High Holy Days 2021: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah starts VERY early this year, this Monday (Labor Day) evening, September 6th. This year, you can zoom from anywhere into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services created by and for interfaith families, HERE or HERE or HERE.

Over the past decade, in some of over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the context of an interfaith family. Below, I reprint one of the most popular of those essays, preserving some of the wisdom of Rabbi Harold White (z’l) on ways for interfaith partners to connect to these Days of Awe. –SKM

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, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have “missed the mark” or 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.”
  4. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. And some may choose to honor the Days of Awe in alternative ways. But these services can be enlightening experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner to accompany them in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. And 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.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

A Historic Moment for Interfaith Families

Today, we arrive at a historic moment in the interfaith families movement.

The announcement went out that a minister who grew up in an interfaith family will become the first adult interfaith kid to become a clergy co-leader of a community celebrating Judaism and Christianity.

Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block grew up in a multicultural, interfaith family. She comes to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) as the Interim Christian Minister, on the retirement of our beloved longtime minister, Reverend Julia Jarvis. “As someone who grew up in a Jewish-Christian home, I longed for a place like IFFP,” Samantha says in today’s announcement. She has a divinity degree from the progressive Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I first met Samantha when Religions for Peace asked her to be part of a video interview with me on interfaith families, seven years ago. I discovered that not only was Samantha a fellow interfaith kid, but that as a student at UTS she had taught in the groundbreaking Interfaith Family Community (IFC) program in New York City.

IFC was the first program created by and for interfaith families to give interfaith children interfaith education. In their unique teaching system, IFC has often paired co-teaching Christian and Jewish seminarians, from UTS and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), two seminaries across the street from each other in Morningside Heights in New York City. One of the great beauties of this system is that for over 30 years now, clergy in training have had first-hand experience with the benefits of co-teaching the two religions to interfaith kids. And then they go out into the world as clergy, carrying this experience with them.

So, there is a powerful symmetry and sense of fulfillment in the idea that one of these seminarians, one who grew up in an interfaith family and experienced the beauty of teaching interfaith kids both religions, is now returning to lead another of the “big three” (NYC, DC, Chicago) communities created by and for interfaith families celebrating both religions. “Samantha brought her special life experience to our programs,” said Sheila Gordon, IFC’s Founder President, on hearing the news today. “Having her in a leadership position at IFFP could be a real game-changer for the future of dual faith families everywhere.”

The truth is that the moment I met Samantha, I dreamed that someday she would lead a community of interfaith families. And as soon as she met me, she wanted to know more about IFFP in DC. In 2014, I invited her to DC to give a guest reflection at an IFFP gathering. And the next year, she invited me to UTS, to speak on a panel alongside Sheila Gordon, as part of Samantha’s thesis project on interfaith families. On that visit I also spoke in the gorgeous chapel service she created and led, entitled “Out of the Box: Our Sacred Complex Identities.” In that service, Samantha reflected on her identities in poetic rap form, and inspired me to try to do the same. It felt like a grace-filled dance.

With the appointment of Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block to work in partnership with our IFFP rabbi, Debbie Reichmann, and lead our community, we have reached what, for me at least, is a sacred moment. This is the moment when an interfaith kid grows up and dares to become an ordained religious leader. When they dare to say they can lead a spiritual community created by and for interfaith families. When they dare to affirm that clergy, too, can claim more than one religious heritage. This is a moment I have been waiting for, well, all of my life.

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.

Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

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I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Report on Millennials from Interfaith Families Who Apply to Birthright

Sheila Gordon of IFC
Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community

Yesterday, researchers from Brandeis University released a report on millennials who grew up in interfaith families and applied to Birthright. The report was funded in part by Birthright, the program to send young people with at least one Jewish parent on a free trip to Israel, so the conclusions must be read in that light. However, since very few studies (besides my own) have been conducted on children of interfaith families, each study is valuable, even if it represents a particular viewpoint. Sheila Gordon, co-founder of the original NYC program providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and Interfaith Community intern Ben Arenstein attended the release event. I invited them to report on the release of the study.–SKM

A new study of the growing interfaith population was released yesterday: Millennial Children of Intermarriage. Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community/IFC (and Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage for forty years) attended the release event along with IFC interfaith intern Ben Arenstein–a millennial interfaith child himself and currently a second year student in a joint degree at Columbia College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Produced by the Cohen Center at Brandeis, the study–subtitled “Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement”–looked particularly at the impact of Birthright (which has taken half a million young adults to experience Israel) and college programs like Hillel and Chabad. The study found that engaging in such programs can powerfully strengthen Jewish identity and participation. In short, it is not too late to engage people religiously who are 20 or 25 years old. In fact, Brandeis researchers found that the more different types of Jewish experience in college (i.e., college-based formal and informal experiences and Birthright) the more likely the interfaith millennials are to be as engaged Jewishly as millennials from inmarried families. (The only category in which this was largely not the case was the comprehension of Hebrew by interfaith millennials–which remained low despite Jewish involvement in college.)

