Balanced Advice for Interfaith Families

Today, you can read a Q and A with me over on a blog called Moms Are Human. Blogger Elizabeth Katz (no relation) is a young intermarried mom who contacted me for more information on the “both” option for interfaith families.

Maybe because my interfaith identity often means I see more than one viewpoint on an issue, I try not to go bossing interfaith couples around:  I do not rank the choices interfaith families have, or label any of them problematic. I understand interfaith families choosing Judaism. I also understand interfaith families choosing Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism…

If, on this blog, I continue to highlight the full exploration of both family religions, I do this because it is the journey of my own children, and the one I am best qualified to describe in real time. But also, I emphasize this option because it is the least understood, with little support from religious institutions, and little presence in the media or cyberspace.  As an interfaith child and a journalist, I feel compelled to provide counterweight: I am keenly aware of issues of balance. And so I blog to disseminate the existence of the “both” option, but I do not claim that it is the right option for everyone.

I  understand that alliance with religious institutions, and allegiance to a particular belief system, practically obligates a blogger to advocate one option over other options. Because independent interfaith communities do not prescribe to a particular set of beliefs,  we do not feel compelled to urge families to adopt a particular religious label (though some members of independent interfaith communities do label their children as Jewish, for instance, while still wanting their children educated in both religious traditions).

In the end, in spite of my ambivalence about giving advice, I did respond to Elizabeth’s request to provide specific strategies that will be helpful in raising interfaith children, no matter what choices a couple makes.

How Not to Interfaith Parent: The Reyes Case

For months now, I have been ignoring suggestions that I tackle the disturbing case of the Reyes interfaith divorce in Chicago. I guess I had been trying to distance myself from the bad behavior of Joseph and Rebecca Reyes, who have been using their interfaith differences as weapons against each other and against their child. Rebecca (allegedly) allowed her parents to (allegedly) pressure her husband into converting from Catholicism to Judaism. Bad move. The marriage fell apart and Joseph had his three-year-old daughter baptized without Rebecca’s permission. Bad move. Rebecca convinced a judge to prohibit her husband from taking their daughter to church. Bad move. Joseph took their daughter to church anyway, with a TV crew in tow. Bad move.

The only blessing is that Ela Reyes is three, not six or sixteen, and probably missed most of what was going on around her. Last week, the judge ruled that Joseph will be allowed to attend church with his daughter, and that the child will go with her father on Easter and Christmas, and with her mother on Passover and the High Holy Days.  In essence, the court decided that allowing the child to be exposed to both religions is in the best interest of the child, under these circumstances. Interesting.

Recently, I have been advising a group of young interfaith couples in a weekly workshop: I do not want them to be discouraged by the abysmal failure of the Reyes marriage. Instead, I would like to point out hopeful signs of evolution in some of the blogosphere essays on the Reyes case.  Over at the excellent blog Killing the Buddha, I appreciate the way fellow half-Jewish writer Laurel Snyder writes about how the conversion of a spouse can backfire:  “The pressure that we, as a Jewish community, place on conversion and absorption, on quieting the multitude of non-Jewish voices in our midst is a problem for me.”  Jewish blogger Julie Weiner, who, like Snyder, is intermarried, praised Snyder for her post, agreeing that “too often the Jewish community pushes (conversion) in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage.”

Ruth Abrams at praises Snyder and Weiner, but she also appears to chide Joseph Reyes for going back on his promise to raise the child Jewish (though he denies making such a promise). She writes, “Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child.” Here, I disagree. When a partner changes spiritual direction, it need not always break up the marriage. Children can, and do, adapt to change, and can even thrive under such circumstances. I do not think, in this case, that what appears to have been a terrible marriage could have been saved by simply allowing the daughter to attend church, but there are most certainly marriages that could be saved this way. I have seen families in distress when a parent can no longer live with a promise to raise children in one religion, and I have seen that distress resolve when they allow children exposure to both religions.

