To My Interfaith College Kids: Hanukkah Giving

First Night of Hanukkah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Beloved Kids,

This is the first year that you will both celebrate Hanukkah away at college. Your dad and I will miss you, as we light the menorah and sing Rock of Ages by ourselves (sniffle). Maybe we’ll skype our Hanukkah with Nana and Grandpa one night, and with you another night. (We’re too middle-aged to figure out how to do both at the same time). I hope that you find some decent latkes at some point during the week, maybe at Hillel? You could try frying them up in the dorm kitchen but to be honest, it’s a laborious and messy job, which is why I brought you up mainly on box latkes (sorry!).

About the presents. I am taking advantage of the fact that you are grown and flown to return Hanukkah to its rightful place as a modest historical celebration that did not originally involve presents. As you know, we’ve been shifting our Hanukkah celebration for years now, away from gifts to you, and towards giving to those in need. We started this tradition when you were very young, and were able to get away with it in part because we have the privilege of being an interfaith family, and so you got a pile of gifts at Christmas. But also, we wanted you to understand that giving to those in need is appropriate for, well, any holiday.

This year, the world seems especially bleak in this, the darkest season (in the Northern hemisphere). I know you are worrying about climate change, terrorism, racial oppression, patriarchy, and, to be honest, finals. To combat this stress, your best tools will be cultivating a sense of gratitude, listening closely to others, and then attempting to make a difference in the world.

Alternative Gift Fair, photo by Susan Katz Miller

So, I have just returned from the Alternative Gift Fair, where I bought gifts for you, for six nights of Hanukkah. (You will also get a small box in the mail with a token tangible gift. I’m not trying to prove I’m a total Hanukkah Grinch here). Here is where I spent your Hanukkah gelt this year:

  1. Socks and underwear for 10 homeless people through Shepherd’s Table.
  2. A week of fresh vegetables from local farmers for one family through Crossroads Community Food Network.
  3. Four illustrated children’s books for DC children in transitional housing, through Share Literacy.
  4. A Leadership Workshop conducted by women of color for a DC girl of color, through SisterMentors.
  5. A week of camp for a child at one of our favorite spots, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
  6. 40 school notebooks for girls at risk for child marriage and child trafficking in Nepal, through The Little Sisters Fund.

I trust, actually I know, that you will appreciate these gifts as much as any physical gift we could send you. We can’t wait for winter break, even if we don’t get to light Hanukkah candles with you this year. In the meantime, study hard, and remember that light in darkness, whether it is the light of Hanukkah or Christmas or Yule or Diwali, does lift spirits. Create that light. Be that light.

Love, Mom



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 (forthcoming in 2019).


Interfaith Families, Jewish Communities: Spring Thaw

Frozen Branch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Do you hear a rumbling, creaking, sighing noise, like an iceberg melting? That’s the sound of policies designed to freeze out interfaith families, shifting and groaning as they thaw. Since the release of the 2013 Pew Research report on the Jewish American landscape (and the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I have been predicting a warming trend in engaging with interfaith families. Just in recent weeks, I note at least four new efforts by the Jewish community to include or acknowledge interfaith families:

1. A Conservative Jewish rabbi considered officiating at interfaith weddings, but then decided not to. Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, emailed his congregants in the Boston surburbs to say he was considering performing interfaith marriages, but only if the couple signed a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Interfaith families quickly pointed out that you cannot really extract such a promise about hypothetical children. A few days later, the rabbi backed off his proposal, noting that the “Covenant is not workable.”

My Response: This brave rabbi realized what many Reform rabbis (and the Catholic Church) have already realized. Requiring an interfaith couple to raise children in a particular religion as a condition for marriage is neither wise nor enforceable when both partners are on dynamic spiritual journeys. I deeply appreciate this rabbi’s attempt to address the hypocrisy of welcoming interfaith families into Conservative congregations, while refusing to attend or officiate at their weddings. But it really isn’t going to be possible to change this Conservative policy, without also accepting the children of Jewish fathers as Jews (“patrilineal descent”). Which needs to happen.

2. A Conservative Jewish youth movement relaxed their policy on interfaith dating (sort of). The leadership of the United Synagogue Youth (USY), a national teen group, voted to remove the phrase calling for national and regional board members to “refrain” from interfaith dating, though they did include language on “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community.” After a fierce community backlash, teen leaders explained that the intent was not so much to endorse interfaith dating, but to show respect for the many teen leaders from interfaith families.

My response: More than any change, or lack of change, in policy, this story is fascinating because young Jews from interfaith families are making their voices heard. Among teens now, more come from interfaith families than from families with two Jewish parents. Going forward, as this generation comes into leadership roles in the adult Jewish community, I look forward to the inevitable acceptance and inclusion for interfaith families.

