I am grateful for the work of rabbis and interfaith families working for change from within. The new policy at Hebrew College is a hard-won victory, and creates a shift that benefits all interfaith families in the progressive Jewish world.
And yet, a lot of work remains to be done.
From my position as a disruptor, or even heretic, I have the luxury of being very frank: we must not desist from this work. For years, I have been pointing out the changes that still need to happen. Here, I distill that work into a to-do list:
How Progressive Judaism Must Changeto Thrive
Progressive movements and rabbinical and cantorial programs must admit and ordain students without litmus tests related to the religious identities of partners, or children.
All progressive religious institutions must uncouple gender from religious identity, by ending all reference to matrilineality and patrilineality. The gender of someone’s parents should be irrelevant to their claim on, or desire to engage with, Judaism. As I have written before, the gender binary is toxic to the future of progressive Judaism.
All progressive religious institutions must accept that parents have a right to educate their children about any and all religions in their extended family. You cannot control the identity of children by withholding education from them. This means we must end Jewish communal policies that exclude children who are being educated in more than one religion.
Progressive clergy must welcome the benefits of co-officiation at life-cycle ceremonies for interfaith families. Disrespecting another religion represented in the family by excluding it from a family celebration will not make Judaism more compelling to anyone. It will only lead to sorrow, and resentment.
Progressive clergy must stop trying to demand or extract promises from interfaith couples about how interfaith children will be raised. These promises are coercive and alienating. They are meaningless, given that we never know how the beliefs and practices of the parents will change over time. And they are futile, given that children have agency, and inevitably develop their own ideas and identities.
Families celebrating more than one religion can, and do, design interfaith coming of age celebrations for their children. These ceremonies sometimes start with, draw on, or incorporate the B-Mitzvah traditions in our heritage. Our Jewish and Christian interfaith family, along with beloved clergy, created ceremonies for each of our children (who are now 28 and 25). Over the years, I have often been asked for a coming of age ceremony template. And a reader asked again just this week. And so, I am finally posting a template!
The template below “leans Jewish” in that it includes the essence of a Shabbat Torah service, which is what many consider the essence of a B-Mitzvah. And, the whole idea of an individual coming of age, as opposed to a group confirmation, is a more Jewish than Christian tradition. Whether or not you want to include all these elements is up to your family. You can find a deeper discussion of the different choices my family made, and the choices available to you, in the Coming of Age chapter in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. There is also more of the backstory on our particular experience with our younger child, on my blog here, here, here, here and here.
For the sake of brevity, I did not include the actual prayers here, but they are widely available. I recommend including Hebrew, transliteration, AND gender-neutral English translation for every Hebrew prayer, as an educational tool, and to be most inclusive. The explanations of each prayer, important for a mixed multitude, can either be read by the reader, or simply included in the program for people to read on their own.
Interfaith Coming of Age and B-Mitzvah
Intro. Our programs started with a letter (which people can read to themselves while they wait for the ceremony to start) as an introduction from the parents. It explains the religious education and training that the young person has undergone, and thanks the various religious communities supporting them. It goes on to thank important mentors, clergy, and godparents.
Opening Song. Throughout the program, there are traditional Jewish songs for peace and Shabbat (Bim Bom, Lo Yisa Goy, Hine Mahtov, It is a Tree of Life). And, there are songs drawn from other sources (Morning Has Broken, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Let the Life I Lead, Peace Salaam Shalom).
Welcome from the clergy (in our case, both a rabbi and a minister spoke)
Opening Responsive Prayer (Led by the minister. Adapted by Susan Katz Miller from the Palo Alto interfaith families community)
Reader: We gather here as an interfaith community to celebrate the Coming of Age of (Name).
All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel, some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Our influences are many.
Reader: May (Name), and all of our children, be nourished by strong family roots, and may all the branches of our family trees thrive.
All: May they grow in compassion for all peoples and cultures, seek to heal the earth, and strive for justice around the globe.
