Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

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.

 

Report on Millennials from Interfaith Families Who Apply to Birthright

Sheila Gordon of IFC
Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community

Yesterday, researchers from Brandeis University released a report on millennials who grew up in interfaith families and applied to Birthright. The report was funded in part by Birthright, the program to send young people with at least one Jewish parent on a free trip to Israel, so the conclusions must be read in that light. However, since very few studies (besides my own) have been conducted on children of interfaith families, each study is valuable, even if it represents a particular viewpoint. Sheila Gordon, co-founder of the original NYC program providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and Interfaith Community intern Ben Arenstein attended the release event. I invited them to report on the release of the study.–SKM

A new study of the growing interfaith population was released yesterday: Millennial Children of Intermarriage. Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community/IFC (and Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage for forty years) attended the release event along with IFC interfaith intern Ben Arenstein–a millennial interfaith child himself and currently a second year student in a joint degree at Columbia College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Produced by the Cohen Center at Brandeis, the study–subtitled “Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement”–looked particularly at the impact of Birthright (which has taken half a million young adults to experience Israel) and college programs like Hillel and Chabad. The study found that engaging in such programs can powerfully strengthen Jewish identity and participation. In short, it is not too late to engage people religiously who are 20 or 25 years old. In fact, Brandeis researchers found that the more different types of Jewish experience in college (i.e., college-based formal and informal experiences and Birthright) the more likely the interfaith millennials are to be as engaged Jewishly as millennials from inmarried families. (The only category in which this was largely not the case was the comprehension of Hebrew by interfaith millennials–which remained low despite Jewish involvement in college.)

The Jewish identity of millennials, as the Brandeis study has confirmed, undergoes a heavily formative period during college years. Post-secondary education–a time wrought with experimentation and change–also serves as an opportunity for Jews to explore their identity. Because millennials of typical interfaith families tend to have limited involvement in Jewish social interactions and Jewish formal education before college, time at university can in many cases serve as a transformative period in which interfaith children now have both access to Jewish programming and the means to independently pursue that programming without parental oversight.

The authors of the study see it as leading to a reframing of Jewish communal policies about intermarriage and new paradigms for understanding the implications of interfaith marriage. What particularly impressed Sheila and Ben were the observations that any programs that are developed need to take into account the perceptions of these interfaith millennials:

  • They appear to define their Jewishness in a way that is different from those raised in entirely Jewish homes–specifically that, while they may see themselves as strengthening their Jewish identity, they proudly see themselves as multi-cultural–and, in turn, they are often dismayed by ethno-centric attitudes. So we may be seeing a different kind of Jewish identity.
  • They are often hesitant to become Jewishly involved because of elitism and stigmas against interfaith children by the larger Jewish community.
  • They and their families–in order to develop their religious and cultural identity–need to feel that the community in which they are developing that identity has to be open and supportive.

In addition, Ben would encourage the policy makers to bear in mind that this survey is not just a collection of data points, but based on a set of real individuals, each of whom has come to terms with his/her interfaith identity in unique and very personal ways. To help someone along that journey is a beautiful thing, but to use data sets to push them in a certain direction is to undermine the individuality of that person.

Sheila told those gathered that the findings further underscore the value of dual-faith education programs (such as provided by IFC and IFFP) for interfaith families. Educating young children ( and, in turn, their parents) about both heritages provides the supportive community and respect for the individual journeys that are essential. Young adults who wish to continue their journeys in college are better prepared both intellectually and emotionally to do so. She urged those present to support dual-faith education programs and communities.

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 Millennials: A Pagan and Atheist Couple

Pagan and Atheist Couple

Today, we feature a guest post by writer Camille Mellin, on her perspective as a Pagan married to an atheist. You can follow Camille on twitter @Camille_Mellin. For more on religious and atheist interfaith relationships, I highly recommend the recent book In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, by Dale McGowan.

I am a Pagan married to an atheist living in New England. We are a young couple and were both stunned at how much an interfaith relationship can affect the relationship, and especially planning for parenthood. My husband was inexperienced when it came to Paganism, and so from the start, I needed to clear up several common misconceptions, including what takes place during rituals, rites, and ceremonies. The frequency of these activities were perhaps a bit of a shock to him as well. As a Pagan, there are eight sabbats throughout the year that require a great deal of my attention, as well as daily, weekly, and even monthly blocks of time devoted to worship and reflection. As I am not a part of a coven, and worship independently, I found that I needed my own space dedicated for my religious practice, in our home. It took some time, but eventually we came up with a schedule that met both of our needs.

Luckily, my husband is an open-minded person, but of course there have been some tense moments that blossomed from my religion and his lack of one. Perhaps the biggest argument took place while discussing future children. Neither of us are interested in forcing our children to believe in (or not believe in) anything. However, I would be open to involving my children in some kid-friendly activities, crafts, recipes, and more every now and then. In contrast, he expressed his concerns with ‘cornering’ our children into one religion instead of letting them choose for themselves whether they wanted to go the religious route or not.

I understand his concern. Growing up, I was never taught any other religion but Christianity, and was in fact told that all other religions were false and were not worth learning. Conversely, my husband was brought up in an open atmosphere as pertains to religion. He learned about all the major religions and in the end decided he did not believe in any of them, however, at least he knew of them. Likewise, I would like to teach my children about as many religions as possible. I do not want my children to feel they are cornered into believing anything. They will of course see their mother practicing Paganism, and their father practicing atheism, and will therefore have more knowledge about these paths.

My husband and I are an interfaith, interracial couple, and my husband is transgender. Each one of these comes with a fair amount of culture shock. I believe religion to be extremely private, and so I don’t usually discuss it with people whom I know find it uncomfortable, including many family members. When it came to the wedding, my husband was adamant that we incorporate a Pagan handfasting ceremony, because he knew how important it was to me. And while I was grateful that my husband respected my religious beliefs so much that he wanted to merge my beliefs with a standard ceremony, I found it difficult to imagine participating in something so intimate in front of my family. In the end, we decided to have the handfasting separately, by ourselves.

Interfaith relationships, including Pagan interfaith relationships, aren’t all that uncommon these days. Some of the issues we face are specific to Pagan interfaith relationships. But regardless of the faiths involved, all relationships require open discussion and compromise.

 

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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