High Holy Days 2017: Finding Interfaith Community

Rosh Hashanah Apples, photo Susan Katz Miller

September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.

The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.

Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (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, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.

Jewish religious educators and clergy have created programs to serve interfaith 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 (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built 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. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, 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. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), provides a full set of four traditional (yet progressive) High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, now led by Rabbi Rain Zohav. IFFP also provides specific children’s services on both holidays.

Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community,  to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!

But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my  tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta

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.

 

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

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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.

 

The Interlove Project

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I have been following the powerful photography of Colin Boyd Shafer for years now. In the Interlove Project (2014-2016), Shafer created 50 black and white portraits of interfaith couples and families from throughout Canada. You could describe these families as Protestant and Jewish, or Catholic and Muslim, or atheist and Hindu. But instead, Shafer lets his subjects describe the nuances of their religious journeys and identities. And so, we meet a Catholic who became a Wiccan, a Hindu who became an atheist, a Muslim born to an intermarried Shia and Sunni couple who identifies with both. These Canadians, as individuals and as couples, illustrate the complexity and fluidity of the religious landscape.

Now, I am thrilled that Shafer plans to extend the Interlove Project to 50 interfaith couples in the US, starting this fall. If you are interested in being included, fill out the application now. The project is open to people who are in interfaith relationships, those from different sects or denominations of the same religion, those who may identify as having no faith, those who are spiritual but not religious, those in same-sex relationships, and those who identify as polyamorous.

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Recently, I had a chance to ask Colin Boyd Shafer a few questions about the Interlove Project. Here’s our Q & A:

Miller: What first inspired you to chronicle interfaith couples?

Shafer: My previous project Cosmopolis Toronto focused on the diversity that exists in one city. I photographed one person from every country of the world who has migrated to Toronto. Doing this project made me think about other aspects of diversity, and one of those was diversity of relationships. I have lived in countries (like Malaysia) where interfaith relationships are highly discouraged, but in Canada I felt as though people would be willing and safe to open up about the experience. When we look at the news and see so much hate, I think its important to tell stories of love – especially when that love is between people of different beliefs. I agree with the headline in the Toronto Star’s piece on my project: “World Leaders could learn from these couples”.

Miller: What has been the reaction to the Interlove Project in Canada?

Shafer: I would say the project has been received very well. I know for the couples involved it has created a community, and for other interfaith couples who have seen the project it has given them a sense of belonging.  I hope for some viewers who may have been doubtful as to the possibility of such relationships working, it may change their mind. Maybe INTERLOVE hasn’t been overly controversial because it isn’t trying to promote interfaith relationships and is instead trying to show that they do exist and they can work.

Miller: You’re embarking on the US version of this project at a time when many religious minorities are feeling threatened in the US. What effect might this have on the willingness of couples to tell their stories?

Shafer: That is an interesting question. I know even in Canada, for every 10 interfaith couples that saw the project, probably only one applied to participate. It is a big step coming out and telling your story in public. Unlike interracial relationships, interfaith couples are often hidden. Doing this project in the United States is especially important because I imagine such relationships have faced more opposition. I am definitely open to concealing identities of the participants because I believe that these stories need to be told regardless.

Miller: What are your goals in terms of what you want this project to convey?

Shafer: I hope it continues to provide a sense of belonging to the couples involved or to other interfaith couples who see this. I also hope it challenges some people’s preconceived notions about what relationships can work. It would be great if this project turns into a book that can reach people in countries outside of North America – in places where people may not even imagine ever being with someone of a different faith. With so many unhealthy relationships out there, it would be such a shame for a couple that are such a great match to not be able to be together just because of differences of faith. Ultimately, everyone wants to hear a beautiful love story, and Interlove delivers.

Photos copyright Colin Boyd Shafer

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 @susankatzmiller.

