High Holy Days 2021: Interfaith Connections

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

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

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  2. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  3. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have “missed the mark” or sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  4. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  5. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  6. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  7. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. And some may choose to honor the Days of Awe in alternative ways. But these services can be enlightening experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner to accompany them in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. And for interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

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

Happy Birthday, Interfaith Family Journal

We are living through strange, dark times. To keep anxiety and depression at bay, we need to remember what is good in the world, and to celebrate what we can, while we can, with those we love most. We also need to feel we can help others.

Today is the first birthday of The Interfaith Family Journal . I like to think that this little book is still in its infancy–that it is just starting to make its mark on the world. The Journal is just beginning to help couples, families, clergy and therapists across the county and the globe. I hope that every minister and rabbi and imam, every friend asked to officiate a wedding, every family and couples therapist, every worried parent and in-law, will discover the power of the Journal to help people figure out their own unique way to honor family traditions.

In the fall, if the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, I have an exciting line-up of speaking events. I’ll be keynoting at a Multiple Religious Belonging Conference in England, sponsored by the University of Birmingham and the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. I’ll be keynoting at a conference in Pasadena CA. And I will continue speaking at synagogues and churches, and for interfaith dialogue groups, including in Massachusetts, and Maryland.

In the meantime, if you are staying away from large gatherings at the moment, consider inviting a group to get on Skype or Zoom (clergy friends, therapist friends, book club, parents with adult children getting married, or young partners or parents). I would be glad to appear by the miracle of the internet and do a Q&A with people whether or not they are quarantined! For a group appearance, I ask only for a receipt for sale of ten books.

If you need to engage with your hands and try to turn off your worrying mind, download the free interfaith coloring pages I commissioned for my website in conjunction with the launch of the Journal. If you have children who will be home with you for weeks, they might enjoy coloring with you, or on their own. And the designs (by artist friend Emily Ettlinger) are crafted to spark conversations about religious, spiritual, and secular symbols and ways of thinking about the world.

Drawing by Emily Ettlinger

And if the Journal, has been helpful to you, and you have a moment right now, please help spread the word by posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads. And request that your local bookstore stock the Journal . This is tremendously helpful in reaching the people who would most benefit from this book.

Finally, even when the world seems frightening, we can still get pleasure, and spread peace and understanding, by speaking to each other about our traditions and beliefs, and listening to each other as we share the wisdom of our families, our histories, our cultures. Now is the time to make a quiet space to untangle thorny interactions with your partner. Now is the time to call a great-aunt or mother-in-law and ask them to tell you family stories about their heritage or culture.

I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  to help us all to move in this direction, to see and hear each other more deeply, as we move through uncertain times.

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.

Passover and Easter 2017 in Interfaith Family Communities

 

Egg.
Egg.       Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

Spring is here, and many interfaith families will be celebrating Passover and Easter at events  with other interfaith families. Below, I share with you a round-up of spring celebrations hosted by interfaith family communities devoted to interfaith education for interfaith families. All are welcome at all of these events, just RSVP to the various organizers and see what you can bring. Some of these events are held before the actual holidays, such as a model teaching Seder, or a discussion of the various interfaith perspectives on Easter. Other events are held on the actual dates and are identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families who celebrate both Judaism and Christianity. And some interfaith family communities have partnered with churches and synagogues, and join those congregations for the holidays.

For all who are lucky enough to live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming Passover and Easter events:

WASHINGTON DC

This Sunday morning, April 2nd, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) will host their annual potluck community Seder, designed by and for families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity. It will be led by the IFFP’s Rabbi Rain Zohav.  And on Easter Sunday, April 16th, IFFP hosts an Easter-themed Gathering with reflections from a minister and a rabbi. After the Gathering, join the community for a Pancake and Matzo Brei breakfast.

PHILADELPHIA

On Saturday April 8th, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia (IFFGP) will be hosting their 9th Annual Interfaith Passover Seder for interfaith families that celebrate both family religions. The event will be held in Lansdale, PA. For more info check out the facebook event page.