Reader: May they use their understanding of the many different pathways to become bridge-builders and peacemakers.
All: And may we all go forward into the world, knowing in our hearts that deeper unity in which all are one.
The rabbi explains that this is a Jewish prayer giving thanks for reaching any new or important moment.
Introduce the Torah. The Torah is a continuous scroll consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each Torah is handwritten by a trained scribe, using a quill and vegetable ink on parchment. The Hebrew calligraphy used to write these scrolls has been the same for more than 2,000 years. The Torah we are using today belongs to Georgetown University, where Rabbi White is a chaplain and professor.
Barchu and Shema (led by the person coming of age)
The Shema is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. In it, Jews declare their belief in one God, who is the God of all people.
Please be seated.
V’Ahavta (led by the person coming of age)
In this central prayer, each generation passes knowledge of the law and of Jewish ritual to the next.This prayer is included on the parchment scroll inside a mezuzah, posted on the doorframe of many Jewish homes.
Aliyot. The rabbi explains that an Aliya (plural is Aliyot) is the honor of saying the blessing before and after part of the Torah reading. Leading this blessing is often considered the central act of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Aliyot by parents, grandparents, any older siblings, and finally, the person coming of age.
Blessing before the Torah
Torah Reading. (In English or Hebrew. If it’s only in Hebrew, print the English in the program).
Blessing after the Torah
Reflection on the Torah portion (D’var Torah by the person coming of age)
Reading from the New Testament (read by a Christian grandparent or mentor). It was our beloved rabbi who insisted we do a New Testament reading. (Read all about this twist in Being Both).
We Remember Them (Minister. Written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)
At this time we remember those who are gone but are here with us today in spirit, especially (name any grandparents or immediate family members or close mentors who have died).
Reader: At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.
All: At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,we remember them.
Reader: At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
All: At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of the summer,we remember them.
Reader: At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
All: At the beginning of the year and when it ends,we remember them.
Reader: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
All: When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
Reader: When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.
All: When we have decisions that are difficult to make,we remember them.
Reader: When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
All: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
Mourner’s Kaddish (Rabbi)
The Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is written primarily in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews living in Babylonia and Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and the language later spoken by Jesus. The Kaddish is traditionally recited for those who have died, yet there is no mention of death. Instead, the prayer praises God and promises peace. For many, the rhythmic repetition of syllables serves as a chanting meditation.
“Universal Prayer,” an interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, by Rev. Cora Partridge.
Please read together:
Great Spirit of goodness and justice, our friend. We know you by many names, and in many languages, and by the manifestations of your great works in the universe. We want your influence of goodness to develop on this earth. Please provide all of us with what we need each day. Forgive our sins to the extent that we forgive others. Give us strength to resist temptations and willful wrongdoing, and protect us from evil thoughts, opportunities, and misfortunes that beset humankind. You are the everlasting good. We thank you. Amen.
Remarks by Parents
Remarks by Godparent/Mentor
Laying on of Hands. Clergy put their hands on the head of the person coming of age to bless them, and the whole community then connects to each other in a supportive physical web. For further explanation, see Being Both.
Parting Words (Responsive reading led by minister)
Will you be there for (Name) when they need you to listen? All: We will.
Will you model love for one another and for all peoples? All: We will.
Will you surround (Name) with joy, music, poetry and art? All: We will.
Will you help them work for peace, justice and a sustainable world? All: We will.
Then go now, remembering always the community that we have become today, a community that envelopes and surrounds and supports (Name) with our love.
Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I update my growing list of Hanukkah and Christmas books, in chronological order of publication. No two interfaith families have the same way of celebrating in December. So, rather than simply listing the books, I review how each book might or might not work for your family, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.
1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, or as a starting point for deeper discussion, this book will work.
2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels “ashamed and embarrassed” in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.
3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (2012, ages 5-8) features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.