So I also disagree with Snyder when she writes that the biggest problem in intermarriage is often “the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed.”  Our religious identities do shift, continuously: if your identity is truly solidified, you are probably dead.

The most sensitive anlaysis, and the most surprising, for me, was that of Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld. He agreed with the judge’s ruling that the father has the right to take his Jewish daughter to church. Rabbi Hirschfeld stunned me with his statement that “…there is no evidence which shows that kids are harmed by exposure to multiple faith traditions…the argument that such exposure creates moral or psychic confusion is simply untrue.” As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, I knew this. But few clergy members have been willing to put such a statement into print. The rest of Rabbi Hirschfeld’s post is equally brave and inspiring. I urge you to go read it.


Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Interfaith Child at Thirteen: Coming of Age? Bar Mitzvah?

Yesterday, my son turned thirteen. We are still working on a format for his Coming of Age ritual: interfaith children may take longer to reach a point where they want to stand up in front of a community and talk about their religious identity and commitments. Anyway, I do not believe, and Judaism does not dictate, that such a ritual has to occur precisely at the stroke of thirteen. But I admit that a little alarm went off somewhere deep in my Jewish consciousness: Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah! Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah!

In our interfaith families community,  seventh and eighth graders spend two years going through our Coming of Age curriculum. Each student chooses a mentor and a project that involves a community service component. The program culminates in a group Coming of Age ceremony, where each student talks about their project and the community recognizes that they have reached physical maturity, passed through our interfaith education program, and reached an age when they must draw on the ethical principals they have learned to take responsibility for their own actions.

For many families, the group ceremony meets their needs.  But for some families, this community process, more akin to Christian (or Jewish) confirmation than it is to a Bar Mitzvah, is not enough. Some families want an individual ceremony. We want to be able to host extended family and friends from outside our interfaith community: to create a family event on a par with a wedding, to give elderly relatives something to look forward to, especially grandparents who might not be around for the weddings of their grandchildren. We want our children to have the experience of crafting and leading an entire ceremony, to meet a rigorous challenge that both draws on and instills confidence.

In our community, an individual Coming of Age ceremony may or may not involve a Torah reading, and the young person leading the ceremony may or may not read in Hebrew from the Torah. The family may or may not choose to label the ceremony as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Historically, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony evolved in recent centuries:  it is not required by Jewish law. In fact, traditionally, all Jews automatically become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (daughter or son of the commandments) at the age of 13 (twelve for girls), whether or not they perform any specific ritual. Reaching this age entitles them to lead services, obligates them to follow the Jewish commandments, and officially relieves their parents of responsibility for the child!

In its most essential form, the Bar Mitzvah ritual involves being invited to make an aliyah for the first time—which means going up to the bimah (pulpit) and saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Over time, and in different denominations, the tradition has expanded to involve reading the Torah portion itself, reading the haftarah, giving a speech (a D’var Torah) about the Torah portion, and leading many of the Shabbat prayers. But the requirements vary from congregation to congregation, and our family has been to secular humanist Bar Mitzvahs where the Torah was not even present.

When my daughter was thirteen, she chose to have a Coming of Age ceremony in which she chanted the blessings over the Torah in Hebrew—and then read the Torah portion in English. I thought this was a wise decision because she will hear Hebrew blessings throughout her lifetime in every Shabbat service she attends. A Torah portion memorized in Hebrew, while it is a formidable feat, is rarely used again later in life. And for my daughter’s extended family, three-quarters of whom are Christian, the reading of the Torah portion in English had far greater meaning.

So was this a Bat Mitzvah? My daughter and I do not presume to refer to it as such, though my feisty (Jewish?) side tells me she could. My own Bat Mitzvah was entirely “by the book”—Torah portion chanted in Hebrew, haftarah, D’var Torah, all the Shabbat prayers. Often, when people challenge my right to a Jewish identity, I use the fact that I learned to read Hebrew and had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony as Jewish credentials. The Reform movement has encouraged, and even required, that interfaith children accomplish such rituals in order to call ourselves Jews.