A Rabbi, a Minister, a Wedding

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Thirty years ago, a rabbi and a minister co-officiated at my interfaith wedding. My husband and I felt strongly that both of our religions should be represented at this moment when we came together to form a family. It wasn’t easy to find a rabbi who would support us and celebrate our marriage with us in this way. Few rabbis did interfaith marriages, and even fewer would co-officiate with a minister. Many rabbis who would officiate tried to extract a promise about how the future children would be raised.

At the time, my family’s rabbi flatly refused to officiate at my marriage. My mother had to work all kinds of underground networks to find a rabbi willing to marry us. There was a risk that we would end up with a “sole officiant,” and that sole officiant would have been my husband’s beloved cousin, a minister.

I have seen progress in the Jewish communities in the intervening 30 years on many issues relating to interfaith families. Unfortunately, there is still tremendous pressure from Jewish institutions to force interfaith couples onto an “exclusively Jewish” pathway by putting conditions on the rabbi’s involvement at weddings. Ironically, some couples that want co-officiation would actually be willing to promise to give their future children an “exclusively” Jewish education and home. They simply want the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu) partner’s whole self to be acknowledged at the wedding, almost as a parting gift.

Recently, at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit organized by InterfaithFamily, researchers from Brandeis University presented new findings from a report entitled “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage.” Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok write that their study provides “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” They conclude that interfaith marriage may not be “devastating vis-a-vis the Jewish future.” But co-officiation is lumped in with Christian clergy officiation and secular officiation, with the result that the study is being interpreted as a call for rabbis to stick to sole officiation.

However, readers must resist the urge to assume that this report supports the idea that a wedding with a rabbi as a sole officiant somehow creates a more Jewish family than a wedding officiated by a rabbi and another clergy member. Beyond the greater philosophical and theological issues of what it means to be a Jewish family, or a “Jewish and” family, one must look at the context and assumptions made in producing this report.

First, as with previous reports from this group at the Cohen Center, the sample was drawn entirely from Jewish applicants to Birthright (the free trip to Israel for young people), so it excluded young people who would not or did not apply to Birthright for a wide range of political, theological, and sociological reasons. For instance, the Birthright website states that applicants must have “at least one Jewish birth parent” or have converted. A young person from the fast-growing demographic with only one Jewish grandfather, even if they identify as Jewish, is excluded. So, any result of this ongoing study cannot be said to apply to all interfaith couples, but only to interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner applied to Birthright, which is a strongly skewed subset of young Jewish people in interfaith marriages.

Second, the context here is that interfaith couples seeking officiants are often rejected by rabbis if they do not acquiesce to a list of conditions. (Less than a quarter of the interfaith couples in the Brandeis study had a sole Jewish officiant, and only 5% had co-officiants from two religions). First, many rabbis refuse to co-officiate. And even if the couple agrees to sole officiation by a rabbi, some rabbis will only perform the marriage if the couple agrees to raise future children in a “Jewish home” and withhold any interfaith education.

So those who end up with sole officiation are already a skewed sample of couples who have agreed to prioritize Judaism. It follows that of course they are going to have closer Jewish institutional ties—not because sole officiation by a rabbi magically makes them more Jewish, but because couples who want to acknowledge the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu, or secular humanist) partner in the wedding have been alienated. The authors write, “…it is clear that future research should explore what happens when a rabbi or cantor refuses to marry an intermarrying couple.” That is, indeed, very clear.

I asked two rabbis with extensive experience with interfaith families about how they see these officiation issues. “I have married many interfaith couples who are excited to meet with their local rabbi and join a congregation only to find out that that rabbi will only perform an interfaith wedding if the couple promises to raise exclusively Jewish children,” says Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. “Even if this couple intends to have only Judaism in the home with no religious Christianity, it is a turn-off. It is a turn-off because it seems to be based out of fear and a feeling of us-verse-them and this doesn’t feel comfortable considering that they have Christian family members who they love and who they want involved in their whole lives.”