4. Eight Candles and a Tree(2014, ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.
5. Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (2015, ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have yet seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves her menorah behind on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.
6. December’s Gift(2015, ages 3-8) is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Clara helps her Bubbe make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.
7. New this season, Happy ALL-idays (2022, ages 1-5) is a very simple board book explaining that different families celebrate different holidays in December. It features illustrations and brief rhyming descriptions of families celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and a presumably interfaith family celebrating “Chrismukkah.” The families are notably diverse (including a boy in a wheelchair, and what appear to be single parents, multigenerational families, LGBTQ parents, and interracial couples). The inclusion of an interfaith family alongside families who celebrate one December holiday is novel, and refreshing. If you like to keep Hanukkah and Christmas separate, and avoid using the term “Chrismukkah,” this, sadly, is not the right book for your family. I worry that it depicts hanging dreidels on the tree as the norm, when not all interfaith families mix the two holidays together. But if you’re Team Mashup (and many families are, when it comes to December decorations), this book could be perfect for you.
Today, I am honored to post an essay from guest blogger Shai Wise. –SKM
I was tempted to have this be about how the month of December taught me more about love growing up than almost anything else. Not because of gifts – though they were nice to receive. It wasn’t even because of seeing family although we did that too. It was because my parents balanced December in a way that always made me wonder why people would ask how they “handled it” or what they did about the “December dilemma.”
And it is true that December taught me about love because my dad put up the Christmas tree. Each year my Jewish father would take the box up from the basement. He would lay it out and before he could get too far into his project my mother would take us out to a movie so we wouldn’t learn any “new words.” But that is not what stays in my memory – that isn’t what feels important. It isn’t even that my father refused to allow lights on the tree because he was afraid of fire – because he was convinced we would burn the house down if we put lights on our artificial tree – and as best I can tell we had the same tree my whole childhood.
And I have so many images of December – of my father putting up that tree and my mother scraping wax off the menorahs. She would melt the wax and dig it out and make sure we each had a menorah fresh and clean for lighting candles. She never claimed Judaism as her tradition, she was raised Catholic and would say that it never left her. But she also said it was our tradition and she was going to make sure each holiday was observed and held in the respect it deserved. She never claimed Chanukah as Christmas but she claimed it for what it was – a holiday of revolution, resistance and light. And in preparing the menorahs, making latkes, making sure we read part of the story each night, she claimed it for my father. She loved it because she loved him, She loved it because she loved us.
But December taught me about love because of something else. It taught me about love because the December after my mother died. The first December I was home from college. The first Christmas without my mother. The first Chanukah without my mother. I received two gifts. A reminder from my father over the phone of how to clean wax out of a menorah, directly from my mother’s notes and when I got home the menorahs in our home, the dreidels were still out because my father had done his best to be my mother (even though by the time I arrived home Chanukah was over).
But there was something else. My father got out the Christmas tree and put it up. He didn’t have to. He could have decided that because my mother was gone he no longer needed to do this for her. He could have made the choice to remove himself from the task that he had done out of love for her – he could have stepped away from this one tradition and no one would have questioned him.
But he did it.
He did it because had always done it out of love for my mother. He had carried her in his heart as he put up her tree, the family’s tree, the tree that meant so much to her.
He did it because he knew that in coming home from college, having lost my mother so recently, I would need it. I would need to know that in losing her I wasn’t losing her traditions, her story and her light as well.
My father taught me about love one December when he stepped outside of his own tradition and into my mother’s story one last time so we wouldn’t lose her and her tree all at once.
Shai Wise was raised in an interfaith family in NY and now lives in a multifaith, multiracial family in WI. He has served as congregational clergy and in chaplaincy. He is a Red Sox fan who will cheer for the Brewers in a pinch.
Children born into interfaith families have an intuitive understanding of the benefits and challenges of interfaith family life. But what happens when a child suddenly finds themselves at the center of a new interfaith family, when a parent remarries or chooses a new partner? The new blended family can be both enriched and complicated by cultural and religious differences.
