In Memoriam: Sheila Gordon, Interfaith Families Leader

The interfaith families community movement has lost our most important founder and leader, Sheila Gordon.

Sheila was a passionate visionary. She did more than any other human being to forge the concept of a community providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and then to ensure that idea persisted in the world. She was co-creator of the very first interfaith families community, which became the Interfaith Community (IFC) in New York City. And then, instead of retiring, she dedicated the past two decades to leading IFC, branching off new interfaith family communities in New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, and elsewhere. As a movement, we exist in large part because of Sheila’s intellect, energy, and phenomenal dedication. She worked right up through what she knew would be her final months to ensure a legacy that would benefit interfaith families, on into the future.

Founder and Creator

The story of our national movement began in 1987, when a group of parents led by Sheila and Lee Gruzen created an afterschool interfaith education program for their interfaith children on New York’s Upper West Side. Lee wrote a book published that same year, Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Their Heritages, and Sheila wrote a foreword to the book’s second edition, in 2001.

In that same year, Sheila retired from foundation work, and began dedicating all her formidable professional skills to the IFC program. She hired Christian and Jewish seminarians from Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary to co-write an interfaith curriculum for interfaith children, and to co-teach in the classrooms. One of her greatest legacies is the generations of ministers and rabbis who understand the importance of interfaith education for interfaith families, because they taught at IFC (including my friends and colleagues Rabbi Ari Saks and Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block). And she developed IFC into a template that could be replicated by other communities, providing advice and professional support from her IFC office in the famous “God Box” on Riverside Drive, close by both seminaries.

National Expert

In addition to running IFC and supporting all of its branches (including communities in Boston and Denver at various points), Sheila stood out as the most experienced national leader representing the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families. In the 1990s and 2000’s we met up as presenters at the national Dovetail interfaith family national conferences. She brought a delegation of IFC folks to DC to visit my community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I visited Sheila and her beloved husband Robin Elliott in New York, when I interviewed her for my book Being Both, and again to celebrate that book’s publication. In 2015, she wrote a guest post for my blog, analyzing a new study on interfaith children. And in 2017, she wrote an academic paper for UNESCO entitled “Interfaith education: A new model for today’s interfaith families.

In 2020, when the pandemic challenged the functioning of all our communities (and all communities generally), Sheila joined us on Network of Interfaith Family Groups zoom calls to strategize, despite her illness. On those calls, she advised couples from around the country on finding and creating interfaith family communities. And in zoom calls with leadership of the NY, Chicago, and DC interfaith families groups in the last year, we strove to ensure that this work, her work, would live on, and receive the national recognition it deserves.

Personally, I have lost my most important interfaith families mentor. It feels daunting, and lonely, to imagine doing this work without her advice and support. Sheila exemplified both the compassion and stubborn determination required for this job. All of my work on interfaith families is only possible because of all of her work. She understood both the frustration and the necessity of engaging with resistant religious institutions. And she understood the satisfaction of going ahead and providing that interfaith education with or without those institutions, and building community around it.

The task was endless, but she never desisted. She led us through narrow places, and her legacy is assured in the myriad ways that interfaith education for interfaith children has taken root. Her memory will be a blessing to thousands of interfaith families today, and into the future.

You can make a donation in memory of Sheila Gordon to support interfaith families through the Interfaith Community.

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.

Where Do We Go? Interfaith Families, Fall Decisions

The Interfaith Family Journal

The kids are back in school. The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Are you joining a synagogue? A church? A Unitarian-Universalist congregation? A Buddhist sangha? A Hindu temple? A secular humanist community? All of the above? None of the above?

Are you interested in finding or creating an interfaith families community in your geographic area? Or, are you confident that you can teach your children what you want them to know about their religious heritages, and the religions of the world, at home? Do the schools your children attend teach one religion, or teach about many world religions, or avoid religion entirely? Do you and your partner agree on where you want your children to develop religious literacy and interfaith self-esteem?

Have you visited the communities available in your geographic area that might be a good fit for your family? Are they welcoming to interfaith families? Do the clergy officiate at interfaith life cycle ceremonies? Would they fully accept your children as belonging? Or, are their restrictions on participation?

So many questions! Interfaith families can feel overwhelmed this time of year, or even paralyzed, and may end up putting off decisions for another year.

But this fall, for the first time, help is here. I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  in part to help you through this process of figuring out which community or communities will be right for your family, at this moment. Whether you want to join one community, ,or two, or several, or none, the Journal will help. Whether you want to raise your children with one of your religions, or both of your religions, or a new religion, or many religions, or with purely secular and cultural education, the Journal will help.

The Interfaith Family Journal  takes you through an interactive process of figuring out what you want, what your partner wants, and what communities are available to you. It gives you a checklist of questions to ask any community you are considering joining, to make sure your interfaith family will be fully included. This is the moment to buy a copy for yourself, and one for your partner (or for your adult children, or grandchildren, or for your favorite therapist or clergy member).

In recent weeks, I have had deeply fulfilling experiences presenting my work on interfaith families in Spokane and Asheville, with groups of young interfaith couples and groups of rabbis, and to an international documentary film crew. Next up, I’m heading to Chicago to speak and to sign books. Let your Chicago friends know!

My intention for this fall is to support as many interfaith families as I possibly can, in every geographic region, whether or not I am able to personally coach them. The Interfaith Family Journal distills my decades of research, personal history, and coaching experience into a slim format to help you through these moments of transition. If it is helpful to you, please let me know, and post a review. Thank you!

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Happy 10th, Being Both Blog!

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Happy birthday dear blog!

It has now been exactly a decade since I created this virtual space for interfaith families. Over ten years, I have posted 358 essays here. In that time 184,192 people have visited, and viewed these pages 347,715 times.

