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.

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Interfaith Families in the Jewish World

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Philadelphia Sukkah, Leslie Sudock

 

How are interfaith families creating a new Jewish reality in America? That was the theme at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in Philadelphia this week, organized by InterfaithFamily. The summit was attended by some 350 Jewish leaders: rabbis, Jewish educators, leading academics who study Judaism in America, and Jewish funders. I was honored to be invited to speak there about interfaith families celebrating both family religions.

I had just five minutes, and touched on these points:

  • 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith relationships are raising children both, or “partially Jewish.” That’s more than the 20% raising interfaith children “Jewish only” by religion (Pew 2013). So the number of Jewish parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children is significant, and growing.
  • These “doing both” families want to engage with Judaism. So please engage with them, rather than excluding them from Jewish education because they also want interfaith education, or ignoring them with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the other religion in their lives.
  • Interfaith families doing both already exist in many Jewish communities. So the question is not whether you should include them, but how to acknowledge their presence, engage with them, and learn from them.
  • Rather than always asking about the difficulties and challenges, be open to hearing about the joys in interfaith families. Think about how your community can benefit from interfaith families as highly skilled bridge-builders and peacemakers.
  • Jewish leaders would benefit from working hand-in-hand with clergy from other religions to support interfaith families, rather than competing for souls.
  • Nothing about us without us! We need more adult interfaith children involved in organizing these conferences, speaking on the panels, telling our own stories, and shifting the frame into the reality of the present. That means listening not only to adult interfaith children who claim “just Jewish” identities, but also to those who have complex, fluid, flexible, intersectional “Jewish and” identities, including people who are multiple religious practitioners.

These messages echo my New York Times Op-Ed, published when my book Being Both, and the Pew Report on Jewish Americans, came out simultaneously in 2013. What has changed three years later is that now I am in touch with Jewish leaders from across the country who are working with “doing both” families, who feel less conflicted about the idea, and who see the logic of including rather than excluding people who want to be part of the greater Jewish community.

Going forward, it is clear that interfaith parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children are going to play a larger role in the Jewish world. The next question is which of the Jewish funding organizations at the summit will be visionary enough to invest in helping clergy, educators, seminaries, and Jewish communities to engage with this new reality. I stand ready to help, as a guide and interpreter, and as someone who has been thinking about these issues for a lifetime now.

(For more on the summit, see my tweets from the day on Storify here)

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.

 

New Year’s Interfaith Gratitude: 9 Shout-Outs

Being Both Car Magnet

In this New Year, at the start of 2015, I want to try to thank everyone who supported Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family in 2014, the first full year since publication and the year of the paperback launch. In particular, I want to thank the following (overlapping) nine communities for engaging with interfaith families celebrating more than one religion:

1. Jewish Communities. When I began work on Being Both ten years ago, almost no one in Jewish leadership wanted to acknowledge families providing interfaith education to interfaith children. But this year, I was invited to explain Being Both in more than one synagogue and Jewish Community Center and in multiple Jewish media outlets. And I became one of the respondents for the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith advice column. I also had the privilege of addressing two groups of rabbis (in Chicago and Maryland), who listened intently, asked hard questions, and I hope went away understanding how Jewish communities could benefit from engaging with the 25% of Jews in interfaith marriages who have chosen to raise children in both family religions. One rabbi told me, “Fifty percent of the interfaith couples I marry now say they plan to do both. Your book represents the reality we are facing–we are only just beginning to figure out how to grapple with this.”

2. Unitarian-Universalist (UU) Communities. I was so very fortunate to be published by Beacon Press, a venerable non-profit press promoting “freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.” Not everyone realizes that Beacon Press is affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA). I often say that no other press, religious or commercial, was brave enough to publish my book. Historically, many interfaith families have found community in UU congregations, and this year, I began speaking at UU communities. I look forward to attending the UU General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, next June.

3. Muslim and Hindu allies. While Being Both is primarily about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, it also includes Muslims and Hindus in interfaith marriages, and I hope it will be helpful to people of all religions, going forward. This year, I have really enjoyed interacting with interfaith activists of many religions and worldviews on Twitter, and at conferences. Specifically, I want to shout out here to those who have engaged with or reviewed Being Both, including Muslim interfaith parent Reza Aslan, Hindu interfaith spouse Fred Eaker, Shailaja Rao who advocates for Hindu/Muslim couples and other interfaith families in Asia, and several Muslimah interfaith activists who posted Being Both reviews or features.

4. Atheist and secular humanist allies. Marriages between religious and nonreligious people are a growing cohort. I share the perspective with many humanist writers that it is possible and even beneficial to expose children to more than one religion and worldview, realizing that all children grow up to make their own decisions about belief and affiliation. This year, I particularly appreciated interactions with Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom, Faithiest author Chris Stedman, and In Faith and In Doubt author Dale McGowan. I look forward to speaking in the coming year at Ethical Society, Sunday Assembly, Humanistic Jewish, and college organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, about the overlapping experiences of humanists and people from interfaith families.