Rabbi Moffic explains why she supports these interfaith couples. “These couples are hoping to connect with clergy who understand the beautiful messiness of modern families, and the layers and blending and dynamics that exist and how families are doing their best to pass on the traditions, customs and values that have been meaningful to them, to the next generation,” she explains. “But they are also trying to be respectful of their whole family including their partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism. They’re looking for clergy who will embrace an interfaith couple who does want Judaism in their lives and wants learning and social justice and holiday celebrations and Shabbat practices. They are looking for rabbis who also don’t cast judgment and set tests for couples to pass, which leads to ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ and people feeling shameful about the decisions they are making. If we stop with this ‘sole Jewish officiant’ and exclusive Judaism and understand couples are doing their best and aiming for shalom bayit (peace in the home) it will feel so much more affirming and realistic.”

Rabbi Chava Bahle describes it as a privilege to co-officiate with other clergy at interfaith marriages. “My lived experience is that meeting my intercultural couples where they are–whether I am a solo or co-officiant with Christian clergy—and helping them in whatever way they engage with Judaism has been very sweet for everyone involved, even relatives who weren’t so sure. I would suggest a study in which we ask where these folk find their meaning, and how we might invite them to dialogue with us. They have extremely important things to say to us, not only hear from us.”

For my husband and I, meeting with a rabbi and a minister before marriage, and having them work together with us on the wedding service, did not keep us from wanting to give our children bonds to Judaism. To the contrary, meeting a rabbi who was willing to respect my husband’s Protestant heritage and work in partnership with a minister inspired us, and inspired the family and friends who attended our backyard wedding in 1987. We appreciated the faith and confidence and bravery that rabbi displayed in agreeing to co-officiate at our wedding. And his act of supportive chutzpah played into our determination to ensure that our children celebrated Jewish holidays beyond Hanukkah, became b’nai mitzvot, and felt empowered to claim Jewish identity in the 21st century.

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 @susankatzmiller.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: A Jewish and Muslim Wedding

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Photo, Cassarino Studios

I recently met Rorri Geller-Mohamed at Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, where her family has the ongoing support of both a rabbi and a progressive Muslim study group. I invited her to write for OnBeingBoth.com about her Jewish and Muslim interfaith family. Here’s her first post, on her wedding planning and weekend of celebrations.–SKM

Most brides love talking about their weddings, but I especially enjoy sharing my interfaith wedding story. My husband and I were blessed to have family, friends, and a whole lot of dancing to celebrate the union of our different backgrounds and religions. I hope that our wedding inspires interfaith couples that feel overwhelmed and intimidated to know that it is possible to have the wedding of your dreams. My husband is a Guyanese American Muslim and I am Jewish American. Our wedding was the perfect celebration of the coming together of our religious identities as well as our cultural and family traditions.  We joked about how our wedding photos would be the perfect advertisement for world peace.

An Imam, A Rabbi, and Bruno Mars

How do a Rabbi and an Imam plan a ceremony together?  First, they discussed with us what prayers and traditions are typical for a Jewish wedding and Muslim wedding.  Then, we met together to figure it out.  We were honored to have an amazing Imam and Rabbi who wrote a beautiful ceremony for us, intertwining blessings from both our religions and incorporating Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  We included the Jewish tradition of breaking the glass and had a kiddush cup filled with grape juice instead of wine because drinking alcohol can be viewed as haram (against the religion) in Islam.  We also had yarmulkes available for whoever wanted to wear one for the ceremony.  We made the non-traditional decision for my husband and bridal party to dance down the aisle to the upbeat song “Marry You” by Bruno Mars (who has intercultural and interfaith heritage himself) in order to get all of our guests into the celebratory spirit.  I walked down the aisle with my parents to “All of Me” by John Legend.  We both love music and felt that it was the perfect way to start our unique ceremony.