The Jewish identity of millennials, as the Brandeis study has confirmed, undergoes a heavily formative period during college years. Post-secondary education–a time wrought with experimentation and change–also serves as an opportunity for Jews to explore their identity. Because millennials of typical interfaith families tend to have limited involvement in Jewish social interactions and Jewish formal education before college, time at university can in many cases serve as a transformative period in which interfaith children now have both access to Jewish programming and the means to independently pursue that programming without parental oversight.

The authors of the study see it as leading to a reframing of Jewish communal policies about intermarriage and new paradigms for understanding the implications of interfaith marriage. What particularly impressed Sheila and Ben were the observations that any programs that are developed need to take into account the perceptions of these interfaith millennials:

  • They appear to define their Jewishness in a way that is different from those raised in entirely Jewish homes–specifically that, while they may see themselves as strengthening their Jewish identity, they proudly see themselves as multi-cultural–and, in turn, they are often dismayed by ethno-centric attitudes. So we may be seeing a different kind of Jewish identity.
  • They are often hesitant to become Jewishly involved because of elitism and stigmas against interfaith children by the larger Jewish community.
  • They and their families–in order to develop their religious and cultural identity–need to feel that the community in which they are developing that identity has to be open and supportive.

In addition, Ben would encourage the policy makers to bear in mind that this survey is not just a collection of data points, but based on a set of real individuals, each of whom has come to terms with his/her interfaith identity in unique and very personal ways. To help someone along that journey is a beautiful thing, but to use data sets to push them in a certain direction is to undermine the individuality of that person.

Sheila told those gathered that the findings further underscore the value of dual-faith education programs (such as provided by IFC and IFFP) for interfaith families. Educating young children ( and, in turn, their parents) about both heritages provides the supportive community and respect for the individual journeys that are essential. Young adults who wish to continue their journeys in college are better prepared both intellectually and emotionally to do so. She urged those present to support dual-faith education programs and communities.

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.

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.

O Rabbi! My Rabbi! Rabbi Harold White, Interfaith Pioneer (1932-2015)

@stephaniewilliamsimages

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I did not expect to ever want or need a rabbi in my life again. After years of defending my Jewish identity as the child of an interfaith family, I thought I was done with Jewish institutions and clergy. I joined a community created by and for interfaith families, filled with families that spurned religious dogma, labels, and litmus tests. And I was happy.

And then, Rabbi Harold Saul White swept into my life, like some kind of mystical wind, simultaneously fresh and ancient, revealing a new way to connect back to Judaism. Here was a rabbi so radical, so confident, that he was willing to become the spiritual advisor of a community of interfaith families—and share leadership of this interfaith community with Reverend Julia Jarvis. He worked with ministers and priests, marrying generations of interfaith couples, and welcoming their babies, and helping their children come of age, and conducting their funerals.

Rabbi White helped families to see Judaism as inclusive rather than exclusive, decades before most other rabbis understood the importance of this work. This rabbi, who was already old and wise in years when I met him, but perennially young in his iconoclastic spirit, convinced me that I still needed a rabbi as a counselor and friend. He restored my confidence in the idea that a rabbi could be relevant, even essential, to interfaith families like mine.

At my son's bar mitzvah. @stephaniewilliamsimages

In his final decade, as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Rabbi White preached most weeks at our Gatherings, lavishing on us his tremendous erudition, based on his studies with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, and on his forty years as the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, and on his work in the Civil Rights movement. He gave brilliant sermons on the Days of Awe and Sukkoth, on Passover, on Shavuot. And he gave brilliant sermons on the Jewish roots and resonance of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter.

And now, I am left with a strange and frustrated longing to hear the Rabbi’s own inevitably brilliant thoughts on the idea that his irrepressible energy shifted into some new form at the moment of his death yesterday.

My family was blessed to have Rabbi White co-officiate with Reverend Jarvis at the interfaith bar mitzvah ceremonies of both of my children, now 21 and 18. I realize that for many people in the Jewish community, that sentence reads like shocking gibberish. But we could always count on Rabbi White to be more revolutionary, more deeply ecumenical, than any of the rest of us. As an illustration of this, when planning my son’s bar mitzvah, we had the following conversation:

Me: “So we will have the Torah portion. We want to also acknowledge the Christianity in our extended family, but I don’t know about reading from the New Testament. I think that would be beyond the pale. What do you think, rabbi?”