5. My home, greater Washington DC. I am so grateful to live in a book-loving city, the kind of city that hosted a packed Being Both launch event at Politics & Prose. I’m also grateful to live in a city where families who want interfaith education for their interfaith children have the support of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Coming up this year in greater DC, look for a talk in March at the venerable Bethesda Writer’s Center. There’s always space on the calendar for local talks, so contact me if your DC-area university, community, or book group wants to host a Being Both event.

6. The great city of New York. The birthplace of the original Interfaith Community for interfaith families, New York has supported this movement, and Being Both, from the beginning. In March, I’ll be in The City for panels at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and at Union Theological Seminary uptown. Be sure to check the susankatzmiller.com event page for updates.

7. The great city of Chicago. My trip to Chicago this year to celebrate Being Both with the Interfaith Family School and The Union School for Interfaith Families strengthened my bonds with the other major city providing interfaith education for interfaith children. In Chicagoland, I also loved interacting with Rabbi Ari Moffic and interfaithfamily.com, with David Dault and the Things Not Seen podcast, and with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

8. The great state of California. On the West Coast, I loved reconnecting with the founders of the original interfaith families community in the Bay Area including Oscar Rosenbloom and Alicia Torre, meeting the staff at the charming Book Passage in Marin, catching up with longtime friend and author Julia Flynn Siler, and interacting with  interfaithfamily.com San Francisco, the Silicon Valley JCC, and Claremont School of Theology friends who study complex religious identity. On January 10th, I’ll be back in Claremont CA to speak at Claremont Lincoln University. Join me!

9. And finally, to my extended interfaith family, including my husband, my two interfaith kids, my pioneering interfaith parents, and my siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins, whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, atheist, or all, or none, of the above. Thank you, once again, for demonstrating what a big, loving, interfaith family can be.

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Autumn Return: Interfaith Families and the Annual Search for High Holy Days

With shorter days, cooler nights and the last moments of summer, many interfaith families feel a strong annual longing, a sort of homing instinct, driving them to search for cultural, religious or spiritual membership. For those of us who grew up in a religious community, the fall reminds us that belonging brings all sorts of benefits (not least of which may be access to tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services). Some Jewish/Christian interfaith families find a welcoming Jewish community, some choose Christianity, some join ethical culture or secular humanist groups, some explore Buddhism, some find a home in Unitarian-Universalism, some manage to maintain affiliation with more than one religious community. My family chose an independent interfaith community celebrating both religions.

In recent weeks, the idea that an increasing number of interfaith families are choosing communities that teach both Judaism and Christianity received rare, cautious coverage in the Jewish press. Both Tablet Magazine and interfaithfamily.com (a Jewish outreach website) took note of the “Being Interfaith” project posted by two journalism students, a project I wrote about last April. These tentative, somewhat skeptical acknowledgments of  “doing both” signal a welcome evolution: a growing realization by Jewish institutions that raising children with both religions is not a phenomenon that is going to evaporate any time soon, and that it thus deserves analysis. Each pathway for interfaith families has benefits and drawbacks, and the benefits of raising children with both religions are strong enough to continue to attract new families each fall. In fact, Reform Judaism has shifted in recent years to emphasizing the importance of converting non-Jewish spouses, possibly driving more interfaith couples to seek out communities that do not exert any pressure (however subtle) for adults to change religious identity.

I have listed some options for independent interfaith communities in major cities in the Resource links in the right-hand column of this blog. In Chicago, Jewish/Catholic families have at least two options: the interwoven Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group and the Chicago Interfaith Family School (downtown), and The Interfaith Union (in the suburbs). In New York, the venerable Interfaith Community has its flagship program (in Manhattan), as well as suburban offshoots (in Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut), and a group in Boston. My own community in Washington DC, the Interfaith Families Project, now has a branch in Philadelphia.

Each of these groups has grown organically, with varying degrees of support from local clergy, and each interfaith community takes a slightly different approach to meeting the needs of interfaith families for welcoming and accessible, yet authentic, High Holy Day services. At the Interfaith Families Project in DC, we now have full Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the first time this year, led by Rabbi Harold White, with mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell as cantor. In New York City, the Interfaith Community has a long tradition of High Holy Day services created and led by the interfaith families themselves. In Boston, families from the Interfaith Community will attend services together at a synagogue. In Chicago, the Interfaith Union refers families to five different local Reform, Renewal, humanist and independent Jewish communities.

For anyone with a Jewish background, the call of the shofar signals a moment to pause, take stock of the past year and contemplate the future. Too often, the Jewish partner in an interfaith family goes off alone to High Holy Day services. In my opinion, the experience is far more resonant in a community, whether it is a welcoming Jewish community or an independent interfaith community, in which the entire family feels comfortable sitting together, allowing for a meaningful glance or quiet squeeze of hands at key moments of repentance and resolve.