Brand New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson is the first picture book to address the sudden formation of an interfaith family through remarriage, from a child’s perspective. The story, by an experienced children’s author, is told with great charm and gentle humor, and accompanied by engaging illustrations. The book is highly recommended for children struggling to adjust to a new interfaith family, or any blended family. Brand New Bubbe is a unique and important addition to the small but growing list of books written for and about children in interfaith families.
Jillian, who has grown up in a family that is not Jewish, finds her new Jewish stepdad “really nice.” But she’s not sure at first about her new grandmother: “Jillian already had a Noni and a Gram. Bubbe didn’t get the hint.” Psychologically, Jillian’s discomfort in adjusting to the new family is displaced onto Bubbe as a safe target.
Jillian, a spirited only child vaguely reminiscent of the iconic Eloise, goes on a protest strike, refusing to give in to Bubbe’s lavish affections. She worries that her beloved Noni and Gram will feel left out, or replaced. The detailed illustrations amplify the subtle humor, with a parallel plot involving the tension between Jillian’s cat and Bubbe’s small dog. When Jillian stages her protest, the cat joins in, carrying a sign protesting Bubbe’s dog.
Jillian’s mother finally intervenes to point out that Jillian is being too tough on Bubbe. Jillian ultimately works through her dilemma of how to integrate Bubbe into the family by inviting all three grandmothers to come to a soup celebration. They cook together, share the meal together, and love ultimately abounds and prevails. The moral of the story, once again, is that the more supportive people we have in our lives (and the more soup), the better. And by association, for me, the implication is that our lives can be enriched by multiple religions in one extended family.
Brand New Bubbe is enhanced by excellent recipes for Bubbe’s matzoh ball soup, Noni’s Italian wedding soup, and Gram’s gazpacho. (I judge they are excellent by the inclusion of parsnips in the matzoh ball soup). The book also includes a brief resource section, including a shout-out to The Interfaith Family Journal.
Brand New Bubbe is not didactic on the subject of Judaism (or anything else). Beyond matzoh balls, there is only brief reference to the unfamiliar new holidays Jillian is experiencing, and to her exposure to new Yiddish words like kvelling and kvetching. Instead, Brand New Bubbe focuses on the child’s emotional journey–her resistance and evolution as part of a new interfaith family. Jillian expresses a kaleidoscope of feelings as she goes through this evolution–at first worried, petulant, and disruptive, but ultimately resourceful, creative, and affectionate.
By the end of the book, Jillian has assumed the role of an interfaith ambassador, working to build bridges, in order to play her part in creating a new and successful interfaith family. This feisty protagonist is a great addition to the interfaith family canon, and I hope there will be sequels. In the final pages of Brand New Bubbe, the observant reader will note the arrival of a baby, raising the possibility of a sequel on siblings in a blended interfaith family. I look forward to reading what happens next for Jillian, and Bubbe.
We have to call it big news when a generally conservative Jewish media outlet summons 10 “non-Jewish spouses” of Jews and asks them about anything. So the publication of the piece in The Tablet last week, entitled “The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses,” represents progress. And that’s because most of the Jewish press coverage and academic work on interfaith families has been based on interviews and surveys with the Jewish partners, and only the Jewish partners. My book Being Both, almost a decade after publication, is still a rare source on what both partners in interfaith relationships think, and feel.
I also appreciated that two of the twelve “non-Jewish” partners in this group conversation are raising children with both family religions, and that they were allowed to explain what they see as the benefits of this choice. Andrea, who was raised Presbyterian, married a Jew, and now sees herself as interfaith, explains to the group, “I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.” And Kavya, a Hindu married to a Jew, adds “it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds.”
