Children’s Books, Interfaith Education

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Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

How do we educate interfaith children about the various religions in the family tree? These days, a child may have a Jewish father, Hindu mother, Buddhist uncle, and Christian step-grandparent. Such children benefit deeply from understanding the religions they encounter at home and at family gatherings. And many interfaith parents are on the lookout for supportive tools for interfaith education.

PJ Library, a program providing free Jewish children’s books, turns out to be a great educational resource for any family with Jewish heritage. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2005, PJ Library has now delivered more than 10 million free Jewish children’s books to homes in the US and Canada, with 88 new book titles each year. And a survey of PJ Library subscribers, released in May of this year, found that 42% of the families in the program had a family member who did not grow up Jewish. “I think it’s a very welcoming program,” explains Foundation president Winnie Sandler Grinspoon. “The books we select and the reading guides that are part of the book flap are accessible to any family.”

The PJ Library survey sought to measure, among other things, the Jewish engagement of subscribers. The first marker of engagement was whether a family is raising children as either “Jewish or Jewish and something else.” The second marker was whether parents “believe it is very important that their children identify as all or partially Jewish.”

It is encouraging that a major Jewish funder such as PJ Library understands that families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are engaged with Judaism. The program does not screen out families based on how they should engage with Judaism, or whether or not they are exclusively or “authentically” Jewish. PJ Library’s approach is inclusive, and I hope that other Jewish funders and institutions will begin to appreciate that many of the families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are serious about engaging with Judaism, even if this engagement is not exclusive.

 

But I was also curious about how many interfaith family subscribers identify as Jewish only, and how many identify as “Jewish and…” So I asked, and PJ Library went back to their survey data and provided me with this rather stunning breakdown: 50 percent of interfaith families in the survey were raising children “Jewish and something else,” while 45 percent were raising children Jewish only.

 

So, fully half of the interfaith families surveyed were raising kids “doing both.” This is important for a number of reasons. For one, Pew Research in 2013 found 25% raising kids “Jewish and…” So the question is why, just four years later, PJ Library found double that percentage. One reason could be a large increase in interfaith families choosing interfaith education. Another reason could be that families choosing interfaith education are finding their way in large numbers to the very welcoming PJ Library program in order to access Jewish content for their children. And this, in turn, may be related to the fact that some other Jewish institutions (notably, many synagogues) exclude children who are “doing both.” I suspect all of these factors may be contributing to the large number of “Jewish and” families subscribing to PJ Library.

 

In order to better understanding how and why the program works for families raising kids “Jewish and something else,” I spoke to two locals mothers who subscribe to PJ Library. Lis Maring is Jewish, and her husband was raised Lutheran. They are educating their boys, ages 8 and 13, in both religions as members of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. The Maring family has spent time in India, and their shelves include books on Christmas and Easter, but also on Hindu deities.

Lis Maring signed up for PJ Library several years ago, and says she “highly recommends” the program. Both the Jewish and the Christian grandparents have enjoyed reading the books to the boys. Says Lis, “The books call attention to Jewish holidays I might not be paying attention to, and that helps me. They’re always fun and engaging stories. And they often have a social justice theme to them.”

Lindsay Bartley was raised Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. They have two boys, ages three and one, and are also raising them with both religions. They have been PJ Library subscribers for nine months now. “What I like is that when you go to stores, it’s easy to find Christian holiday books. It’s mainstream. But Jewish books are harder to find,” says Lindsay. “If we didn’t get the PJ Library books, we would definitely have more Christian books.”

A handful of PJ Library books have featured interfaith families. But both Lis and Lindsay note that they are seeking Jewish content from the program, not affirmation of their family choices. They are not concerned with seeing more interfaith families represented in the books, as long as the spirit of the program is inclusive. “I have generally been impressed that the books are not judging or telling you that there’s only one way,” says Lindsay.

PJ Library’s Sandler Grinspoon makes clear that they are happy to send books to “being both” families. “This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”

Meanwhile, interfaith parents teaching religions beyond Judaism and Christianity will need to consult librarians or booksellers, and check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks on twitter or Pinterest. Bharat Babies, a children’s book subscription service on Indian culture including both Hindu and Muslim topics, was inspired in part by PJ Library. And Noor Kids creates books on Islam for subscribers. Such programs may well thrive and proliferate as millennial parents, many of them unaffiliated with traditional religious institutions, continue to seek out tools for interfaith education.

