“Do you remember, never a cloudy day…”
Earth, Wind & Fire is the soundtrack to my formative years, and the song “September” always gets me out on the dance floor. I was lucky to experience both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of celebrating love while dancing at two interfaith weddings in recent weeks: one Jewish and Christian, and the other Hindu and Unitarian.
This year, those recent moments of pleasure are helping to carry me through an unsettling first week of September. Yesterday was 9/11. Those of us in New York and Washington, in particular, think of the eeriness of the blue sky, the panic, the unfolding horror. And then we think of how many people in the U.S. from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Latin America–anyone with brown skin or a “different” name–have been harassed, targeted, and in some cases killed, in the years since then. And we think of how our government leadership has too often fueled that misunderstanding and hatred.
At the same time, on a very personal level, this week is both the anniversary of my mother’s death, and of her birth. September was always Mom’s month. I always associate the excitement of back-to-school with her excellence as a mother: the new school supplies, the thoughtfully packed lunch, the deep engagement with our lives. But now, the sudden coolness, the drop in humidity, the angle of light, the smell of September trees and plants, all of it signals my entire body to remember 9/11, and the morning that I was with my mother when she died two years ago on September 14th.
This year, these public and private sources of pain are bookmarked by the two Jewish high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (always ten days apart). I grew up marking those days faithfully in my Reform Jewish family (with the support of my Episcopalian mother), attending hours of synagogue services at Temple Beth Elohim (“TBE”) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. And I still find the liturgy of reflection and renewal inspiring and restorative.
Here in the Washington DC area, we are lucky to have the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), with high holy day services designed to be radically inclusive for anyone connected to Judaism in any way, and to acknowledge all that is good in our partnerships with Christians and people of other (or no) religions. Because it turns out that a service that does this is also an accessible and inspiring service for a whole range of people, including Jewish people.
What does a service designed by and for an interfaith families community look like? Each year is different, since there is a huge body of music and poetry and theology to draw on: traditional and contemporary Jewish liturgies, and sources from religions and cultures of the world. This year, we sang “Morning Has Broken” (a Christian hymn made popular by a man who later converted to Islam), and “If We Only Have Love” (a Jacques Brel chanson), alongside the traditional tunes for Avinu Malkeinu and many other parts of the service.
And we sang contemporary composer Noah Aronson’s lovely Bar’chu (call to prayer), “Am I Awake,” led by our own Rich Shegogue (who was raised Catholic). This provided a deep connection for me, since for many years, I have spent one of the high holy days with my parents at TBE, my childhood synagogue, where it just so happens that Noah Aronson was the longtime composer-in-residence. This is the temple where I became a Bat Mitzvah. (And also, the temple where the rabbi refused to officiate at my marriage). Since my family joined over 50 years ago, the synagogue has grown from 50 families to over 1000 families.
Sitting with my parents in the vast and glorious modern worship space at TBE, I have been lucky to learn many of his new tunes from Aronson himself, strumming his guitar as he leads thousands of voices. So, hearing “Am I Awake” this year in our more informal and intimate service at IFFP, served as an unexpected thread of connection between my experiences.
At IFFP, we remain a DIY (do-it-yourself) community–even the special high holy day cover for our torah was made by a community member, appliqued with a pomegranate to symbolize the sweetness of the new year (photo above). What makes our services feel especially inclusive? Maybe it’s the moment when a couple gets up and talks about Rosh Hashanah from their perspectives as partners–one Jewish, one Mexican Catholic–and what this community means to them. Or maybe it’s the fact that our rabbi, Rain Zohav, feels free to draw on Christian mystics (including Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart) for her Rosh Hashanah talk on protecting the earth.
The high holy day opportunity to meditate, reflect, ask forgiveness, and renew vows to make the world a better place–all of this will help to get me through my mother’s yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), and her birthday, and another year of living in Washington DC. And tonight, midway between the two high holy days, I will be writing postcards to get out the vote in a neighboring state for the midterm elections. Because the high holy days inspire me to work for justice. And because, in September, all of us have the opportunity to begin again.
Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.