NY/NJ/CT

In New York City, the original Interfaith Family Community (IFC), which helped pioneer the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families, now has both a Jewish and a Christian  “home” to extend holiday observances. As a group, they will be joining St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for their Easter Sunday service and egg hunt on April 16th. And they are also allied with the innovative Romemu Jewish community, the only Jewish community I know of with a minister on staff to meet the needs of multi-faith families. You can join Romemu for an adult discussion of Passover and Easter this Wednesday, March 29th.

The Interfaith Family Community chapter in Westchester will hold their annual Easter-Passover celebration on April 2nd in White Plains. For more information and/or to RSVP, email IFC.wes@gmail.com

The IFC Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter had their Passover event last weekend. They will hold a family Easter celebration followed by an egg hunt and bunny hop race this Sunday, April 2 in Rivervale, NJ.

The Interfaith Community of Long Island, at the Brookville Church and Multifaith Campus, will host a discussion on Passover led by Rabbi Paris and Cantor Irene during Shabbat on April 7th. And their “Have a Seder/Need a Seder” program matches up families who offer to host or attend a Passover Seder. A Palm Sunday Service led by interfaith youth is on April 9th, and a Family Easter Service is on Sunday April 16th followed by an egg hunt.

And in central New Jersey, Faithful Families, a joint project of Congregation Beth Mordecai and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Perth Amboy, is hosting an Interfaith Jewish-Christian Agape Meal Seder, exploring the Jewish and Christian traditions steeped in the language of the exodus from Egypt. The event is on Thursday April 13th, which is the fourth night of Passover, and Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. A new interfaith families community for central New Jersey is also in formation, and will be meeting up at the Perth Amboy event.  If you are a local family raising kids with Judaism and Christianity, join their facebook group.

CHICAGO

The Union School for Interfaith Families (http://www.interfaithunionschool.org/) in the Chicago suburbs will be hosting a Passover Seder for families in their interfaith education program on April 9 from 9:30-11am at St. Raymonds in Mt. Prospect. Sign up here (http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e44aea72babfc1-union1). Email questions to leslimarasco@gmail.com.

Catholic and Jewish families from downtown Chicago‘s interfaith Family School, an interfaith education program for interfaith children, often celebrate Easter together at Old St. Pat‘s.

ELSEWHERE

Not in one of the areas listed above? Your interfaith family has at least two options for finding community. One is to seek out progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now also welcome interfaith families (though they may not  approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as well as synagogues.

The second option is to build a new interfaith families community to organize interfaith education and interfaith celebrations in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start. To find other families raising children with interfaith education in your area (whether your family is Jewish and Christian, or atheist and Hindu, or Pagan and Buddhist), join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups. New communities are forming all the time!

 

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

 

Network of Interfaith Family Groups: How to Create New Communities

Autumn Maple Leaves

The days get shorter, the school year begins, and the Jewish High Holy Days start this week. Are you looking for the joyful company, the wise counsel, the loving support of other interfaith families? In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the national grassroots movement to find and form interfaith family communities celebrating both religions, and I describe how the established communities meet the needs of families.

But how do you go about creating a new interfaith family community?

Here I suggest a number of steps and strategies for families who celebrate more than one religion, and want to find like-minded people.

  • Join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups on facebook. The Network launched this year to help families across the country find each other, to join in on-line conversation, and ideally form new regional groups. The Network page lists contacts for the following regions: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Harrisburgh PA, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, central NJ, New Orleans, Raleigh NC, Richmond VA (Christian/Jewish or Christian/Muslim), San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul MN, western MA, Wheaton IL, and north woods Wisconsin.
  • Find other families celebrating both religions in your region, by networking with the clergy who officiated at your interfaith marriage, or who perform such marriages locally. They probably have married other couples who are planning to stay connected to both family religions, and can connect you.
  • Start small. Get together with two other young interfaith couples and have a Shabbat or a brunch. Or, get together with two other interfaith families with young children to celebrate a holiday, and inject a little bit of learning for everyone. As the group grows, take a look at the website and engaging programs at the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, a small group that thrives on volunteer power, and without a lot of infrastructure.
  • If you are struggling to figure out the group model that will work best for your region, or having trouble fitting all the pieces together, I’m now available as an interfaith community coach.