Us & Family

I was excited about the opportunity to plan our wedding with the goal of honoring both of our identities, and sharing them with our families.  My husband had some concerns about how his family would feel about it not being done in their traditional Islamic way.  My husband and I wanted to make sure that both of our families felt comfortable.  We consulted with family along the way as we made our decisions.  It was very important to us that our parents approved of our wedding.  Traditionally, a member of my husband’s family officiates family weddings, but there wasn’t anyone that had experience and felt comfortable performing an interfaith ceremony.  We spent time discussing our Muslim officiant’s credibility, sharing the written ceremony, and addressing concerns with my soon-to-be father-in-law.  It was important to my parents that Jewish traditions were part of the celebration and that I was married by a Rabbi.

While incorporating both sets of traditions, we also felt empowered to make changes to ensure that it was the best day for both families. For instance, traditionally, my husband’s family has to do a lot of the work preparing for a family wedding.  They often stay up all night cooking the food, decorating the hall, and even baking the wedding cake.  However, it was important to my husband we have a different kind of wedding where his family could enjoy the celebration without having to do any work. We accomplished this by having our wedding catered at a beautiful outdoor venue.

Extended Celebrations

We had multiple family gatherings throughout the weekend as part of our wedding that really allowed our family members to meet and get to know each other.  Although we were both a little apprehensive about how some of our extended older family members might act or what they would say, everyone got along really well.  My husband’s family, from the Indo-Caribbean culture from Guyana in South America, organized an extremely personalized mendhi party for me and invited both of our families to come and get painted with henna. It was amazing and really made me feel welcomed into their family. My husband’s cousin and his little son did a mini-dance performance to traditional Indian music, we ate traditional Guyanese food, and they gifted me with a sari and traditional wedding sweets.  It also was a great opportunity to introduce my family to their cultural traditions and for both families to mingle and get to know each other.

Party Time

My husband and I both love to dance. Not all Muslim weddings in his family have had music but it was important that our reception represented us even if didn’t follow some traditions. We also sought out an MC and DJ that could play music to keep both of our families and friends entertained. We did the horah, a traditional Jewish celebration dance, played West Indian music like reggae and soca, and included traditional Indian music to please some of the older crowd. Everyone was up dancing and mingling the whole night. Looking back at it, we had a blast and couldn’t imagine celebrating any other way.

Advice for Planning a Jewish Muslim Wedding

From our experience, here are a few tips for other Muslim and Jewish couples trying to figure out how to plan their wedding:

  1. Communicate with your partner about your wedding vision and what typical wedding ceremonies and receptions look like in your family. This gives you a starting point for creating your joint vision together.
  2. Consult with your families along the way. This gives you and your family members time to process and address any concerns and prevents any surprise reactions on your big day.
  3. Give yourself plenty of time to research and find an officiant or officiants that fit what you are looking for. Good starting places include Muslims for Progressive Values, interfaithfamily.com (for rabbis), and Brookville’s Multifaith Campus (for those in the New York area). Have confidence that you will find an officiant or officiants that can do the ceremony you want–it just can take some time.
  4. Take family halal or kosher dietary needs into account for the reception.  Some people believe that kosher food is also halal, but find out about your  family or your partner’s family’s opinion about this. Many caterers can accommodate this for a small fee, you just have to ask.
  5. Remember it’s only one day. Yes, it may be one of the most meaningful days in your life and a symbol of your unity shared with friends and family, but it is still only one day. You have a lifetime ahead of you to share together with your loved ones.
  6. Reach out for support and ideas. If you are in a Jewish and Muslim relationship, join the new Jewish-Muslim Families Facebook community and connect with people who have been in your shoes. The Network of Interfaith Family Groups connects interfaith families (of any religion or none) who seek to celebrate both family religions. Additional support for interfaith couples can often be found with local progressive clergy, therapists, and inclusive communities.

 

Rorri Geller-Mohamed (Upowerchange@gmail.com) is a licensed therapist who specializes in issues of identity and supporting mixed couples. 

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.

 

Interfaith Artichoke on the Seder Plate?

 

Artichoke, Susan Katz Miller
Artichoke        Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

An orange? A beet? An olive? A tomato? And, new for this year, a banana? Contemporary Jewish thinkers have encouraged us to innovate on Passover, to push the boundaries of the seder plate, to incorporate new objects and themes, and expand on the idea of the “we” in the Haggadah text.

But an artichoke on the seder plate? Not for me. As much as I appreciate the proposal to acknowledge interfaith families, I reject the nomination of the artichoke for this role. The suggestion of an artichoke dates back a decade, but resurfaced this year in a jazzy new video explaining seder plate symbols. In my view, the artichoke symbol fails, because the net effect excludes rather than includes, by re-enforcing the narrative of interfaith families as problematic.

The first paragraph of my book describes my own interfaith family Passover seder, with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and atheists celebrating together. All are welcome at my table. In order to be as inclusive as possible, I like to emphasize the musical and poetry and storytelling, the English language, and the universal themes of social justice, religious freedom, and spring rebirth.

At the same time, I like to preserve both the specificity and the mystery embedded in the ancient and at times inscrutable liturgy of the Haggadah. I love the Kabbalistic imagery of the Seder plate, with the earthy objects placed in symmetry and relation to each other: an egg, a bone, a bitter herb.

This year, since my interfaith college kids were too far away to come home for the seder, I sent them a box of Passover treats from a project called Hello Mazel, including a set of hexagonal letter press cards that fit together into a honeycomb Seder plate. The cards resonate with a kind of mystical power conferred by geometry. I imagine my daughter arranging and rearranging the hexagons, changing the harmonic buzz created by the relationships between the Hebrew words: karpas, maror, charoset.

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Photo by Aimee Helen Miller

All religions reinvent themselves through time in response to sociology, history, environment. Why then do I reject the artichoke to represent interfaith families? In proposing this symbol, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael states, “Like the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage.” So interfaith families are symbolized by the resistance of the Jewish people to interfaith families? That just feels wrong to me.

First of all, the emphasis on thorns ties into the narrative of the troubled and troubling interfaith family. This feels so very last century, conjuring up the image of distraught parents wailing and gnashing their teeth, sitting shiva. The rabbi goes on to emphasize the negative in her “Ten Plagues of Being Intermarried.” But note that this piece was written ten years ago. While I acknowledge that some interfaith families still experience trauma and pain, intertwining interfaith families with the plagues feels archaic.

Thankfully, most Jewish families now embrace the Quakers, Pagans, and Hindus in their midst. They choose to expand, rather than contract. They deepen their own Jewishness through the process of explaining and educating. They rediscover Passover through new eyes, and take the opportunity to wrestle on a deeper level with both the exultant and tragic nuances of the Exodus story. While some in Jewish leadership still fight “intermarriage,” I feel just fine about excluding this sort of prickliness from my seder plate.

At most Passover seder tables in America now, we have not only partners from more than one religion, but children and adults with complex interfaith heritage. I devote a lot of time to thinking and writing about who gets to define identity in our flexible and fluid religious landscape, and I reject the idea of interfaith families defined by a vegetable representing a negative reaction to our existence. And I can’t help thinking that a rabbi, who may be the least likely to have an interfaith partner, may not have been the right person to propose a symbol to represent this new reality.

So what would be a better alternative to the artichoke? One Christian dad suggested a kiwi fruit: at least it’s fuzzy, rather than prickly. But I keep returning to the idea that every interfaith family is interfaith in its own way: we are enriched by this pluralism. Perhaps we cannot be symbolized by a single fruit or vegetable. My proposal would be to encourage each family to personalize their own seder plate with a nod to the specific cultures enriching their interfaith family. How about a jalapeno pepper? An okra pod for West Africa? Or some wasabi next to the horseradish? We are large, we contain multitudes.

 

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.