Rabbi White, “Ah, but I think we should include the reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is coming of age, getting quizzed by his teachers about the commandments, finding his Jewish voice, as if he’s at his own bar mitzvah. It’s a perfect reading for this occasion!”

Me: Eyes wide. Mind silently blown.

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In his last years, Rabbi White had an octogenarian exterior and the wild soul of a youth. He impressed my teenagers by wearing his black velvet opera cape on Halloween and Purim, and bragging about traveling the world, and staying up all night at parties. When my son had trouble relating to his Torah portion from Leviticus, Rabbi White completely re-framed the text for him as a compelling call to environmentalism. He was honest with young people about his own atheism in adolescence, and his longstanding contempt for most institutions. And when he retired from us last spring, we threw an ecstatic second bar mitzvah celebration for him, featuring his favorite Catholic gospel choir.

Like so many others, I cherished this singular and compassionate man. When he was laid up, I brought him matzoh ball soup and admired his beloved cats. I nominated him for the Forward’s list of Most Inspiring Rabbis. And over the past two years, as I traveled the country to speak about Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I had the privilege of appearing alongside Rabbi White, who is featured in the book, and who was happy to serve as my occasional wingman (or was I his?). At the book launch at Politics & Prose, he wore a bow tie and told stories from his life, lending his authority and experience. And when I was invited to speak to fifty rabbis on retreat–an intimidating prospect–Rabbi White went with me and we presented our work in conversation with each other.

Ceding the floor at my book launch. Classic Rabbi White hand gesture. @stephaniewilliamsimages

Politics & Prose book launch for Being Both, 2013
All photos @stephaniewilliamsimages

Through Rabbi White, I allowed the possibility of rabbis back into my life. I am radically amazed to realize that I now have a whole posse of rabbis I can call friends, advisors, and colleagues. They include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Jewish Renewal, and post-denominational rabbis, all seeking to help interfaith families stay connected to Judaism (whether or not those families also stay connected to other religions).

I am launching my son and daughter out into a world filled with rabbis who will embrace them as they are. But my children will always carry with them the great blessing of the memory of their first rabbi, the one who paved the way for all those other rabbis, the one who can never truly be replaced: Rabbi Harold Saul White.

 

(Note: There will be two Washington DC memorial services for Rabbi Harold White on Sunday September 20th. The first will be at 10:30am Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall at 10:30 A.M. The second service, with the rabbi’s favorite gospel choir and guest soloists, will be at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, 1908 N Capital Street, Washington, D.C. at 3:00 P.M.)

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.

Deep Christian Roots, Interfaith Family Journey

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Callaway Kleiner family photo.

Today, we feature an essay from interfaith parent Erika Callaway Kleiner, MDiv. One persistent myth is that interfaith parents raising children with interfaith education must lack religious education or depth. Erika is someone with a rigorous religious education, who has thought long and hard about theology, and still chose (with her Jewish husband) to raise her children with both family religions. In this post, she explains how she got there.

Being a Christian has always been an important part of who I am. I grew up in a small United Methodist Church outside of Oklahoma City. The people there were our church family. I have many fond memories of Sunday School, youth group sleepovers, family camp, and Holy Week. Even in a very conservative area of the country where I did not see many women in religious leadership roles, I was encouraged by two male pastors to be a leader in my church. I served many Sundays as liturgist, sitting next to the altar across from the minister.

In college I decided to major in religion. My professors gently encouraged me to explore my religious beliefs. I remember one professor continually referring to God without using masculine (or feminine) pronouns. The idea that God is bigger than masculine (or feminine) had a motivating and inspiring impact.

Then, when I was a junior in college and my brother a sophomore in high school, my mom died of ovarian cancer. She was our best friend and a beautiful woman of faith. Many people took care of us and supported us. Everyone meant well. But a few people (not part of our church family) said some things I will never forget. “Trust that this is all part of God’s plan.” “It’s such a shame – your Mom was such a good person but she just couldn’t let go of her sin in order to heal.” Statements like these hurt and made me angry. What kind of God chooses to take a mother away from her children? Couldn’t let go of her sin?? She was always a generous, kind and loving person – a testament from everyone who knew her. My reaction was not to shun God or religion, however. I wanted to get to know God better and find a way out of this harmful, debilitating theology.

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and earned a Master of Divinity degree. There I met others struggling with questions of theodicy: Where is God in our suffering? What is our role as humans to ameliorate suffering and bring about justice? In divinity school, I had the space to live in these questions and gain some answers for myself (along with many more questions). I graduated with a different and deeper faith and also the realization that I wanted to join in the work towards creating social justice.