In the fall, the abundant Jewish holidays provide inspiration to create multi-sensory experiences for young children. Even if you do not yet have a community where you feel comfortable, engage your children in these traditions. Dip apples in honey for a sweet new year. Walk to a creek or river or sea, and drop in bread crumbs or sticks or leaves to represent qualities you want to give away, in the Tashlich ritual. Children remember such things.

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

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

@stephaniewilliamsimages

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

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

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

At my son's bar mitzvah. @stephaniewilliamsimages

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Eyes wide. Mind silently blown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Deep Christian Roots, Interfaith Family Journey

Erika blog photo final
Callaway Kleiner family photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen, Include, Engage: Progress for Interfaith Families

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Interfaith Children Speak Out #2: Ethan

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication last week of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the second in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although the book itself is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

The son of a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, Ethan had a combination baptism, bris and baby-naming ceremony as an infant. At age six, his parents enrolled him in the dual-faith religious education program at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. There, he learned Judaism and Christianity in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Christian teachers, in a program filled with over 100 other interfaith children. At the time he filled out the survey describing his experience, Ethan was 17 years old.

When asked whether he found learning about two religions confusing, Ethan replied, “I always enjoy getting two perspectives of a story before I decide what I believe. This provided a unique opportunity to do just that.” And when asked how his education in two religions has affected his outlook on the world, Ethan wrote, “I feel that I have a broader view of things than most single-faith persons do…I believe that being exposed to multiple faiths allows one to look at the big picture, rather than remain narrow-minded.”

Ethan had a First Communion, and later, became a Bar Mitzvah. At 17, he was attending Church, Synagogue, and Quaker meetings, and said he felt comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but described his religious identity as Quaker. When asked about his belief in God, Ethan wrote, “Being somewhat Quaker, I believe that there is that of G-d in everyone. I speculate as to whether or not there is one supreme being, or if that being is brought to life by fellow humans.”

Overall, Ethan saw being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage. He thinks his parents made a good decision to teach him both religions. And he planned to raise his own future children with an interfaith education. The greatest disadvantage he saw of being an interfaith child was that “It can be difficult to get along at times with conservative or orthodox groups because they don’t believe in multiple faiths.”

Traditionally, clergy and religious institutions have worried that interfaith children raised with two religions would be unable to choose one religion in adulthood, and end up with no religion. But Ethan has found a religious home, at least for now, with the Society of Friends, and will be able to find Quaker meetings in most geographic areas as he heads out into the world.

While he has chosen a primary religious identity as a Quaker, clearly his interfaith education has had a profound effect on Ethan. He writes that the greatest advantage of being an interfaith child is that he believes he has a “broader outlook on life.” And he adds, “People use the term ‘open-minded,’ so I like to think of interfaith as being ‘open-souled’.”

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

High Holy Days 2013: Finding an Interfaith Community

autumn image

This post is adapted from last year, with new links to upcoming services.

Shofar blast! The Jewish High Holy Days begin extraordinarily early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 4th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 13th. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Some of us find shelter in Unitarian-Universalist communities, or in Quaker or Baha’i or Buddhist practice. For those who want to give children a specific (though not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. Links to find services for the Days of Awe through all of these communities are found below.

Many Jewish communities are beginning to understand that some interfaith families will have Christmas trees, will celebrate Christian holidays with extended family, will, on some level, always be interfaith families, even if the non-Jewish spouse agrees to raise Jewish children. Jewish religious educators and clergy have set up new programs to serve these families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy, or education in Christianity for your children. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, fueled by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith 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 Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut, and Boston gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School and the Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project, now provides a full set of four traditional, progressive High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by Rabbi Harold White, the retired chaplain of Georgetown University. New this year, there will be a specific children’s service for Rosh Hashanah as well. Families from our community have also launched an interfaith community in the Philadelphia area. Join them for Rosh Hashanah apple-picking this 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.