This published conversation also adds to the growing body of literature describing the tremendous damage done by exclusion of interfaith couples, including refusal to officiate at marriages, family members who refuse to visit, and family members who refuse to attend weddings. And it adds to the literature describing the tremendous damage done by gender-based religious gatekeeping in the form of excluding children of Jewish patrilineal descent. These parents describe a refusal to perform a bris, an interfaith child raised Jewish who studied and jumped through every Jewish hoop but was still called a non-Jew, and a rabbi who ripped tefillin off a boy’s body.
All of this is important for a Jewish audience to hear. And yet, this piece is also an example of a very focused Jewish lens, a lens that distorts the experience of people married to Jews through selection bias, and the choice of questions. To start with, not one of these 12 partners-of-Jews actually currently identifies as Christian, according to the bios. So the Jewish bias is already inherent in the selection of a sample of partners who have mostly left Christianity behind. The editors also “deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish.” What does that even mean? In this case, it means this is a conversation primarily among people who married “practicing” Jews and agreed to put aside their own religion, or who had left their own religion, and are raising “Jewish only” children. Eight out of ten couples with children in this sample are raising children “Jewish only,” which is a huge oversampling of that subgroup.
And, note that all of the questions, with the exception of a nod to the (arguably secular) Christmas tree and Easter eggs, are about Judaism. And even the tree and eggs are discussed in terms of their effects on the Jewish partners. The discussion topics include Passover, the High Holidays, Torah study, Israel, Jewish persecution, and conversion to Judaism. These partners are asked how their Jewish in-laws felt about the marriage, but not how their own (mostly Christian) parents felt. There are zero questions about how they feel about leaving their religions behind, whether there are traditions that they miss, what their children might gain from Christian (or Hindu) extended family. In the end, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s not really about these partners of Jews at all. It’s about (once again) what it all means for Judaism.
As more young couples continue to move away from institutional religious affiliation, some people have wondered if there is any need for a book (or two) on interfaith families.
And then, just yesterday, I realized once again how relevant this book still is. Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, an author and religion reporter for the Deseret News in Utah, published a lovely and moving piece centered on her Jewish and Muslim family. And I was honored to serve as a source of ideas, counsel, and affirmation, for that piece.
And then, this morning, a new study of the Jewish community in Chicago found 21% of (Jewish) interfaith families raising kids with two religions, as well as 12% of single Jewish parents, and even 1% of Jewish/Jewish parents. (This last category intrigues me. Presumably both parents identify as Jewish, but one or both also practices Buddhism or Paganism, or one or both parents are interfaith kids themselves).
So, even after eight years, and even in the pandemic, new people continue to discover the idea that you can honor more than one religious heritage. And I continue to be invited to engage with new communities, and new experts, as a consultant and speaker sharing my personal experiences as an interfaith kid and adult, and my research on #BeingBoth and #DoingBoth families.
I gave a guest lecture in a Jewish Studies course taught by Rabbi Vanessa Ochs at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
I was a guest expert at an Interfaith Couples Workshop, sponsored by the Jewish outreach organization 18doors, in NYC. (They used to be interfaithfamily.com).
I co-facilitated a workshop with Aisha Hauser on Supporting Interfaith Families in Our Communities, at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA).
I was a guest on the Tattoos and Torah podcast with Rabbi Iggy Gurin-Malous at the T’Shuvah Center in NYC. We had a marvelous conversation on interfaith, intercultural, bilingual, and LGBTQ relationships, in the contexts of spirituality, addiction and recovery.
So, yes, Being Both still feels relevant, and important. People from interfaith families are setting new tables, creating new spaces, and changing the way religion and spirituality will be practiced in the United States, and around the world, going forward.
This work is not done. And this work still brings me joy.
Yesterday, the Jews of Color Initiative released an important new study: “Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color.” Most media coverage of the report is focusing on how the study documents the discrimination experienced by Jews of Color in Jewish settings. I fully support the recommendations made in the report, intended to galvanize American Jewish communities.