I like to think that together we have brought about a virtual global village of people who form families across religious lines. Thousands of people have visited this blog from the US, Canada, UK, India, Australia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Over 1000 people have visited from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Indonesia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And hundreds of visitors have found this community from Sweden, Russia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, Nigeria, Turkey, Norway, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Japan, Bangladesh, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Trinidad & Tobago, South Korea, Qatar, Argentina, Romania, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Thailand. In short, wherever there are families, there are interfaith families.

In ten years, what has changed? In my own work, I published two books on interfaith families. I spoke about how we can be interfaith educators, ambassadors, bridge-builders and peacemakers, at seminaries, conferences, festivals, universities, churches, and synagogues, around the country. I created the Network of Interfaith Family Groups to connect families of any or all religions “doing both” wherever they live. I helped inspire a lively Muslim/Christian interfaith families group (and welcomed the creation of a Muslim/Jewish group as well). And I began coaching interfaith couples online, as well as leading workshops for interfaith families, clergy, and religious educators.

This decade saw the publication of many other important new books in our nascent field, including those on the history of interfaith marriage in the US, on global multiple religious practice, on the different ways people come to be multiple religious practitioners, on how Jewish and Christian interfaith families choose to practice in the US, on what it is like being a rabbi married to a Catholic, on what it is like being a minister married to a Hindu, and on the inclusion of interfaith families in the American Jewish community.

In the Jewish world, one of the most significant changes for interfaith families was the decision of the fourth-largest movement, Reconstructing Judaism, to decide to accept, and ordain, rabbinical students in interfaith relationships. And in the Conservative movement, we are beginning to see a strong challenge from within, led by rabbis and congregants, to the policy forbidding Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriages.

Meanwhile, in this decade, a dramatic decline in American (and European) religious affiliation (and increase in “religious nones”) has encouraged many Christian denominations and other religious leaders to finally engage with the reality of interfaith families and the growth of multiple religious practice. These demographics also mean more of my work has been with families spanning religious and humanist/agnostic/atheist identities. And we have moved in this decade beyond the dominant Christian/Jewish interfaith family discourse, to engage with interfaith families with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pagan, African diasporic, and indigenous religious affiliations, among others. That’s why my new book, The Interfaith Family Journal , was designed to support people of any religion, all religions, or no religions.

Around the world, we still see, far too often, religious intolerance and misunderstanding leading to violence, including violent attacks on interfaith couples and families. And there are still far too many countries where religious authorities control the right to marriage (and burial), marginalizing or effectively prohibiting interfaith families (and LGBTQ+ relationships). We still have work to do to raise awareness, protect each other, and to see that love prevails over hate.

Sometimes in our cosmopolitan American and European cities, it feels like traditional religious identities are fading away, and perhaps interfaith families no longer need support, or my calls for new research and activism. But then, I get an email from a young couple—for instance, a Hindu dating a Catholic. They are seeking out a more neutral advisor, or a more positive outlook, as they struggle with society and extended family. And I realize, once again, how much I am learning from this couple–about their hopes and dreams–while simultaneously helping them. I realize, once again, that they have the potential to go beyond being okay. Through their relationship they can bring inspiration and interfaith education to their extended families and their communities, and to the world.

And then I think, maybe I will go ahead and keep blogging for one more decade?

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Interfaith Families, 2015

autumn image

(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.

Being Both: The Paperback

Opening the first box of paperbacks. Random House pattern echoed in my grandfather's Persian carpet.
Opening my first box of paperbacks.

 

Today, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family comes out in paperback. For me, the paperback release also marks one full year on the road with Being Both. In DC, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California, I have entered into deep interfaith family conversations, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Mormons, Unitarians, Pagans, Hindus, and those with complex religious identities, with theologians, seminarians, religious studies professors, ministers, rabbis, parents, grandparents, and interfaith children.

One of my goals in writing this book has been to encourage adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences in interfaith families, and to encourage those from interfaith families to bring their skills to interfaith activism. I see that happening now. Whether we are Hindu and Muslim, atheist and Buddhist, or Jewish and Christian, we’re here. And we have our own stories to tell. This is the end of the era when people could write or lecture about us, without us.

For delivering this book to the world, and for supporting Being Both through a very successful first year, I must again thank agents May Wuthrich and Rob Weisbach, and my visionary Beacon Press team, starting with Amy Caldwell, Will Myers, Travis Dagenais, Tom Hallock, Pam MacColl, Jessie Bennett, Jenah Blitz-Stoehr, Alyssa Hassan, Rob Arnold, Daniel Barks, and extraordinary cover designer Gabi Anderson. Beacon Press publishes books that leap across traditional boundaries and challenge readers to think (and live) outside the traditional boxes. I am profoundly grateful that they took a chance on Being Both, and that the readers of the world have endorsed that leap of faith(s). I also must thank Gabi in particular for the fact that this book (whether in hardcover or paperback) glows with warmth and beauty. Yes, it’s available as an eBook, but I think you will find the physical object very pleasing.

And now, on to year two of traveling, speaking, and sharing interfaith conversations with all of you. I’m planning California and Oregon, Philadelphia and New York. Contact me about a Being Both event in your community.

Reminder, Upcoming Events:

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome!

Baltimore, MD, Wednesday November 5 at 6:30pm, Book Talk and Signing, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street.

Frederick, MD, Sunday November 9, Adult Education talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (10am) and Book Talk and Signing, Curious Iguana Bookstore (4pm)  RSVP on Facebook.

Takoma Park, MD, Sunday November 16 2014 1-3pm, Book Signing and Paperback Release Celebration, at Now & Then. Refreshments, including Being Both M&Ms! RSVP on Facebook.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

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