Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

A Rabbi, a Minister, a Wedding

November 7, 2016

interlocking-rings-brooch

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

July 12, 2016
RorriWeddingPic

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?

April 20, 2016

 

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

December 31, 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.

Book Review: David Gregory’s How’s Your Faith?

October 8, 2015

How's Your Faith

David Gregory and I are both children of Jewish fathers and Christian mothers, both of us raised Jewish. We both married mainline Protestants. We both have children with one Jewish grandparent, yet we are both passing on Judaism to our children. And we both tell our interfaith family stories in recent books. I am grateful for each interfaith family story that gets published, and especially for each adult interfaith child who speaks up about the complexities of interfaith life.

David Gregory, of course, is the former host of NBC’s Meet the Press. The arc of his memoir How’s Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey traces his rise to television prominence, and his humbling fall when Meet the Press ratings sink and he loses his job at NBC. To be fair, his search for greater spiritual meaning started years before his career crisis, and this book is a disarmingly frank and raw accounting of how he has wrestled–with his difficult childhood, his own anger management, his career ambitions, and with how to raise Jewish children with a wife who is a church-going Methodist.

And there we have the primary difference in our interfaith narratives. My husband and I chose to raise our interfaith children with an interfaith education, in a community of interfaith families. David Gregory’s wife Beth agreed to help raise their children with one religion, Judaism. Their choice works for many families, as evidenced by the fact that many synagogues now are made up of a majority of interfaith families. But as I write in Being Both, each choice an interfaith family makes—one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a third pathway, or all religions—is going to have specific benefits, and specific drawbacks.

Gregory is candid about the drawbacks, in particular about the persistent emotional pain his wife has experienced as a result of her agreement to raise the children without any exposure to her church. She tells him, “I think I was naïve about this decision…over time, I think I’ve come to feel it more, not sharing my religion with our kids.” Gregory writes that he feels “burdened by the weight of what she has sacrificed.” And by the end of the book, when their children are tweens, husband and wife have agreed that she can begin to occasionally start taking the kids to church, in order to support their mother.

How’s Your Faith left me with two burning questions. The first is about Gregory’s own strong claim to a Jewish identity. I feel the same way. At the same time, Gregory writes of feeling “…more Jewish than Christian, even though I feel more Christian than most Jews…”, an apt description of what I describe as the interfaith component of my own identity. But I know, from a lifetime of experience, that I have had to defend my claim to Jewish identity as a “patrilineal” child of a Jewish father, to the Conservative and Orthodox communities who believe Judaism is passed down only through the mother. I find it puzzling that Gregory does not give any weight to this struggle, nor explore how the institutional conflict over “Who is a Jew?” impacts interfaith children.

For me, the other mystery is why Gregory and his wife apparently discounted, at least until very recently, the idea of allowing their children to learn about and participate in both religions. As it happens, they settled in the Washington DC metro area, where my community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, led by a minister and a rabbi, offers interfaith education for interfaith children and adults in a setting that allows both parents to be equal participants, without ritual restrictions or separate blessings. While this pathway, like all pathways, has drawbacks, it has allowed my family to avoid many of the most poignant and tearful scenes described in Gregory’s book.

After speaking to a few clergy members, Gregory dismisses the idea of choosing both religions without much explanation. And while he quotes a couple of books on interfaith families published in the last millennium, he seems unaware of the New York Times Op-Ed and book filled with data and interviews on this subject, both published as he was working on his manuscript. It is interesting to note that Gregory’s Orthodox teacher is on record as both citing the importance of, and simultaneously objecting to, this work on interfaith family communities. But as Gregory tours the country with his book, I know he is encountering the 25% of interfaith Jewish families Pew Research found raising children with both religions.

I was moved by the honesty and depth of Gregory’s depiction of his interfaith family life. By the end of the book, it sounds like he has a sense of some of the many ways that being part of an interfaith family can be a wellspring of spirituality, rather than a constant trial. I would invite him to dare to visit an interfaith family community—in DC, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia—and explore the joy we experience as interfaith bridge-builders.

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.

Rabbis in Interfaith Relationships: A Personal Response

October 2, 2015

Torah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

As an interfaith child, an interfaith partner, and a parent of two grown interfaith children, I celebrate the announcement this week that Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the fourth largest Jewish movement, will now admit and ordain rabbinical students in interfaith relationships.

I am informally connected to a growing network of clergy partnered with people from other (or no) religions. These brave souls prove every day that you can be a passionate leader in your own religion, and love someone from another religion. These clergy often have felt closeted, to one degree or another. The change in Reconstructionist policy (following the longtime policy of the smaller Secular Humanistic Jewish and Jewish Renewal movements) will bring about real change in the ability of rabbis to love across religious boundaries, and will bring broader acceptance for interfaith families in general.

I also know many passionate Jewish leaders in interfaith relationships who assumed they could never be rabbis. Some will be inspired to enter the Reconstructionist movement, and rabbinical school, in the wake of this historic shift. The Reconstructionists will benefit, those who want to become rabbis will benefit, but most importantly, interfaith families who want to engage with Judaism will benefit. It’s a win, win, win. And yes, I expect Reform Judaism, my own movement, to follow the Reconstructionists down this pathway.

So, now that we will have rabbis in interfaith partnerships, those rabbis will have interfaith children. In the Jewish community, much has been written, and will be written, about how interfaith families can (and should) raise children “exclusively Jewish,” whether or not the partner converts to Judaism. And it is absolutely true that children with interfaith parents can grow up to become committed Jewish professionals: the growing number of rabbis and rabbinical students born into interfaith families is a testament to that fact.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College also released this week new “Desired Attributes” for admission, including this: “Models commitment to Jewish community and continuity in one’s personal, familial, and communal life.” With the code word “continuity,” this sentence hints at, but does not state, an expectation that applicants would need to convince partners to commit to raising “exclusively Jewish” children. And this kind of commitment would certainly be necessary for a rabbi to obtain a pulpit position in almost any synagogue. At least for now. But read on.

Exactly two years ago this week, Pew Research released their report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” documenting 25% of Jewish parents with interfaith partners raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” Just days later, my book Being Both hit the shelves—a book dedicated to describing why and how so many of us have chosen this interfaith pathway. We are not people who are choosing to be religious nones. We are people deeply engaged with Judaism. We want and need rabbis.

And we look forward to having rabbis who understand us on a whole new level: rabbis with committed Christian or Buddhist or Hindu partners. And eventually, rabbis with children who are learning about their interfaith heritage, by osmosis, and more formally. Based on my research with hundreds of interfaith families, and my lifetime of experience, I don’t believe any child born into an interfaith family can ever feel solely connected to one religion or another. I see this as an inspiring revelation, not a grave problem. And interfaith children testify to the benefits of interfaith education. Listen to the words of a college student raised with Catholicism and Judaism, who ultimately chose Judaism, as described in Being Both: “I feel even closer to the religion I ended up going with because I was able to choose it.”

Going forward, it is going to become more and more difficult to characterize the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children as somehow beyond the pale. While many Jewish leaders insist on continuing to oppose and denigrate “intermarriage,” the growing majority of young people with Jewish heritage have simply moved on. Many of us come from interfaith families. We are loving each other. We are marrying each other. We are having children. And at least a quarter of us are engaging with Judaism by giving our interfaith children an interfaith education. We look forward to embracing the pioneering rabbis who will, inevitably, join us on this inspiring journey.

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)

September 1, 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.)


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