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.

Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones”

Clouds, sun, ocean

The proportion of religiously-unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly to almost 20 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Nones” on the Rise,” released this week by the Pew Research Center. And yet, a follow-up survey by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that the majority of the country’s 46 million religiously-unaffiliated adults believe in God or a universal spirit, and many are religious or spiritual in some way. Those of us who are in interfaith families did not find this seemingly-paradoxical portrait the least bit surprising.

The new study did not address the role intermarriage may play in the rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated, or how the rise of the religiously unaffiliated may play into the growth of the “raising children with both” movement. But for me, as someone in a three-generation interfaith family, several connections seem worthy of exploration:

  1. Those who intermarry face barriers to religious affiliation. Interfaith families who want to educate their children in two religions often cannot affiliate with religious institutions. Many religious institutions discourage or even forbid families from belonging to more than one religious community, or enrolling their children in more than one religious education program. These families may turn for support and religious education to independent interfaith communities such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Or they end up religiously homeschooling their children in both religions. Either way, they may become part of the “religious but not religiously affiliated” demographic documented in the study.
  2. Those who are not religiously affiliated may face fewer obstacles in intermarrying. Without a religious institution or clergy member to tell them they cannot or should not do so, they are free to marry for love. As the Pew study points out, these religiously-unaffiliated people may still see themselves as spiritual, or religious, or both.  And they may feel culturally and historically connected to one or more religions.  They may want to continue to practice a religion, experience spirituality, celebrate cultural connections. And they may even want to pass all of this religious heritage on to their children. But they do not necessarily need, or want, affiliation with religious institutions.
  3. The new study points out that “none” is not a very accurate or objective term for people who may have rich religious and spiritual lives but who do not happen to belong to a church or synagogue. The Pew report authors state that they prefer the term “religiously unaffiliated,” but that the term “none” has been so widely used now, both in the press and in research, that they chose to use the term in the title of the report. I am both the child of interfaith parents and the partner in an interfaith marriage. Like many interfaith children, and many intermarried people, I am religiously unaffiliated, yet resent the term “none.” I belong to neither church nor temple, yet spend hours each week in religious and spiritual engagement with two religions, in the context of an independent interfaith families community. I am deeply, not minimally, engaged with theology, religious practice, and spirituality. I am not a “none.”
  4. I am grateful to Pew for drilling down into data on the “nones” and discovering some of the rich complexity of religiously-unaffiliated spiritual life. In an interesting parallel, many of the early studies on interfaith families conflated “doing nothing” with “doing both.” Just because a family does not affiliate with a church or a temple does not mean they are doing nothing. On the other hand, families may claim to be doing both, or attempt to do both, but cannot always follow through successfully without the support of clergy, family, or like-minded interfaith families. It will be important in future studies to examine the full range of practices, beliefs and experiences of unaffiliated interfaith families.
  5. The Pew study attempts to tease out some of the reasons for the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated. Some of the people in this category doubt the existence of God, some believe that religious institutions are too concerned with rules, money, power and politics. On the other hand, the study found that the majority of the religiously-unaffiliated do appreciate how religious institutions strengthen community bonds and provide community service to the poor. For those who want community without dogma, Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregations provide one option (an option that has provided a home to many interfaith families). In light of the rise of the religously-affiliated, I was not surprised to read this week of the recent concomitant growth in UU communities. Another option, of course, both for Jewish and Christian interfaith families and for anyone interested in religious education and spiritual practice without institution or creed, is the growing interfaith families community network represented by this blog.

I hope that this new study inspires further research on all of us outside of official religious institutions, and on the relationship between the increasing religious fluidity and hybridity of our world, the rise of interfaith families, and the role of religious institutions.

Pew National Poll Finally Discovers Americans “Being Both”

Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Confirmation that those of us “being both” are not some crazy fringe, not outliers, in fact we’re in the vanguard, came from the Pew Research Center this week in a new poll entitled “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” Our interfaith families community even got mentioned in a front-page article in USA Today, reporting on the new poll. Though that article emphasized the more sensational aspects of the poll, such as the fact that Christianity often coexists with New Age practices.

But what thrilled me was the finding that 24% of Americans attend religious services of more than one faith—and this excludes socially-required attendance such as the weddings, Bar Mitzvahs or funerals of friends. They also found that as many as 12% of the people they interviewed participate in the services of three different faiths. For years, I have fought for the idea that being both is possible, and positive. Now we have proof that it’s also popular!

On closer inspection, most of these people are not attending churches and mosques, or synagogues and cathedrals. The researchers categorized different Christian denominations as different “faiths” for the purposes of this study. So for the most part, they’re talking about a Lutheran who also frequents a Methodist church. However, the poll did find that, for instance, five percent of Catholics regularly attend synagogues. That’s a lot of folks doing something that religious institutions have told us repeatedly that we cannot and should not do.

Clearly, interfaith marriages have something to do with breaking down these religious barriers, though credit also goes to the spiritual searching and free-floating open-mindedness in the culture. And a nod of thanks to aging hippies returning to religion but continuing to resist institutions.

The study did look specifically at interfaith families, and found that people in mixed marriages who did attend services at least once a year were more likely than those not in mixed marriages to attend services from more than one faith (40% versus 30%)

Now, if I can find an agent and publisher who understand that this is the new zeitgeist, that a book about fitting into more than one category is marketable, I’d be in business. It’s the marketing part that scares them, though it shouldn’t.

Today, I was listening to an interview with musician Rickie Lee Jones on public radio. (When asked about Biblical imagery in her songs, she said, “I like Jesus…I don’t like Christian religions.” So she’s one of our aging hippie allies.) When asked about how the press had responded to some of her work straddling genres, she gave a concise defense of musical bothness. For me, her words are more than metaphor: “It’s very difficult to market somebody who’s that and also that. We really would prefer you were just that, because it’s really hard to get someone to buy it if you’re both those things, but I am both those things.” Which is why “On Being Both” has appeal beyond interfaith families: our entire culture is engaged with bothness in this moment.