In the end, there are an awful lot of loopholes. What constitutes a Bar Mitzvah? And then, inevitably, who is a Jew?

And yet, despite the ambiguities, the essence of the Bar Mitzvah tradition has power, and I claim that power for my children. I stand up and speak to them about who they are, our pride in them, their role in the world. They stand up and learn that they can be poised and articulate in front of our community. They see that their family, their Jewish family and their Christian family, will go to great lengths to be with them at important moments in their lives. They connect to the ancient traditions of Judaism (and by definition, Christianity) and feel the continuity of the generations flow through them.  And they learn, they know, that they can claim all this, and experience the beauty of such a ceremony, no matter what we label it, and no matter what others might say or think about it all.

Thoughts On This, the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and my obsessive side is very satisfied to discover that I have exactly the right number of leftover candles accumulated over the past several years to fill our Hanukkah menorah. Each package of Hanukkah candles comes with exactly the right number to get you through the holiday. But in practice, at our house, each year we celebrate one or two nights at the homes of other families, and don’t light our own, so the extra candles roll around in my tea cupboard. This year, in deference to the economy and the state of the planet, we used the assorted candles left behind from past years. The mismatched theme seemed to fit our family:  jazzy and colorful, if a little untidy.

Hanukkah was appropriately low-key this year. We gave our teenagers glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty one night, and fuzzy pyjama pants another night. My husband contributed some cool light-up “party rats” that you clip on the end of each finger “for night blogging.” I’ll have to borrow those.

On one night, instead of giving the kids gifts, we made a donation to our friends who run FairVote, a group trying to upgrade American democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. This is a political cause my teens understand and support. Another night, we gave our Hanukkah donation to the winter Special Olympics, the charity designated by my son’s ski club this season.

Perhaps because this is my first Hanukkah in the blogosphere, I have been reading a lot (some of it disturbing, wise, funny) about the multiple meanings of Hanukkah. I realize that by emphasizing the “light in darkness” theme, I risk being accused of watering down or avoiding the historical and political origins of the holiday because I’m a half-educated half-Jew. Or worse, I could be accused of “settling for” the theme Hanukkah shares with Christmas and the solstice as part of a least-common-denominator homogenization, rather than wrestling with the distinctive and sometimes difficult meanings that are unique to Hanukkah.

I am wrestling though. For instance, we have guests coming to celebrate with us tonight, so I printed out copies of the three English verses of Ma’oz Tzur as written out in gorgeous script years ago by my Episcopalian mother. (Note:  rather sad that children cannot read cursive any more). This hymn has its origins in the 13th century, and it appeals to me because it seems to fulfill a requirement for ritual storytelling, and it emphasizes the theme of religious freedom, which appeals to me as a religious renegade.

My family sings all three verses, because that’s the way we’ve done it for generations, and because it is somehow pleasurable to rub up against the difficulties of the text, like worrying a loose tooth with your tongue.  We sing “and thy word broke their sword,” even though none of us believe that the almighty, if he/she exists, takes sides in (dubious) military battles. We sing “priests approved in suffering” even though it triggers uncomfortable associations with the victim mentality. And we even sing “children of the martyr race” in the final verse, even though it conjures up the deeply problematic “chosen people” issues, and the martyr complex, and the persistently pernicious idea that Judaism is a race (or even ethnicity).

Someone has written a new, more politically-correct lyric to replace that last one..subbing in “children of the wanderers.” One year, I gently suggested this change, but my father, never a big change advocate, was staunchly opposed. So I have retreated to singing, and wrestling with, the old lyric. For one more night. And then it’s on to wrestling with Christmas.

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.

Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even If They Get Christmas Too)

Last night on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart was bemoaning the fact that his interfaith kids ditched Hanukkah as soon as they found out about Christmas (his wife is Catholic). I suspect this was just schtick, or perhaps he’s not trying hard enough on the Hanukkah end of things.

Interfaith parents tend to fear the commercial and emotional juggernaut that is Christmas in America. Whether they are raising their kids with both religions, or raising them as Jews with inevitable exposure to Christmas through the extended family, it is hard to believe at first that Hanukkah can, well, hold a candle to Christmas.

