Blessing of the Interfaith Babies

April showers bring May flowers, blue robin’s eggs, newborn lambs and foals. Even though human babies are born throughout the year, it seems appropriate somehow that our interfaith community welcomes new babies as a group in the spring. Our minister and rabbi work together to bless these tiniest and newest members of our community.

Our interfaith ceremony is neither traditionally Jewish nor traditionally Christian, nor is it meant to supplant the ceremonies of either tradition. Many of our interfaith babies have had a Bris, a Naming Ceremony (for Jewish girls), a Baptism, an individual interfaith Baby Welcoming Ceremony, or more than one of the above. This group ceremony specifically welcomes all of these babies, no matter what religious label their parents have chosen for them, into our interfaith community, and in so doing, recognizes that they share a bond. Our baby-blessing ceremony does include elements of both Christian and Jewish traditions, so if that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading here.

Last Sunday, we began, as we do must Sundays, by reading our interfaith responsive reading, affirming our sense of community. Then we recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Shema, the central prayers of each tradition represented by our families. Next, four community members held up a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and the babies and parents crowded underneath it, echoing the ritual of the wedding chuppah. Our rabbi led us in reciting the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of thanks for reaching any milestone or holiday or new experience.

Then we read from Genesis of the promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as grains of sand on the shore. These interfaith children are indeed descendants of Abraham, and part of my personal goal for my interfaith children is for them to know and remember this fact, above and beyond all the debates over “Who is a Jew?”

Next, our minister touched each baby’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth with a daisy and led us in a Unitarian blessing of children. A couple of the fussier babies went quiet at the tickle of the petals.

Bless our children’s minds with intelligence and wisdom

Bless their eyes so they will see great vistas

Bless their nose with delicious and fragrant aromas

Bless their mouth for the enjoyments of tasting and talking

Bless their hearts with deep love and a strong stady beat

Bless their arms for embracing friendship and love

Bless their feet so they will carry them happily through their days.

When these young families returned to their seats, they each clutched a daisy–a small reminder that their new interfaith child will be not just tolerated, or grudgingly accepted, or allowed to participate with qualifications, but fully welcomed and nurtured by our community as a creation as perfect as any flower.

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.

Interfaith Coming of Age: Group Ceremony

I have taught every grade level from kindergarten through high school. But my favorite students are middle schoolers: just opening to the world, still tender, but surging with energy. Adolescence is a threshold, a liminal state, a state of being both child and adult, and I am inordinately attracted to the liminal, to bothness.

Yesterday, we celebrated our annual group Coming of Age ceremony at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) with songs and blessings for the eighth-graders completing our dual-faith religious education program. During this gathering, each of the teens gave a speech or presented a project, bravely baring their adolescent souls and musing on topics both intimate and philosophical: the unconditional love of pets, the  power of music, exclusion and inclusion, the intertwining of two faiths, kindness, the shadow of the Holocaust, the existence or non-existence of God.

Our minister, Julia Jarvis, reminded us all that the community is still there to support these teenagers as they emerge into adulthood. She charged the adults: “You are a container that holds them right now, like the glass holds the wine.” And our rabbi, Harold White, addressed the teens: “You now assume responsibility to become a part of a community. This is not a graduation from IFFP, it’s becoming a more integral part of it.”

The rabbi recalled his own Bar Mitzvah, 65 years ago, in the midst of World War II. Both his older brothers were fighting in the Pacific at the time, and his portion from Isaiah included the very relevant, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” The rabbi went on to list all the wars he has lived through in the intervening decades and told the interfaith teens: “Your challenge for the future is to be ambassadors of peace.”

Then, each teen came up to speak. The first made liberal reference to his influences in the Christian, Jewish and secular worlds, citing Martin Luther King, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and the Torah. His summation: “both religions have a lot to teach the world.” Another concluded: “I don’t have the answers but now I have a better idea of what the questions are.” A third had the community listen to mixed-race musician Michael Franti‘s anguished peace anthem “Hey World.” Said the interfaith teen, “What if you lived life as a kind person in one religion, and then died and found out you should have been a Catholic?…If life is all about choosing the right God, then life has a few flaws.”

Then, together, we celebrated the shared ethical heart of Jewish and Christian traditions. The rabbi chanted the Ten Commandments from a torah that survived the Holocaust. The reverend read the words of Jesus on the greatest commandment, from the Gospel of Mark. And then Rob Liebreich, one of our marvelous Coming of Age teachers (a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman with two young children born into our community) reenacted Rabbi Hillel reciting the essence of the Torah while hopping on one foot.

