We Count. We Just Weren’t Counted.

More on Pew’s Jewish Americans in 2020

For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.

But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.

The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.

This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.

A lot has been written about interfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.

Let me explain.

Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).

Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.

Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.

Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.

How can we fix this?

Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families consultant and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Quilt of Belonging, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.   Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?

In the Red Tent, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.  Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day.  To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.

So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. And they told me that this hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.

While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from the Jewish and Christian worlds of my childhood, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.

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). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker: Book Review

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker

As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.

Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.

Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children. 

In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith education for interfaith families. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

 

 

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.

Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging

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As someone born into an interfaith family, I am attracted to synergy, hybridity, complexity, and convergence. Lately, I see a moment of convergence approaching, when my progressive Jewish communities and my progressive Christian communities might begin to engage with each other on the topic of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities. This moment cannot come too soon.

In the Jewish world, conversations about interfaith families have historically taken place as part of a fraught discourse on the threat of “intermarriage” to Jewish continuity and worries about confused children. Meanwhile, a separate but parallel conversation has been occurring, first among Catholic theologians and academics, and more recently in the progressive Protestant world, under the labels of “hybridity” and “multiple religious belonging” (sometimes shortened to MRB). In this literature, there has been a growing realization that multiple religious practice is actually the norm, rather than the exception, in much of Asia, and among many American Indian and other indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, cultural disruption, and diaspora.

And so it was that in 2014, the World Council of Churches gathered theologians and academics in Chennai, India, for a conference on multiple religious belonging. Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson of the United Church of Christ traveled to India for the conference. She then organized two consultations in the US, in order to connect clergy to theologians thinking and writing about this new reality. I was honored to present my research on interfaith families and interfaith identities at the first of these US events.

Now, a new book of essays published by the World Council of Churches, Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging (edited by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam), brings together more than a dozen of these theologians, academics, and clergy, many of them Asian or Asian-American. The academic and theological language here can be dense and at times exhausting for even the most interested general reader (that would be me). For example, I am glad I happened to go to a university that offered a semiotics major, and so had some acquaintance with the work of French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

And yet, this slim volume is essential reading to those of us from interfaith families and other multiple religious practitioners engaged in defining ourselves, and in creating new spaces in which to do that. These essays describe, explain, and restore the religious plurality and complexity found in whole cultures, and in individuals. In so doing, this book has become my new bible, if you will, because it probes, affirms and illuminates much that is positive about my experience as someone with a complex religious identity.

Some of the essays focus primarily on Christians who become dual-faith practitioners after taking on Buddhist or Hindu practices. Others focus on the dual-faith practice in areas of Asia where this has long been the norm. At least some of the essays mention interfaith families as a source of multiple religious practice. Of course, all the writers here are looking at this topic through a Christian lens (or a “Christian and” hyphenated perspective). But after spending so much time defending interfaith families in the Jewish world, it was intellectually refreshing to be immersed in the world of Christianities.

In reading this book, I penciled in a hail of asterisks and exclamation points on almost every page. I could, should, and still may write a whole post in response to each essay in this volume. For now, I am going to simply cite a list of just some of the phrases that made me so excited about this book:

  • “Must claims of double-belonging receive communal authorization before they can be recognized as valid?” Rajkumar (World Council of Churches) and Dayam (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church)
  • “From my location in a seminary, I encounter increasing numbers of religious leaders and leaders-in-training who embody forms of multiple religious identity or practice.” John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary.
  • “Regardless of the resistance of religious institutions in accepting multiple religious belonging, individuals are finding their way to multiple paths without help or assistance.” Karen Georgia Thompson
  • “East Asian ‘both-and’ mode of relational thinking such as yin-yang has no problem in logically including dual identities.” Heup Young Kim, Hanshin University.
  • “…hybridity often functions as a space that allows two or more seemingly contradictory ideas or identities to co-exist without eliminating the distinction between them.” Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybridity is inherent even in what we may be tempted to categorize as ‘monolithic’ or ‘orthodox’ religious faiths.” Sunder John Boopalan, Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybrid entities cannot be understood adequately when viewed through the lens of monoculturality.” Julius-Kei Kato, University of Western Ontario.

The editors, Rajkumar and Dayam, conclude by urging churches to “move beyond tacit obliviousness and engage robustly with the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging.” This book will help Christian communities to do that. But as a bridge-builder, a synthesizer, a complex, hybrid person, I am waiting for the creation of a shared language to communicate with each other across religious boundaries. Specifically, I still wait for the time when my Jewish and my Christian communities figure out how to work together to welcome, engage, and learn from those of us who rejoice in our interfaith identities. I wait for a book like this one, written not with a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens, but by, for, and about those of us with multireligious “both-and” perspectives.

 

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.