often displaying a deep sensitivity to the nuances and complexity of interfaith family life.

I advocate for the Jewish community (and all religious communities) to engage with, rather than exclude, parents who expose their children to more than one family religion. Given that Pew Research has found that 25% of intermarried Jews are raising children with more than one religion, the logic of including rather than spurning these families seems very compelling to me, even when viewed through the lens of preserving Jewish institutions. And this spring, I see a flowering of support for the idea of providing Jewish content to all families who want it, creating meaningful Jewish experiences for them, and allowing children to grow Jewish roots, even if they are putting down roots in more than one family tradition.

I celebrated my birthday this week, in my childhood home, with my pioneering interfaith parents (who are 83 and almost 90). It seemed like a fitting moment to look back on an exhilarating six months of public interfaith conversations. If you are in the Washington DC area, I hope you will join me for my final interfaith talk of the season, at the MLK branch of the DC public library this Wednesday at 7:30pm.

And if you haven’t been able to get to a live Being Both talk, you can watch two new videos. One is a webinar posted by Religions for Peace USA, in which I chat with Aaron Stauffer of Religions for Peace USA, and adult interfaith child Samantha Gonzalez-Block. The other is a video of an event at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, in which I appeared with Georgetown’s Erika Seamon, author of the excellent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America. Erika’s history of interfaith marriage at the beginning of the program is fascinating, and don’t miss our lively Q&A with students and faculty at the end.

I already have plans for talks in Chicago and New York next fall. Let me know if your community wants to be included in either of those visits, or if you want to host a talk elsewhere in the country. I look forward to a conversation that will continue with all of you, growing deeper and wider and more complex, next year, and into the years ahead.

 

 

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

 

 

“Mixed-Up Love”: Interfaith Marriage Between a Rabbi and a Catholic

Mixed-Up Love

           It is long past time to abandon the idea that those who marry across lines of faith simply do not care about religion. The most obvious counter-examples have been the Christian clergy, including Harvey Cox, Donna Schaper, and J. Dana Trent, who have written memoirs about their interfaith marriages. And now, we finally get to read about how a rabbi and her Catholic husband stay deeply engaged in two religions, while embarking on an interfaith marriage.

            For many Jewish institutions, the idea of an intermarried rabbi is almost as controversial as, well, the idea of raising children with both religions. The major rabbinical schools all refuse to admit or ordain rabbinical students married to non-Jews. This has forced potential rabbis to live in the “interfaith closet” or abandon their studies, which in turn has finally forced official reconsideration of this policy, at least at one seminary.

            Rabbis are going to fall in love, and marry, people from other religions. Rabbi Michal Woll and her Catholic husband, Jon Sweeney, bring us the first dispatch from this new reality. Woll was already a Reconstructionist rabbi when she met Sweeney, an author and religion scholar raised as a Protestant but in the process of converting to Catholicism at the time they met. Together, they have written an intimate and revealing memoir about their courtship and marriage, entitled Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.  A lively read, Mixed-Up Love is most compelling as a textured and nuanced portrait of one brave interfaith marriage. (Those interested the broad, historical sweep of their ambitious subtitle might want to also read Erika Seamon’s recent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America.)

            The joint memoir is a particularly useful format for an interfaith couple. One of the earliest examples is Mixed Blessings by Rachel and Paul Cowan, which described an interfaith marriage in the 1960s. Rachel eventually converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi, and their book, while useful, heavily promotes the choice of Judaism, and conversion. In contrast, Mary and Ned Rosenbaum, in another early joint memoir, Celebrating Our Differences, testified to the fact that their marriage strengthened, rather than diminished, their own devotion to Catholicism, and Judaism, respectively. While Ned was not an ordained rabbi, he was a Jewish studies scholar and lay leader of Jewish communities. In their memoir, Mary and Ned recount their pioneering interfaith marriage with great wit and honesty and tenderness, and also describe how they gave their three children education in both religions.

            Woll and Sweeney have decided to raise their daughter Jewish, and some of the reasons for their choice are obvious. Woll describes one congregation that refused to hire her as a rabbi because she is married to a Catholic. It seems evident that at least for now, an intermarried rabbi will have to raise children “exclusively Jewish” in order to be accepted by most Jewish institutions.

            Nonetheless, Woll and Sweeney talked to couples who had made different choices for their interfaith children, and researched some of the communities designed to support families raising children with both religions. In their book, they are thoughtful and open-minded about the possibility of raising children with both, although they chose another path. I found myself agreeing with the authors on many points: the importance of community support for interfaith families, the idea that interfaith marriage can be inspiring as well as challenging, and the importance for children of religious ritual in the home. In their conclusion, Sweeney and Woll write that there are “so many possibilities for creating lives full of spiritual meaning and practice in the world.”

            As in Celebrating Our Differences, Woll and Sweeney each contributed their own thoughts to this book in alternating passages, so that we understand their separate perspectives. Both their marriage and their child are still very young, but I suspect, and hope, that a sequel will eventually follow. In the meantime, Mixed-Up Love, the first memoir by a rabbi and a Catholic who share a marriage, is an important addition to the literature, describing the rewards and challenges of one of the many inevitable love stories in our increasingly interfaith world.

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