 

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

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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.

 

A Spring Quilt of Interfaith Connections

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

In seven years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted many essays on a number of spring Jewish and Christian holidays: Purim, St Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of Generation Interfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity. Speaking in Chicago this week, I met a woman from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Hindu partner, and a man from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Muslim partner. Increasingly, I see the world of interfaith families, not as a Jewish/Christian binary, but as vibrant pieces bound together into a greater design, and traced with embroidery that winds across the pieces.

My book Being Both is devoted to the idea that interfaith children, in particular, benefit from exploring that whole quilt through interfaith education. But actually, all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from interfaith education. Meanwhile, with political demagogues busy stirring up ugly religious intolerance in this election season, now is the time for every American (and every world citizen), whether or not we have extended interfaith families, to do a better job of educating ourselves about the religions around us.

Just in the next two weeks, we have a dense schedule of religious holidays, providing many opportunities to celebrate with interfaith family, and interfaith friends. If you don’t have family and friends who will invite you over, check out my Beacon Press colleague Linda K. Wertheimer‘s suggestions on how to get out and visit local houses of worship. And if you don’t live near any temples or mosques, there is always the free online courses from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project.

Below, I have written up a quick list of just some of the religious holidays in the remainder of March. Note the ancient connections many of them have to the spring equinox, and possibly, to each other. And notice how many of these spring festivals are now celebrated by people of multiple religions. My belief is that we are all religious syncretists, tied to the religions that came before us, and the religions that surround us. And so as part of Generation Interfaith, I celebrate these connections:

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish culture. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 20, Ostara. Modern Pagan and Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 20, Palm Sunday. Christian commemoration of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, celebrated with church services and processions with palm fronds. Among Indian Christians, the Hindu practice of strewing flowers such as marigolds has been adapted for Palm Sunday.

March 21, Norooz. Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, it is celebrated by many people of all religions throughout the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 23, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 23, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 24, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 24, Maundy Thursday – Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may be a historical connection between The Last Supper and Passover.

March 24, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Holi and Hola Mohalla.

March 25, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

March 27, Easter. Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.

March 30, Mahavir Jayanti. Jain commemoration of the birth of Mahavira, celebrated with temple visits for meditation and prayer, decoration with flags and flowers, and charitable acts.

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

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.

 

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.

Interfaith Education For Every Child

Faith Ed

 

In Being Both, I document the idea that interfaith children benefit from interfaith education. Learning about more than one religion from a young age yields specific benefits for children who have more than one religion in the extended family. But I also write about the idea that every child, in this era of global interconnection, would benefit from learning about the religions in the neighborhood, and the religions of the world.

In an important new book from Beacon Press (disclosure–Beacon is my publisher) entitled Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, journalist Linda K. Wertheimer reports on efforts around the country to teach (not preach) more than one religion in public school classrooms. The book essentially starts from the premise that teaching religions in public schools is a key to combating religious ignorance.  But how best to accomplish the task?

Wertheimer is a thorough reporter, interviewing students, parents, teachers, administrators, and education experts about experiences with interfaith education in the schools. In describing the successes and failures encountered in these pioneering classrooms, she addresses a number of important questions including the following:

  • How do schools negotiate the tension between separation of church and state, and the desire to teach interactive and multi-sensory interfaith education?
  • Are field trips to mosques and temples necessary, or somehow risky?
  • What age is the right age to teach about religions in the public schools?
  • What effect does interfaith education have on children from minority religions?
  • And for those in the religious majority (usually Christians), can these programs reduce religious ignorance and intolerance?

The book is a lively read: a travelogue of Wertheimer’s encounters as she crisscrosses the country to report on both the model classrooms and the controversies. She takes us to Texas, where a high school teacher gets into hot water for letting her students try on a burka while studying Islam. Then we travel to suburban Boston, where a middle school comes under scrutiny after a field trip to a mosque. In Florida, we learn about how a particular guest speaker in the world religions program attracted unwanted national attention for a high school in Tampa. In Kansas, Wertheimer reports on the pressures encountered by an elementary school teaching about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And in Modesto, in the “California Bible Belt,” she describes how high school teachers manage to teach world religions in a context of megachurches and a growing Sikh minority.