Rob and his co-teacher Joan Bellsey spent the past year shepherding these students through individual community service projects, white-water rafting, the Holocaust Museum, planning a fundraiser for Haiti, and a solo wilderness excursion. Rob described the Coming of Age program as creating “voices that understand they have power to express what they feel…this is what we nurture.” And he added that these very young and very thoughtful adults “have faith. It may not be the faith you want them to have, but it’s theirs.”

I suspect that for many of our children raised in two worlds, whether or not they settle into the practice of a single religion, drawing on both sides of their identity will continue to provide energy to fuel their bridge-building activities. As it does for Michael Franti, and for Barack Obama. For me, as for many of these emerging adults in the vigorous hybrid generation, choosing is not the issue; the issue is explaining to the world the vital essence of bothness.

Interfaith Community: Why it Matters

 

For the second week in a row, it looks like our interfaith community is going to be snowed out on Sunday. While getting up on Sunday mornings sometimes feels like a sacrifice, now I find myself pining to return, and frustrated about the cancellations. I often describe myself as an interfaith zealot. Why? I grew up on the margins of Jewish life: always a little different, a little suspect, because of my Christian mother. But in our interfaith community, all families are on equal footing, all parents have equal standing, all children are equally welcome. Everyone takes part in our rituals. This radical inclusivity is powerfully seductive for me, after a lifetime of feeling like a religious outsider.

The interfaith families in our community range across a spectrum in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, ideology. We are atheists and God-lovers, liberals and conservatives. But our common bond–the shared condition of having created an interfaith family, the desire to build something joyous out of our differences, the determination to see dual religious heritage as something positive and enriching rather than simply as a problem–this bond thrills me.

When we do not meet, I think of all we are missing. Last week, my seventh-grader was supposed to lead our Tu Bishvat gathering with his “Coming of Age prep” class. This week, we were supposed to hear from our Rabbi and Minister about the trip they just took to Israel with their friend, Imam Yaya Hendi, and students from Georgetown. My husband, who once lived in a seminary in Haiti, was supposed to say the Lord’s Prayer in Haitian Creole for us. And the children were supposed to file up to drop smooth stones into the bowl of concerns as we think of the people of Haiti. My teenage daughter was supposed to work, as she does each week, reading stories and helping with crafts in the kindergarten classroom. And we were supposed to schmooze and eat bagels together, and sing together to our rocking house band.

So I’m hoping the deep snow melts soon, and I can return quickly to my community, to my beloved motley crew of non-joiners, reluctant religionists, visionaries, brilliantly cynical secularists, and passionate mystics. We call ourselves the Interfaith Families Project because we are building the community as we go along, never sure exactly where we are going to all end up. All I can tell you is that wherever we are going, that is where I want to go.

Halloween, Interfaith Style

Pumpkin Carvings, photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday night, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

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.

A Rabbi and a Minister…

My rabbi often expounds on “radical amazement,” a concept that his teacher, philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to describe our response to creation. Me, personally, I am radically amazed that I have a rabbi. And I am equally, if not even more radically amazed that I have a pastor. We are living in strange and wondrous times, when a person, an interfaith person, can have both.

Here’s how it works. Rabbi Harold White and minister Julia Jarvis lead the Interfaith Families Project in song, prayer and reflection twice each month. That means sometimes the rabbi will give a reflection about Lent, and the minister will give a reflection on Sukkoth. It sounds meshugenah but this cross-fertilization leads to dazzling insights. And for those of us who are interfaith children, it leads to profound opportunities to feel like an integrated whole, rather than a half-something.

I never thought I would have a rabbi again. I had reconciled myself to a life of exile from organized Judaism, and I assumed that meant exile from the likes of Rabbi White, who combines warmth and crinkly smile lines with deep wisdom and erudition. My exile began, like that of many other intermarried Jews, the day my father went to our family rabbi and asked if he would officiate at my marriage to a lapsed Episcopalian. The answer my father brought back was, “He says he can’t touch it.” Later, I learned that many synagogue Boards forbid their rabbis to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment. This may help to explain why I have returned to a rabbi, but not to a synagogue.

I never dreamed I would have a minister, nor did I pine for one, since I never had one growing up as a Reform Jew. But it turns out that everyone can benefit from a minister. Clergy of all stripes actually know this—they often benefit from spiritual direction from different faith traditions. Julia Jarvis is a gifted empath who has given me personal support, and creative dedication to the task of raising healthy interfaith children in our community. She has given me the courage as a Jew to accept the help of a pastor. It may seem radical. But it is also amazing.