3. A prize sponsored by Russian Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government was awarded to actor Michael Douglas, who was born to a Jewish father and Protestant mother and now identifies as a Reform Jew. Douglas is married to Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who grew up Catholic. Douglas and Jones recently traveled to Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of their son Dylan (who, like my children, has only one Jewish grandparent, a grandfather). Immediately, bloggers and columnists questioned rewarding a wealthy movie star who has not been particularly active in the Jewish community, simply for maintaining some connection to his Jewish identity (and Israel). And this week, the CEO of the prize foundation suddenly quit. In awarding the prize, the Genesis Foundation explained that the Douglas family embraces their Jewish heritage “on their own terms” and that this “embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.”

My response: Douglas was chosen because of his interfaith background, not in spite of it. In the Russian Jewish community in Israel, the exclusion of people who are “patrilineal Jews”, or do not have “kosher enough” conversions has been a huge issue. In a particularly cutting response entitled “Genesis Prize Goes to Michael Douglas. Really?” Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner stated baldly that “Douglas isn’t Jewish according to Jewish law,” ignoring the fact that he identifies as a Reform Jew. Note that even the more progressive American Jewish media sources are still filled with language excluding the growing number of “patrilineal” Reform Jews.

4. Interfaith Israel launches new tours designed specifically for people from interfaith families. Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) is co-sponsoring these programs, starting this summer, for interfaith teens, young interfaith professionals, and interfaith families to visit Israel. The teen trip promises exploration of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i cultures in Israel.

My response: Israel remains an uncomfortable topic for many interfaith families. In part this is because Orthodox control of religious identity in Israel excludes Reform Jews from interfaith families with Jewish fathers, and Jews who converted under the auspices of Reform rabbis, from being married or buried in Israel as Jews. Also, those of us from interfaith families are wary when we feel we are only hearing one side of any story story (for instance, the Israeli narrative but not the Palestinian narrative). Nonetheless, when compared with the Birthright trips to Israel–which only accept those who identify as exclusively Jewish–these new trips are radically accepting of the fact that people (especially young people) from interfaith families have fluid and complex religious identities. In the application, interfaith teens are not asked to check religious identity boxes, and the trip is open to any teen with at least one Jewish grandparent. Program founder Michael Dorfman emailed me that “this trip is designed to embrace the duality of a teen’s interfaith identity and provide them with an experience that will speak to their needs.” As with any sponsored trip, it’s important to think about the goals of the sponsors. But I wish we had more US-based programs for interfaith teens using this kind of inclusive language.


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

Shabbat with Interfaith Families: Going Deep, Across Generations

On Friday, our family of four attended a potluck Shabbat. To the casual onlooker, our modern American Jewish ritual would have appeared to be very similar to any other potluck Shabbat in America. Eight families gathered, toting sesame noodles, baked chicken, salad, brownies. Led by a dynamic young dad who celebrates Shabbat every week with his wife and three young children, we sang blessings over the candles, the wine, the challah. Then we recited the blessings over our children. I reached up to place one hand on my willowy daughter’s head, and thought about how she will turn eighteen in a few weeks. I reached my other hand out to my son’s head: he turns fifteen today. And then we sang a song to welcome the Sabbath.

As in most Shabbat potluck gatherings, some of us know more of the blessings than others, and some of us, old and young, are still learning them, mumbling and stumbling along. Some of us were relieved when a song shifted into a verse of clapping and nigun–the repetitive, wordless syllables used to inspire mystical ecstasy–since “dai dai dai” makes it easy for anyone to sing along.

What made this Shabbat gathering different, as always in our community, is the simple fact that we are all interfaith families educating our children in two religions. This means that families can immerse themselves in the rituals, without feeling they are being judged about whether they are Jewish enough. The non-Jewish partners can delve as deeply as they want into Jewish practice, without worrying over whether anyone expects them to abandon their own religious practice, or convert, or refrain from passing their own traditions on to their children.

Our hosts, a woman who considered the rabbinate until she intermarried, and a man of Irish/Italian Catholic background, made everyone feel at home. (Well, some felt more comfortable than others when their son brought out his baby python.) But in general, there was romping on the trampoline, a jam on bass and congas, discussion of school politics, and sharing of our different religious experiences. Children and adults were forced to interact socially across age differences. It was all very, very good.

One middle-aged potlucker surprised me when he admitted he had never been to a Shabbat in a family home before, having been raised as a secular Jew. I thought about the children in our interfaith community, and the efforts we are making, as parents, to preserve this most important Jewish holiday of all, to give our children the gift of Shabbat. Growing up as a Reform Jew, we rarely celebrated Shabbat in our home: I do not remember my parents laying hands on our heads and blessing us. As an interfaith community, we are often accused of watering down religious practice. And yet, in some of our interfaith families, I have seen a love of Judaism revive, and the depth of Jewish ritual and knowledge intensify, across the generations. We are going deep on our own schedule, on our own terms, in our radically-inclusive way. We are going deep while simultaneously allowing our children to learn about Christianity. But we are going deep.