In a memoir thread running through the book, Wertheimer returns to her childhood home in rural Ohio to confront the “Church Lady” who taught Bible stories in her elementary school classroom in the 1970s. Her poignant description of feeling very uncomfortable as the only Jewish girl in the class still has great relevance today. Wertheimer finds Christian education (preaching, not just teaching) still going on during the school day in some schools, though students leave to attend this religious school just off campus.

Throughout the book, Wertheimer skillfully weaves a brief history of religion in the schools, key legal cases, and some theory, into her reporting. I wish Faith Ed included a closer look at some of the interfaith education models developed around the world, including in the UK (which requires interfaith education in government-funded schools), in Unitarian-Universalist communities (which have long taught world religions in a context of teaching and not preaching) and in interfaith families communities (which also teach more than one religion without imposing a specific creed). American educators developing multi-religious education for secular schools would benefit from exchanging resources, curricula, and strategies with those in other countries, and those in the inclusivist religious world with expertise in teaching more than one religion.

But this slim book is sure to spark necessary conversations on the importance of interfaith education in the schools. Students, parents and teachers in the book testify to the idea that education about religions is a key strategy to prevent bullying, fear, and alienation, among children from religious minorities. Faith Ed is timely, provocative, and essential reading for all of us in religiously plural settings in America, which is to say, for all of us.

 

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 vs. Jews For Jesus

Being Both M&Ms

Let me be very clear. Raising interfaith children with interfaith education is not the same as being part of the Christian movement known as Jews for Jesus. Sometimes, I describe interfaith family communities as the opposite of Jews for Jesus, since many of both the Jewish and Christian parents see Jesus as a teacher or rabbi, rather than as a messiah. This is in marked contrast to Jews for Jesus or Messianic Judaism, both forms of Christianity that accept Jesus as the Messiah.

This week, a Reform Jewish rabbi wrote a post that conflates Jews for Jesus with interfaith families celebrating both family religions. I don’t usually respond to blog posts written by those determined to undermine interfaith families who choose interfaith education. But in this case, I am going to respond point by point, since this is not the first time that interfaith family communities have been confused with Jews for Jesus.

First, some points of agreement with this rabbi: I am aware that Jews for Jesus sometimes target interfaith families. I find this evangelization or missionary work deeply problematic. I am not sure how successful it is, but I think it would have less success if interfaith families felt more welcome in Jewish communities. But that’s a side conversation.

I agree that if you believe Jesus is the Messiah then you are, theologically speaking, a Christian. And I agree that presenting Jewish texts through the particular historical Christian lens of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity “completes” Judaism) is deeply problematic from a Jewish point of view. I also find supersessionism problematic as a universalist who believes each religious system is a product of a specific time and culture with specific value. And finally, I would agree with the author that Christianity is “distinct from and different than Judaism.” That is what we teach our interfaith kids in interfaith education programs. We don’t blend or mix the two religions together.

On the other hand, I strongly object to the author’s implication that Jewish people in interfaith families tend to be ignorant about their own religion and therefore naively ripe for evangelization. My research documents interfaith families “doing both” in which the Jewish partner is in fact deeply knowledgeable about Judaism—went to Jewish Day Schools, ran Hillel chapters, and in some cases would have become rabbis if they hadn’t been excluded from seminaries because of their interfaith relationships. These Jewish parents are not about to become Jews for Jesus. But they do want to teach their children about both their Jewish and Christian heritage.

The author writes, “There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.”

Of course, the idea that you “need” to choose one religion for your interfaith family is the author’s opinion. There are more than just “a number” of families celebrating two religions. According to Pew Research, 25% of all intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” (I do not like or use the term “partly,” but this is their term, not mine). So trying to minimize or marginalize this choice, the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education, is no longer practical or reasonable.

I surveyed hundreds of parents who chose interfaith education for their interfaith children. I asked which other religious communities they had considered or tried. Some of these families had belonged to, or still belong to, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, and secular humanist communities. None of these families expressed any interest in Jews for Jesus.

Rather than Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children that Jesus was the Messiah, families “doing both” are Jews and Christians who agree to teach their children about all of the various ways of looking at Jesus. They are teaching their children that they are not born into any one theological state. Rather, they are born into two religious cultures, and have the privilege, as human beings living in a country with religious freedom, to choose for themselves what they believe, how they will practice, and how they will affiliate. Some of these children grow up to be Jews who respect Jesus as a great Jewish thinker. Some of them grow up to be Christians with a deep knowledge of and affection for Judaism. None of them, in my research so far, have grown up to be Messianic Jews, or Jews for Jesus.