I know, it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Christmas is second only to Easter in theological importance for Christians. Hanukkah, well, it’s a celebration of a military victory that occurred long after the Torah was written. So it’s probably not in the top ten Jewish holidays in terms of religious significance.

But here’s the funny thing: children love Hanukkah. Whether or not they get eight nights of presents, they love Hanukkah. Whether or not they celebrate Christmas, they love Hanukkah. I grew up celebrating both, my children grew up celebrating both, and I can tell you that you really don’t have to fear the Hanukkah versus Christmas smackdown. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Given half a chance, most children actually love a quiet moment of contemplation with the nuclear family, with the lights dimmed, and the allure of fire. That’s why our favorite memories of Christmas may be decorating the tree, not opening the presents. Hanukkah provides eight opportunities for this magical moment. Even if a couple of nights get lost to busy schedules or Hanukkah parties, most folks can pull off more than one night together gathered around the menorah.
  2. Kids love the actual lighting of the candles. They love the routine, the anticipation of one more candle each night, getting their hands on the candles and controlling the fire at an age when you otherwise probably wouldn’t let them anywhere near such a thing.
  3. Kids love latkes. They’re fried, they’re bland, they come with applesauce. What’s not to like? Whether you bleed grating your knuckles into the potatoes, or use a box-mix to make the mushy variety like I do, kids (and grownups) devour them. I don’t fry anything the rest of the year—it’s messy and fattening. But for Hanukkah, I fry, and the kids go wild when they smell the sizzling oil. It may not be that healthy, but if the dinner consists of latkes, applesauce and salad, you don’t end up overstuffed and groaning like you do after Thanksgiving or Passover. It’s a perfect weeknight meal.
  4. Kids really do appreciate savoring one gift each night, as much as they also appreciate an orgy of gifts on Christmas. Our family tradition is to hunt for the Hanukkah present, which creates huge excitement for little kids. Some nights, they know it will be a “small gift” night, maybe Silly Putty or a roll of lifesavers. It’s enough, and they still have the thrill of hunting for it.
  5. Eight nights leaves room to think about tzedakah, or charity. Early on, we declared one or more nights the nights of “giving to others” in lieu of getting gifts (in part to offset the additional gifts on Christmas). So Hanukkah also becomes an opportunity for them to feel good about giving back. If you instill this idea early on, they actually crave the good feelings that come from giving. One year, I gave each of the small cousins, who did not grow up with this “give to others night” tradition, a single dime-store plastic animal to represent the rabbit or chicken they were giving to Heifer International, to make the idea more concrete and take the sting out of “not getting a present that night.” They played for hours with those tiny animals.

So don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.

Happy Hanukkah!

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Ten Things I Love About Judaism

Kiddush Cup, photo Susan Katz Miller

Three out of four of my children’s grandparents grew up as Christians. So why am I insisting on raising my children with Judaism as well as Christianity? The philosophical, political and psychological reasons recur as themes throughout this blog. But since I recently posted the Christian stuff I love, I thought I should also list some of the things, big and small, I love about Judaism:

  1. The Music. Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin,  the Klezmatics and Shlomo Carlebach, Regina Spektor and Matisyahu. I feel a kinesthetic rush of communal joy when dancing in a circle, singing ancient, minor melodies.
  2. The Middle East Connection. Even though Israel is deeply problematic for interfaith families, I feel the pull of the Mediterranean. I belly dance, I pine for my estranged Arab sisters, I hold eggplants over the burners of my stove to make baba ghanoush from scratch.
  3. Hebrew. It’s diabolically difficult, but exposing our children to it makes their neurons sprout, right? Personally, I enjoyed puzzling it out as a child. The idea is that Hebrew will stimulate their potential for both math and mysticism.
  4. Feasting. I’m not just talking about Ashkenazi deli food here, though I admit to eating chopped liver straight out of the container, like peanut butter. I’m talking about the way food is central to Jewish practice. The sensuality of the perfumes and textures and rituals surrounding food—bitter herbs and haroset, the Tu Bishvat seder and the braided challah.  Food to Jews is both sacred symbol (thus food for the intellect), and primal earthly delight.
  5. Bibliophilia. As the publishing industry collapses in on itself like a dying star, Jews will be the last to forsake investigative reporting, editing, newsprint, reading books. I suppose it’s because the Torah is so central to Jewish practice. I intend to stand with my people and be the last one to cancel my newspaper subscriptions.
  6. Tikkun Olam. Every religion stresses community service. It’s one of the most defensible aspects of religion. But I find particularly evocative and mysterious the Kabbalistic concept of a broken world that needs to be put back together, the impulse to gather and fit together the shards of a shattered vessel. Although the original story ends with the termination of the material world: kind of a downer.
  7. Thirst for Justice. From Jewish support for civil rights in the twentieth century, to Jewish lawyers working pro bono on LGBT equality cases today, the thirst for justice creates good in our world. Is it the ancient memory of slavery? The recent memory of deadly persecution? It doesn’t matter why, it’s a good thing.
  8. Minority Empathy. On a related note, it builds character to grow up as an outsider in America: to empathize with other minority groups, to cultivate the stance of critical, thoughtful observer. To stand out is to invite discrimination, but to withstand discrimination is to become stronger.
  9. Compatibility with Atheism. I love a religion that includes a significant contingent of practicing adherents who don’t even believe in God. Personally, I’m agnostic. But I find very appealing the idea that ritual, a sense of community, even spirituality, can all be accessed by doubters and even rowdy nay-sayers.
  10. Shabbat. Turn off your cellphone, log off facebook, say no to the essential meeting. Sit and eat with family. Give thanks for light, and wine and bread. Sing, and smell the spices. All children crave this peace: Christian children, Jewish children, interfaith children.

ALSO READ: Ten Things I Love About Islam

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Finding Interfaith Spirituality

Labyrinth at Lama, photo Sue Katz MillerI subscribe to the theory that spirituality is primarily a neurochemical response to music, dance, beauty, and sense of community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I seek out the rush of spirituality, and have found it in synagogues, churches, nature, and concert halls. I have felt that rush in a crowd of people transported by the live music of Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Regina Spektor.

Clearly, I’m not alone. All mystic traditions make use of these same elements to inspire spirituality, and the fact that these elements are common across the lines of dogma and theology, across even the boundaries of monotheism, polytheism and atheism, confirms my interfaith perspective. The Chasids, the mystics of Judaism, know the power of dancing and chanting, as do the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. The Jewish Renewal movement is reclaiming this power, uncoupling it from the orthodoxy of Chasidism and merging it with a more progressive framework.

Many recent studies have tracked the shift by Americans away from religion, even as they seek and experience more spirituality. Other studies have implied that it is spirituality, not religion, that breeds happiness.

As an interfaith child, I have had profound spiritual moments in the dim stained-glass light of Chartres Cathedral, while listening to Bach’s Easter Oratorio at the Peabody Conservatory, while dancing and chanting a Shlomo Carlebach song with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and while dancing and chanting a Sufi zikr in the thin air of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains in a sacred grove at the Lama Foundation.

My interfaith children have deep grounding in the specific traditions of Judaism and Christianity bequeathed to them by ancestors. So you could say that they have “permission” to access the swell of emotion invoked by singing Handel’s Messiah in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church at Christmas. And they have “permission” to feel the primal call of the shofar penetrate their souls. But as interfaith children primed to seek out the spiritual, their comfort zone expands far beyond these two inherited traditions. My 12-year-old son has gone on more than one Buddhist retreat. My artist daughter feeds her soul on the ephemeral outdoor sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. Deep is good. Tradition is good. But for our family, more is also better. We want as much singing, dancing, beauty and community as we can fit into our lives. We seek out these experiences wherever and whenever we can find them.

Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

A Wandering Jew on Yom Kippur

photo Susan Katz MillerI have a confession.  I am not taking my children to a High Holy Days service at a synagogue this year.  When they were small, I took them to free family services at a local synagogue where they handed out kazoos, presumably on the theory that these plastic noisemakers resemble shofars. As soon as the kids got their hands on the instruments, chaos ensued. The Rabbi spent the rest of the service trying to regain control of his mutinous miniature congregants. The atmosphere was not particularly conducive to deep contemplation.

Last year, I thought my children were old enough to go to an adult service with me, so I bought tickets. I did my research and chose a congregation known for its choir. I was hoping to replicate my positive High Holy Day experiences growing up in a Reform Synagogue. We had a gorgeous choir with a ringer Irish soprano: the music is what got me through those long and hungry hours, and even inspired glimmerings of spirituality. But the morning I took my kids happened to be one that did not feature the choir after all. And it went on, and on, and on, with heavy Hebrew and unfamiliar new tunes. In terms of helping my children feel positive about going to synagogues, it was what they would term an “epic fail.”

When I can, I try to fly home to my parents for these holidays, to the synagogue of my childhood. But the congregation has tripled in size–I don’t know anyone anymore. The rabbi who refused to officiate at my interfaith marriage has retired. Realistically, I cannot fly my children to Boston for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while school is in session. And I also know that this congregation, as with most congregations, would be challenged by the idea of how to truly welcome children with only one Jewish grandparent–and a Jewish grandfather at that.

So on Yom Kippur, we will be where we feel most at home, with our interfaith community. Our service is only an hour long, at the close of the day, to accommodate those who go to work, and those who go to temple services. But honestly, it is just the right amount of time for kids and Christian spouses. And we know for darn sure that the sermon will not be about the “dilemma” of interfaith marriage, or who should get to be a Jew, or whether we are passing all the litmus tests for raising our children correctly. And we will know just about everyone in the room. These are my people now.

“But Do You Actually Worship Together?”

Oak Tree II

On Sunday, our interfaith community met in the shade of an ancient oak tree. We spread blankets under the leafy canopy—new parents with babies, engaged couples, empty nesters. We stood, and chanted the Shema, and the Lord’s Prayer, and sang an Irish blessing. Those struggling with illness or sadness got up to place pebbles in a bowl, to share their burden with the community. Our minister reflected on the story of Jacob and Esau. Then, we sang the Hamotzi over our potluck feast. I crossed the lawn to greet our rabbi, a chaplain at Georgetown, who was decked out in a jaunty T-shirt reading “Georgetown” in Hebrew.

Our community encompasses Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Buddhists, Jews of every stripe, agnostics and atheists. We come together in spite of our diverse and divergent theologies. But for many interfaith families, we are the only spiritual home, the only place they feel comfortable. I don’t call what we do together worship, because for me, theology is not the point. Rather, the community itself, and the primal experience of singing together and sharing our joys and concerns, creates the neurological response that humans label spirituality. It has little to do with belief, and much to do with making art together and providing support for each other in times of trouble.

In our community, we call this a Gathering rather than a worship service. Each Gathering begins with this responsive reading written by Oscar Rosenbloom, a founding member of the Interfaith Community of Palo Alto:

Reader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community

To share and celebrate the gift of life together

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel

Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth

Some of us gather influenced by each

Reader: However we come, and whoever we are

May we be moved, In our time together

To experience that sense of Divine presence in each of us

Evoked by our worship together

All: And to know in the wisdom of our hearts

That deeper unity in which all are one.

Ten years into our journey with this interfaith community, my chidren have memorized the Shema, the Hamotzi, the Lord’s Prayer. They also recite by heart that interfaith responsive reading. They can articulate their sense of connection to this community, and the songs and readings stir their souls. Our community is an immense tree with branches growing in all directions, representing Jewish, Christian and other beliefs. No matter how much it irks some religious institutions, we insist on standing together to create a motley but massive trunk for this tree, a strong support for our children to climb and explore.


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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

%d bloggers like this: