The interfaith families community movement has lost our most important founder and leader, Sheila Gordon.
Sheila was a passionate visionary. She did more than any other human being to forge the concept of a community providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and then to ensure that idea persisted in the world. She was co-creator of the very first interfaith families community, which became the Interfaith Community (IFC) in New York City. And then, instead of retiring, she dedicated the past two decades to leading IFC, branching off new interfaith family communities in New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, and elsewhere. As a movement, we exist in large part because of Sheila’s intellect, energy, and phenomenal dedication. She worked right up through what she knew would be her final months to ensure a legacy that would benefit interfaith families, on into the future.
Founder and Creator
The story of our national movement began in 1987, when a group of parents led by Sheila and Lee Gruzen created an afterschool interfaith education program for their interfaith children on New York’s Upper West Side. Lee wrote a book published that same year, Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Their Heritages, and Sheila wrote a foreword to the book’s second edition, in 2001.
In that same year, Sheila retired from foundation work, and began dedicating all her formidable professional skills to the IFC program. She hired Christian and Jewish seminarians from Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary to co-write an interfaith curriculum for interfaith children, and to co-teach in the classrooms. One of her greatest legacies is the generations of ministers and rabbis who understand the importance of interfaith education for interfaith families, because they taught at IFC (including my friends and colleagues Rabbi Ari Saks and Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block). And she developed IFC into a template that could be replicated by other communities, providing advice and professional support from her IFC office in the famous “God Box” on Riverside Drive, close by both seminaries.
In addition to running IFC and supporting all of its branches (including communities in Boston and Denver at various points), Sheila stood out as the most experienced national leader representing the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families. In the 1990s and 2000’s we met up as presenters at the national Dovetail interfaith family national conferences. She brought a delegation of IFC folks to DC to visit my community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I visited Sheila and her beloved husband Robin Elliott in New York, when I interviewed her for my book Being Both, and again to celebrate that book’s publication. In 2015, she wrote a guest post for my blog, analyzing a new study on interfaith children. And in 2017, she wrote an academic paper for UNESCO entitled “Interfaith education: A new model for today’s interfaith families.“
In 2020, when the pandemic challenged the functioning of all our communities (and all communities generally), Sheila joined us on Network of Interfaith Family Groups zoom calls to strategize, despite her illness. On those calls, she advised couples from around the country on finding and creating interfaith family communities. And in zoom calls with leadership of the NY, Chicago, and DC interfaith families groups in the last year, we strove to ensure that this work, her work, would live on, and receive the national recognition it deserves.
Personally, I have lost my most important interfaith families mentor. It feels daunting, and lonely, to imagine doing this work without her advice and support. Sheila exemplified both the compassion and stubborn determination required for this job. All of my work on interfaith families is only possible because of all of her work. She understood both the frustration and the necessity of engaging with resistant religious institutions. And she understood the satisfaction of going ahead and providing that interfaith education with or without those institutions, and building community around it.
The task was endless, but she never desisted. She led us through narrow places, and her legacy is assured in the myriad ways that interfaith education for interfaith children has taken root. Her memory will be a blessing to thousands of interfaith families today, and into the future.
You can make a donation in memory of Sheila Gordon to support interfaith families through the Interfaith Community.
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.