Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

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I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

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.

 

Deep Christian Roots, Interfaith Family Journey

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Callaway Kleiner family photo.

Today, we feature an essay from interfaith parent Erika Callaway Kleiner, MDiv. One persistent myth is that interfaith parents raising children with interfaith education must lack religious education or depth. Erika is someone with a rigorous religious education, who has thought long and hard about theology, and still chose (with her Jewish husband) to raise her children with both family religions. In this post, she explains how she got there.

Being a Christian has always been an important part of who I am. I grew up in a small United Methodist Church outside of Oklahoma City. The people there were our church family. I have many fond memories of Sunday School, youth group sleepovers, family camp, and Holy Week. Even in a very conservative area of the country where I did not see many women in religious leadership roles, I was encouraged by two male pastors to be a leader in my church. I served many Sundays as liturgist, sitting next to the altar across from the minister.

In college I decided to major in religion. My professors gently encouraged me to explore my religious beliefs. I remember one professor continually referring to God without using masculine (or feminine) pronouns. The idea that God is bigger than masculine (or feminine) had a motivating and inspiring impact.

Then, when I was a junior in college and my brother a sophomore in high school, my mom died of ovarian cancer. She was our best friend and a beautiful woman of faith. Many people took care of us and supported us. Everyone meant well. But a few people (not part of our church family) said some things I will never forget. “Trust that this is all part of God’s plan.” “It’s such a shame – your Mom was such a good person but she just couldn’t let go of her sin in order to heal.” Statements like these hurt and made me angry. What kind of God chooses to take a mother away from her children? Couldn’t let go of her sin?? She was always a generous, kind and loving person – a testament from everyone who knew her. My reaction was not to shun God or religion, however. I wanted to get to know God better and find a way out of this harmful, debilitating theology.

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and earned a Master of Divinity degree. There I met others struggling with questions of theodicy: Where is God in our suffering? What is our role as humans to ameliorate suffering and bring about justice? In divinity school, I had the space to live in these questions and gain some answers for myself (along with many more questions). I graduated with a different and deeper faith and also the realization that I wanted to join in the work towards creating social justice.

For me, God was not only bigger than masculine or feminine, God was also bigger than my Christian religion. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with a friend who eventually became my husband. He is Jewish. Neither of us intended to partner outside our religions. Still, what we discovered as we talked about how we were raised and what we believed is that we both wanted to help create a kinder and more compassionate world where people appreciate and respect diversity.

A rabbi and a minister married us on the Vanderbilt campus with our families and friends celebrating with us. We were intentional about every element of our ceremony, and we have been intentional about all the religious decisions we have made since then. In 2008, after attending several churches and belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue, we decided to join the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). We realized that this was a place where people truly understood our choices and situation.

Early on, we worried about how our children would identify. Is this confusing? Will they ultimately not feel included in either Judaism or Christianity? Will they have a spiritual home? Our children are still young — eight and six — so the answers to these questions remain to be seen. What we do see each week as we leave the Gathering at IFFP and Sunday School is our kids confidently living an interfaith life. They sing songs in Hebrew and also This Little Light of Mine. They are learning the similarities and connections between Judaism and Christianity as well as the differences and what this means for their lives. And they are already asking and finding their own answers to significant theological questions. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I have grown fond of the rhythm the practice of Judaism creates in my own life and that of my family. The ritual of Shabbat is a welcome part of my week. I look forward to the deep and cleansing time of the High Holy Days just as I look forward to the season of Advent.

The rituals and the theologies of both traditions now inform and inspire my thinking about the world and my place in it. I appreciate aspects of Judaism that encourage us to wrestle with theology and continue asking questions. In addition, from Jesus I hear the two greatest commandments reiterated. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The other day my kids asked me in the car if I see myself as Interfaith. I responded in a very Jewish way – with a question! I asked, “How do you see me?” They said, “Yes, Mom, you’re both!”

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.

Interfaith Children Speak Out: Cara

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate today’s release of my book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I am launching a new series on teens and young adults raised in interfaith family communities. These portraits are drawn from interviews and from my survey of 50 young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although I am proud to say the book is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

Cara: Educated in the Earliest Interfaith Classroom

Cara attended the very first dual-faith education program designed for interfaith children (the program that evolved into The Interfaith Community) in Manhattan in the late 1980s. The daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, she was 8 years old when she started afterschool classes in Judaism and Christianity, co-taught by a Jewish and a Christian teacher. Cara explains that she did not find learning about both religions confusing because “they were taught to me as one emerging from the other chronologically, and the parallels in the religions were presented.”

In college, Cara, like many children in my research who were raised with a dual-faith education, went on to study some of the other religions of the world. She also, like many of these children, attended Jewish services on campus and took part in Jewish social activities through Hillel, the nationwide program for Jewish college students. Often, Cara has had to defend her claim to Judaism, because she would be considered a “patrilineal Jew,” and traditional Judaism holds that the religion is passed only through the mother. She explains, “Conservative Jews tell me all the time I’m not Jewish. They have their rules–that’s fine. I’m culturally Jewish and that’s enough for me.”

Now in her thirties, Cara describes her religious identity as “interfaith.” She is not married, and does not see any particular reason to choose a single faith. She writes that she felt “no need to choose at 8, or 12, or 18” so “why now?” When asked why she chose an interfaith identity, Cara credits both her interfaith education, and her liberal arts education in college. She writes, “once you see the range of religions and ways people live their lives” she felt she could “no longer see any need or purpose to commit or define myself to one.”

Cara continues to attend church on Christmas and Easter, in part because she loves the music. She reports that she also feels comfortable in synagogues, and attends a Reform Jewish synagogue on the High Holy Days. When asked about her concept of God, Cara writes, “there is no god–god is yourself. The mind is a powerful tool, and the power of belief can achieve a lot.”

Cara says she did not experience any disadvantages in being educated in two religions. As for advantages, she appreciated the “double dose of exposure and education” and the fact that she “got to learn twice as much about the world as other kids.” When asked how her interfaith education affects her general outlook on life, Cara writes that it “makes me open-minded to anything, interdisciplinary in a lot I do, open to lots of new cultures, traditions, religions, values.”

Overall, Cara reports that she thinks her parents made a good decision to raise her with both religions. And when asked how she might raise any future children, she writes, “Interfaith—hopefully with strong Jewish exposure.”

My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims

Easter Bonnet

We celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

In addition to the Lord of the Dance and older traditional Easter hymns, we sang Bob Marley’s One Love. Then, we had a pancake breakfast that included matzoh brei (matzoh fried in eggs) for those of us who aren’t eating leavening until the end of Passover. This type of radical culinary inclusion is the norm in an interfaith families community. And it is part of what makes this community so comfortable, and so precious, for me.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

What struck me at this Easter feast, and touched me deeply, was the way the Catholics made sure to accommodate the dietary restrictions of Muslim family members and friends. All of the main dishes featured mutton or chicken, rather than ham, and the one dish with pork in it was carefully labelled. Our Muslim friend reminded us how people of all religions in Senegal share another local culinary tradition on Good Friday: ngalax, a dessert made from peanut butter, vanilla, sugar, and the fruit of the baobab tree, served with raisins over millet couscous. Typically, Catholics make the dish on Good Friday and deliver it to neighbors, friends and family of all religions, just as Muslims in Senegal share the mutton from the Tabaski (or Eid al-Adha) feast with neighbors of all religions.

I often use the Passover dish of charoset as a metaphor for my interfaith family: a mix of nuts, fruits, spices and wine, with flavors melding over time. Now I have a sweet new metaphor: the nuts and fruits and grain of ngalax, bonding interfaith families, neighborhoods, and countries.

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.