Inevitably, I read this new report from my perspective as a white person who grew up in an interfaith family, and as someone who works to make space for people who honor multiple religious heritages. For twenty years, I have been researching, writing about, and publishing the voices of people from interfaith families, many of whom are also from intercultural and interracial families. And from that perspective, I make some recommendations here for further research.
The study is based on a survey of 1,118 Jews of Color, plus 61 in-depth interviews, and is filled with important quantitative and qualitative data. The study was conducted by a notably diverse set of researchers–the labels they claim include Black, Chicano, Asian, Sephardic, neurodivergent, trans, queer, atheist, and millennial. As such, and as a study that asked Jews of Color to speak to their own experiences, this study documents with unprecedented depth and sensitivity the experiences of Jews of Color (a contested term, as described by both the researchers and respondents).
The study also documents, and yet mentions only briefly and obliquely, and even erases, the interfaithness of the experience of some Jews of Color growing up in interfaith families, and the importance of other religions and forms of spirituality in their lives. Since the study itself provides little commentary on these findings, I wanted to highlight those findings here and ask some questions important for further exploration.
42% of the respondents have only one Jewish parent. What was the religion of the other parent? What importance did that religion have to the respondent in childhood, and today?
16% of the respondents said they were raised “Jewish and something else.”What religion was the “something else”? What did this interfaith childhood look like? Did they attend church or mosque and synagogue? Attend two religious education programs? Celebrate two sets of holidays in the home?
21% said they identify as Jewish and “one or more other religions.”Which religions? How many of those people were raised with both parental religions, and still identify with both? How many began to identify with the other religion in their heritage only in adulthood, and why? How many added a new religion or religions, different from those in their ancestry, to their Judaism in adulthood?
6% of the mothers of respondents, and 7% of their fathers, were raised “Jewish and something else.”How many of these respondents with parents raised both, were raised both themselves?What does this say about the reality of multigenerational interfaith families?What does it say about the persistence of the idea of educating interfaith children about both family religions?
The report is strengthened by dozens of quotes from those who were surveyed or interviewed. The quotes mention a Bollywood-themed Shabbat, Japanese foods used in a Havdalah ritual, Senegalese-based practices, and having multiple racial and cultural identities. But nowhere do the 42% of respondents with a parent of another religion, or the 21% who identify today with more than one religion, actually name or explain the importance of those other religions (with the exception of one mention of earth-based indigenous practice). It is striking that nowhere is Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam even named.
I understand that work funded by Jewish philanthopists, and often motivated by engaging more people in Judaism, inevitably centers the Jewish perspective. This study demonstrates how important that work is to help Jewish institutions understand how to affirm and engage with the diversity of Jews today. And I do understand why Jewish networks had to be used to find the respondents and those who were interviewed, even though this means the study does not represent all people of color with Jewish heritage.
But to fully understand the intersectional experience of people with interfaith heritage (including many Jews of Color) will require going further. Researchers need to ask for and listen to the stories of how the spirituality and culture of Buddhist, Quaker, Latino Catholic, Black Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Pagan, African diasporic, Unitarian-Universalist or Native American parents and ancestors have also been formative in the lives of Jews of Color, and more generally, Jews from interfaith families. We need to make space for the stories of how these family members and ancestors of other religions may have been important, even in the lives of those who now identify “exclusively” as Jewish.
Understanding the full complexity of the religious identities of Jews of Color also requires a willingness to name the other religions practiced by those who are current multiple religious practitioners. The reluctance to mention any religion other than Judaism will not erase these religions from these families, or from intersectional identities. And finally, coming to a better understanding of people of color with Jewish heritage will require reaching those who no longer identify with Judaism and were not asked to, or would not, fill out this survey. That task may seem difficult, but neither are we are free to avoid it.
For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.
But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.
The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.
This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.
A lot has been writtenaboutinterfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.
Let me explain.
Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).
Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.
Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.
Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.
How can we fix this?
Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.
Trying to survey the Jewish community is an important, and thankless, task.
Today, Pew Research released their first national study of the Jewish American landscape since 2013. Every assumption, every question, every result, will be scrutinized and debated for years to come.
For interfaith families, there is not really a whole lot that is new to report. In fact, more intriguing and detailed data and analysis has been released elsewhere recently. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
From the point of view of interfaith families, it is important to remember that virtually all studies of interfaith families and the Jewish community, including this Pew report, are funded by Jewish foundations or institutions. So the framework is built on the concerns and questions of institutional Judaism in America. As a result, there are a lot of questions that will feel archaic or beside-the-point to a lot of young American Jews, and to a lot of interfaith families. There’s a lot about relationships to Israel. There’s a lot about participating in traditional Jewish ritual and membership. There are gendered analyses about the role of the mother and the father.
Some two dozen rabbis are thanked in the Pew report acknowledgements, including those notorious for opposing interfaith marriage. It all feels fraught, and weighed down, with traditional Jewish continuity narratives, given how mixed a multitude we are now.
What does this mean for interfaith families? Many of us were excluded from the study. Pew classified people as Jewish, Jewish background, or Jewish affinity, with the bulk of the study focused only on those deemed “Jewish.” Pew created a complex set of rules based on parentage, upbringing, and current identity, for deciding which category to put each person.
Regardless of their Jewish parentage or Jewish upbringing, anyone who claimed to be both Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian-Universalist, or Jewish and Pagan, or Jewish and any other religion, was excluded from counting as Jewish, and from the body of this study.
Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, was counted as Jewish if they were raised Jewish.
Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, but was not raised Jewish, was counted only as having Jewish affinity.
Pew did include in their overall Jewish population what they estimate are 200,000 children being raised in Judaism and another religion. However, they excluded an estimated 200,000 adults who identify as Jewish and another religion. Pew’s explanation: “This accounts for the uncertainty inherent in projecting how children will identify when they grow up; some children who are raised as Jewish and another religion go on to identify, in adulthood, solely as Jewish.”
Pew cautions us not to compare this year’s study directly with their last study of Jews in America in 2013. In part this is because they have shifted their sampling from phone calls, to written and online responses. It is not immediately clear to me why the percentage of interfaith couples raising children with more than one religion would have gone down from 25% in 2013 to 12% in 2020. I suspect this has something to do with the increasing number of multi-generational interfaith families being excluded from the “Jewish” category.
What I do know is that the 12% figure does not align with my experience as someone who works full-time supporting interfaith families, nor does it align with recent individual community studies. Anecdotally, one group of Reform rabbis told me that about 50% of the interfaith couples they are now marrying want to “do both.” And recently, I was contacted by two Reform rabbis to speak to a group of interfaith couples, after the rabbis discovered that all of the couples in their group were intending to “do both.”
Even though they are funded by Jewish communities, some recent studies of specific regions align more closely than today’s Pew study with my experience of the growing awareness that you can, indeed, give interfaith children an interfaith education.
In Toronto, 44% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “with two religious heritages” (as opposed to 39% raising kids exclusively Jewish), according to a 2020 report. This detailed report on interfaith families in Toronto appears to have drawn heavily on my work, revealing texture and nuance, and I will return to it in another post.
Another survey done last year in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts (including Amherst and Northampton), found 46% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “Jewish and another religion,” (as opposed to 33% raising them exclusively Jewish by religion). And in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul), a 2019 study found 34% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent raising children with two religions, while 16% were raising them exclusively Jewish by religion. Not surprisingly, studies (many older) of the big cities in the East with many deep-rooted Jewish institutions found smaller percentages (many of them 11-18%) of interfaith families “doing both.”
Later this week, the new Pew report will be analyzed by Jewish interfaith family professionals in an online briefing. I intend to listen to that session, and hope to report back here on anything new or noteworthy. Stay tuned.