Seven Big Interfaith Family Stories of 2015

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Plexus A1, Gabriel Dawe

 

In 2015, it was a privilege to take part in a conversation with all of you on interfaith families and interfaith identities. Looking back over the past year, I chose what I see as seven of the most important themes from this conversation. I welcome your comments, or suggestions for stories I may have missed.

  1. Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the fourth-largest Jewish movement, changed their policies this year in order to allow the admission and ordination of students in interfaith marriages or partnerships. While the smaller Jewish Humanist and Jewish Renewal movements have long accepted such students, this shift marks a significant moment in the history of accepting interfaith families in Jewish leadership.
  1. Progressive Protestants and Interfaith Identities. Historically, the topic of interfaith families (at least in the US) has been viewed mainly through Jewish, and to a lesser degree Catholic, lenses. So it was exciting when I was invited this year to speak at both a chapel service and an evening panel at Union Theological Seminary in New York. And it was also exciting that the World Council of Churches and United Church of Christ convened a series of consultations on Religious Hybridity, bringing together mostly Mainline Protestant clergy and theologians to discuss how to engage with people with multiple religious bonds. I was honored to be asked by Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson to present my research on identity formation in interfaith children raised with both family religions. I look forward to reviewing a new book (publication date tomorrow!) filled with related essays, Many Yet One: Multiple Religious Belonging.
  1. Unitarian Universalists and Interfaith Families. While Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have long welcomed interfaith families and people of complex religious identities, this year they took that support to the next level, with new resources on interfaith families in the UU world on their website and in a new pamphlet. I spoke about interfaith families at two UU communities this year, and on a UU podcast. And UU religious educators invited me to give the keynote Sophia Lyon Fahs lecture at the UU General Assembly, highlighting the important history of interfaith families in UU communities. The lecture was recently published in an eBook by Skinner House press.
  1. Interfaith Families and the Rise of the Unaffiliated. This year, Pew Research highlighted the steep rise in the religiously unaffiliated, from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. Clearly, interfaith families are a part of this complex story, with some of us who are doubly-affiliated lumped in with others who are alienated from all religious institutions. Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research Institute recently told a White House gathering on religious pluralism that 25% of people in the US said they had a spouse from a different religious background, and 16% said they follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion. This year also saw the publication of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, in which Kaya Oakes writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’,” rather than either/or.
  1. Jewish Communities Engaged with Interfaith Families Doing Both. A slow thaw continues between Jewish institutions, and the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith families educating children in both religions. For me, signs of this gradual warming trend (which I first noted last year) this year included invitations to speak at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on The Jewish Channel, in synagogues and JCCs, at Hillel-sponsored talks, and at The Jewish Museum (coming up in February). I also enjoyed a year (sadly, over now) of being a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward.
  1. Interfaith Families as a Global Rights Issue. While interfaith families in the US enjoy the freedom to marry across lines of faith, not all couples have this right. Many countries still register the religious identity of citizens, and allow religious institutions to control marriage and the religious identity of children. But the global connectivity is helping to highlight the importance of civil marriage as a universal human right. On twitter this year (follow me @beingboth) I came across an interfaith romance novel banned from schools in Israel, a court case over the religion of interfaith children in Malaysia, legislation to restrict interfaith marriage and conversion in Myanmar, the battle to recognize interfaith marriages in Indonesia, and interfaith couples violently attacked by religious extremists in various countries.
  1. Launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG). In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the rise of communities formed by and for interfaith families to deliver interfaith education to their children, principally in NY, DC and Chicago. Since the publication of Being Both in 2013, I have been contacted by couples around the country and the globe, seeking to find or create interfaith family communities. In response, I launched the NIFG facebook page this year, to help couples who want to celebrate both family religions to find like-minded couples nearby. Already, we launched a new Atlanta facebook group filled with interfaith families who found each other through NIFG. At NIFG, you can find contacts listed from throughout the US, from California to Florida, and Wisconsin to Richmond. If you plan to raise children with both family religions (that’s any two religions), join 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.