For me, God was not only bigger than masculine or feminine, God was also bigger than my Christian religion. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with a friend who eventually became my husband. He is Jewish. Neither of us intended to partner outside our religions. Still, what we discovered as we talked about how we were raised and what we believed is that we both wanted to help create a kinder and more compassionate world where people appreciate and respect diversity.

A rabbi and a minister married us on the Vanderbilt campus with our families and friends celebrating with us. We were intentional about every element of our ceremony, and we have been intentional about all the religious decisions we have made since then. In 2008, after attending several churches and belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue, we decided to join the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). We realized that this was a place where people truly understood our choices and situation.

Early on, we worried about how our children would identify. Is this confusing? Will they ultimately not feel included in either Judaism or Christianity? Will they have a spiritual home? Our children are still young — eight and six — so the answers to these questions remain to be seen. What we do see each week as we leave the Gathering at IFFP and Sunday School is our kids confidently living an interfaith life. They sing songs in Hebrew and also This Little Light of Mine. They are learning the similarities and connections between Judaism and Christianity as well as the differences and what this means for their lives. And they are already asking and finding their own answers to significant theological questions. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I have grown fond of the rhythm the practice of Judaism creates in my own life and that of my family. The ritual of Shabbat is a welcome part of my week. I look forward to the deep and cleansing time of the High Holy Days just as I look forward to the season of Advent.

The rituals and the theologies of both traditions now inform and inspire my thinking about the world and my place in it. I appreciate aspects of Judaism that encourage us to wrestle with theology and continue asking questions. In addition, from Jesus I hear the two greatest commandments reiterated. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The other day my kids asked me in the car if I see myself as Interfaith. I responded in a very Jewish way – with a question! I asked, “How do you see me?” They said, “Yes, Mom, you’re both!”

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.

Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

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.

Launch! The Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG)

Fireworks, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG, prounounced “niff-gee”). This network will help interfaith families who want interfaith education for their children to find each other, across the country, and the globe. For now, you can find NIFG in the form of a facebook group created by and for interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion.

It’s all very well to live in one of the big American cities with a vibrant community of interfaith families providing interfaith education for interfaith children. But what if you are an interfaith couple in New Hampshire or Nevada or Alabama, or Europe or Latin America or Asia? What if you just want to find one or two or ten other families in your region who are celebrating both family religions?

I hear regularly from people who don’t have the support of formal interfaith family groups like the ones in Washington, New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. We know (from the 2013 Pew study of the Jewish American landscape) that 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Some of these families have found two houses of worship to support them (often a church and a synagogue) either publicly, or quietly. Some families find homes in “third space” communities that do not promote a particular religious dogma (such as Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or secular humanist communities). But such families still might want to connect to other interfaith families doing both. In fact, I would argue that it is good for interfaith kids being raised with both religions to get to know other kids on that pathway, even if it is only at an occasional social get-together.

Many interfaith families seek me out because they would love to have a community designed by and for interfaith families, like the ones described in Being Both, but don’t know where to begin. In the book, I outline several ways to start a new interfaith families community. But the first step, finding a few other interfaith families who want to join you for a Shabbat meal or a holiday celebration, can seem like a big hurdle.

The new NIFG facebook group is designed to help any and all of these families find each other, or find existing groups. (Note, this network is for groups that are either independent of religious institutions, or have links to institutions and clergy representing both religions, not for groups sponsored by one religion only). One uploaded file has a list of links to existing groups (this list is also on my blog and on my author website). The other uploaded file has a new list of people willing to be the contact person in geographic areas that do not currently have active interfaith family communities—so far, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle.

So, if you know anyone in those three cities that might be interested in meeting other interfaith families interested in interfaith education, please forward them this post, and the link to the facebook group. If you live in a different geographic area and want to meet other interfaith families doing both near you, let me know and I will add your name and email to the uploaded file at the NIFG group.

Remember, by adding your name to this file, you don’t have to commit to running a new organization all by yourself. You might just connect to a few other couples (with or without children), and get together for brunch to talk about interfaith life, or share resources about which local congregations are the most welcoming. While most interfaith couples in formal interfaith family communities are Jewish and Christian, maybe you are looking for other Hindu and Jewish couples, or atheist and Christian couples. Maybe you need to find local clergy to help with a wedding or baby-welcoming. Maybe you just want to make some new friends who understand your interfaith approach. Or maybe you want to launch a one-room interfaith education schoolhouse in the fall. The idea is that the NIFG facebook group can facilitate all of these conversations and connections.

P.S. If you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to join me on Sunday at 6:30pm at Busboys and Poets, Takoma, for a very special Generation Interfaith event. I’ll be in conversation with one of the young adults portrayed in Being Both, a graduate of the interfaith education experience.

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