The author concludes, “I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life.” I realize, once again, how hard it can be for people born into one religion to understand that for many of the interfaith children I interviewed and surveyed, bothness is not something we choose. Rather, bothness is a deeply felt identity, resulting from the beneficial reality of having extended family from both religions. And for some of us, it does indeed lead to living a Jewish life, for others it does not.

Jews for Jesus may see their role as persuading interfaith families to accept Jesus as the Messiah. And many rabbis still see their role as persuading interfaith families and children to be “exclusively Jewish.” However, a growing number of rabbis, ministers, priests, and clergy of all religions are beginning to understand that persuasion may not be the best way to support interfaith families, or the survival of religions. And they understand that we cannot simply ignore the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Pagan, or atheist) members of our interfaith families. Instead, they see the benefits of working together with clergy from other religions, to support interfaith families who want to pass on love and knowledge of both family worldviews.

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.

Interfaith Family Community, Chicago Style

The Family School. I am an Interfaith Ambassador

In writing Being Both, I set out to chronicle the rise of a grassroots movement centered on three great cities with vibrant interfaith family communities: New York, Washington, and Chicago. Each of these cities has a program with over 100 interfaith children being educated by paired Jewish and Christian co-teachers. Recently, I was in Chicago to celebrate the publication of Being Both (just out in paperback) with interfaith families there. Both interfaith parents and grown children from Chicago filled out the surveys that form the backbone of my research for Being Both. Most of them were from The Family School, the pioneering program for children in Jewish/Catholic families, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. (The video they created for the occasion features powerful, moving testimony from parents, children, and clergy, about the benefits of interfaith education). The school is so successful that families in the northern suburbs of Chicago used the curriculum to launch a parallel program, the Union School for Interfaith Families.

But I had not anticipated what an emotional experience it would be, to return to Chicago and stand before these interfaith communities, with my book in hand. Over the past year, I have spoken in churches and synagogues, bookstores and libraries, universities and community centers. Usually, I face an audience including listeners who are deeply skeptical. And I’m fine with that. My goal in writing this book was not to preach to the choir, but to document our experiences in order to shift the thinking of those who harbor grave doubts about the wisdom of interfaith education. So usually, when I prepare to speak, I line up my anecdotes, hone my arguments, memorize my data, and gather answers to tough questions. As an adult interfaith child, I have spent my entire life facing these tough questions, and I am not easily shaken.

Except that, at Old St. Pat’s, I stood looking out at a gathering of about a hundred interfaith family members, from both the Family School and the Union School, and I was verklempt (in Yiddish, overcome with emotion), unable for a moment to launch into my book talk. For suddenly, I realized I was in a room full of people who already understood everything I wanted to say, who had already experienced the benefits of interfaith family life. I arrived suited up in my usual book-talk armor, and instead felt completely disarmed by the love of these families, for each other. I was faced with a great big roomful of love transcending boundaries.

Over the course of four days in the Windy City, I also had time for long talks with David and Patty Kovacs, two of the original founders of The Family School. Their children are grown and flown, but they still to put their hearts and souls into The Family School. (Patty continues to develop and update the school’s Jewish and Catholic curriculum, in a huge stack of spiral-bound notebooks). Patty Marfise-Patt, the current school coordinator, presented me with an “I am an Interfaith Ambassador” button: a button inspired by a phrase from Being Both, and given out to all their students at the beginning of this school year. And I got to meet Barbara Mahany, a teacher in this year’s Family School eighth-grade, who brought her entire class to hear me speak. (Barbara, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, just published a book of essays, in part inspired by her own Catholic and Jewish family, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door).

While in Chicago, I also did outreach work, describing how interfaith family communities work to a Humanistic Jewish congregation, to a group of interfaith-curious Chicago rabbis, and during a podcast taping for Things Not Seen radio at the WBEZ NPR studios on the Navy Pier. But it was the inreach work that really fed my soul: reconnecting with my sister communities in Chicago, and especially with the interfaith teens there, who all “get” my interfaith identity in a natural and intuitive way that adults, even interfaith parents, sometimes cannot. Now, I wait with great anticipation for those who grew up with interfaith education to go out into the world, take leadership roles in interfaith activism, and write their own books. The world needs to hear their voices of the next generation of Interfaith Ambassadors.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.
Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.

 

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!