Where do My Interfaith Teens Fit In? As Activists!

Rev. Brian Merritt, Rabbi Harold White, Rev. Julia Jarvis

Every religion, every denomination, bemoans the fact that it can be hard to keep teenagers engaged in thinking about religion. They’re busy thinking about, well, other stuff. But yesterday was different. Yesterday, my two teens had a transformative educational, political, spiritual experience at Occupy DC, through the lens of their interfaithness.

Today, the police will start enforcing a “no camping” rule, prohibiting the activists at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square from sleeping in the Occupy tents. So yesterday was a tense and busy day at Occupy DC. Nevertheless, our intrepid spiritual leaders, the rabbi and the minister who guide our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White, took a group of our teens down to McPherson Square to meet Reverend Brian Merritt of Occupy Faith DC, to learn more about the role that clergy and religious communities are playing in the Occupy Movement.

At Occupy DC, they were able to witness a General Assembly, explore the library filled with political and spiritual books, drop off some pumpkin muffins at the kitchen, and bring home copies of The Occupied Washington Times. Now, our interfaith kids want to return to sleep there. We’ll see if that is even feasible, after today.

So why does this post belong on a blog about interfaith families? I find it moving and inspiring that my teens were able to have this experience with both their minister and their rabbi (a rabbi who was deeply engaged alongside Christian clergy in the civil rights movement in the 1960s). As interfaith families, our microcosm of respect and engagement and learning has to be a helpful model for non-violent interfaith interaction in the larger world. And while my kids understand that there are differences between their two family religions, between any two religions, they also know that the thirst for social justice is something that Jews and Christians shared in the civil rights movement, and that they share now in the quest for more equitable taxation, and for voting rights for DC.

This Thursday, my radically-inclusive rabbi and my radically-inclusive minister will go together to the People’s Prayer Breakfast, a progressive alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, organized by Occupy Faith DC. All are invited. In fact, I am tempted to pull my kids out of school to attend.

Interfaith Teens: Staying Engaged

This weekend, my thirteen-year-old son officially began his Coming of Age (COA) year by going whitewater rafting on the Potomac River. The trip fosters bonding among the teens and other “COA kids” from the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I suppose this kind of rowdy, outdoor adventure kicks off the year in all sorts of teen groups–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular humanist. What makes this trip unique is the fact that these particular kids are coming of age surrounded by and supported by other interfaith teens.

Most religious institutions struggle with keeping teenagers engaged. After formal religious school ends, parents ease up on attendance, and it can be tough to compete for time with the AP classes, the high school sports programs, the college searches. But in our family, our kids know better than to take our interfaith community for granted. They know that many interfaith kids do not have such a community nearby. And they know that both of their parents have dedicated a lot of time and thought to building and maintaining this community for them.

So yesterday, my 16-year-old daughter woke up and spent her last morning of summer, her last day before starting her junior year, singing Hinay Mah Tov and even dancing with me under a spreading oak tree at our first IFFP Gathering of the year. Some folks traveled up to an hour to celebrate the start of the year with other interfaith families. This pull, the desire to be with those who fully share our interfaith experience, is strong indeed.

During the hour-long Gathering, my daughter did whisper at times with a friend, and crammed in a little bit of last-minute summer Spanish homework. But she also smiled over at me during favorite songs and at moments when a phrase or thought resonated with her. She may have been half-listening, but she was also continuing to soak up good stuff, including the sense of support from a multigenerational community, and intellectual content including a reflection on the pre-Judaic origins of the Sabbath among the ancient Sumerians.

After the Gathering, a hundred interfaith families potlucked together, and silkscreened gorgeous T-shirts in rainbow colors with our logo: the Venn diagram that represents our interlocking religions. A couple of teens helped with the silkscreening. The teens also met briefly under a tree about the Yom Kippur service they will lead next month. Then my daughter went to a planning meeting with the two dads (one Jewish, one Christian) who will teach the kindergarten class in our interfaith Sunday School this year. They are new to the classroom, and she is the old-timer now in her third year as a teen assistant, advising on which craft projects will be successful, and classroom management.

This year, my son will join his big sister in giving back to our community. On the Sunday mornings when the Coming of Age class does not meet (because sometimes it meets in the evenings, to make it more exciting), he will wake up anyway, and accompany the rest of the family to IFFP. There, he will work in the nursery, following in his sister’s footsteps, being a cool interfaith teen role model. Both my children have a lot of competition for their time: heavy academic workloads, and active social lives. But they also understand how lucky we are to live in this time and place, pioneering an interfaith community.

Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

%d bloggers like this: