Interfaith Children Speak Out #2: Ethan

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication last week of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the second in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although the book itself is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

The son of a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, Ethan had a combination baptism, bris and baby-naming ceremony as an infant. At age six, his parents enrolled him in the dual-faith religious education program at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. There, he learned Judaism and Christianity in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Christian teachers, in a program filled with over 100 other interfaith children. At the time he filled out the survey describing his experience, Ethan was 17 years old.

When asked whether he found learning about two religions confusing, Ethan replied, “I always enjoy getting two perspectives of a story before I decide what I believe. This provided a unique opportunity to do just that.” And when asked how his education in two religions has affected his outlook on the world, Ethan wrote, “I feel that I have a broader view of things than most single-faith persons do…I believe that being exposed to multiple faiths allows one to look at the big picture, rather than remain narrow-minded.”

Ethan had a First Communion, and later, became a Bar Mitzvah. At 17, he was attending Church, Synagogue, and Quaker meetings, and said he felt comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but described his religious identity as Quaker. When asked about his belief in God, Ethan wrote, “Being somewhat Quaker, I believe that there is that of G-d in everyone. I speculate as to whether or not there is one supreme being, or if that being is brought to life by fellow humans.”

Overall, Ethan saw being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage. He thinks his parents made a good decision to teach him both religions. And he planned to raise his own future children with an interfaith education. The greatest disadvantage he saw of being an interfaith child was that “It can be difficult to get along at times with conservative or orthodox groups because they don’t believe in multiple faiths.”

Traditionally, clergy and religious institutions have worried that interfaith children raised with two religions would be unable to choose one religion in adulthood, and end up with no religion. But Ethan has found a religious home, at least for now, with the Society of Friends, and will be able to find Quaker meetings in most geographic areas as he heads out into the world.

While he has chosen a primary religious identity as a Quaker, clearly his interfaith education has had a profound effect on Ethan. He writes that the greatest advantage of being an interfaith child is that he believes he has a “broader outlook on life.” And he adds, “People use the term ‘open-minded,’ so I like to think of interfaith as being ‘open-souled’.”

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Ask Interfaith Mom: Is it OK for Interfaith Parents to Adopt Interfaith Identity?

Path Through Dunes

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I’m the Jewish parent of my interfaith family. My husband and I are raising our children in both traditions. He grew up Methodist. What we are discovering is that we don’t want our interfaith children to have a different religious identity from us so we’ve decided to call ourselves “interfaith” also. I try to celebrate and dive into Christmas just like my husband dives into the Hanukkah nights. Now we are all “interfaith”!  What do you think of this?

–Interfaith Family

Dear Interfaith Family,

First of all, if it’s working for you, it’s working! And I like your feisty and creative attitude. What I see as important here is that you feel a sense of unity, and mutual appreciation, and you are giving your children knowledge of and access to their complete religious heritage. The labels are less important.

Families want to feel unified. For some interfaith families, the solution is to choose one religion and have that be the family religion (whether or not the “out-parent” converts). This choice can work if there is one parent willing to forgo, or minimize, their religion. Other families decide to unify around being secular humanists or join ethical societies, dropping religious tradition and ritual altogether. This can work if neither parent feels attached to the God concept, or the specifics of their original religion. And still other families choose to unify around a “third” religion, such as Unitarian-Universalism (UU), Buddhism, Baha’i, or Quakerism.

For families in which both parents want to continue to celebrate a religion, and share that religion with children, we now have interfaith family communities providing dual-faith education, and the opportunity for families to sit and sing and reflect together as equals, with no “out-parent.” This can work when both parents are open to learning about and sharing, on some level, the spouse’s religion. Clearly, this is the case in your family.

You are not alone in feeling that the interfaith identity label, the label more and more of us have chosen for our children, has unique benefits and positive associations. I feel that way myself. In telling your story, you still identify yourself as the Jewish parent. It makes sense to continue to embrace the fact that you are the parent who brings Jewish extended family and Jewish history to the family. Surely your children know this, even if you have all adopted the interfaith label. I don’t think this complexity of religious identity will be confusing to them. It represents a reality. They have one parent from a Jewish background, and one parent from a Christian background. As an interfaith family, you practice together, unified by shared rituals and love.

Those of us in complex families often give more than one answer when we are questioned about our identities, as psychologist Maria Root has documented. I continue to claim my Jewish label, particularly in the presence of anti-Semitism, and I expect my children to do the same. But I also claim the right to celebrate my interfaith identity, as my children do. And you have that right, as every human being has the right, to self-identify in whatever way best describes your very individual and interior religious and spiritual landscape.

In short, I think it is marvelous that your whole family shares an interfaith identity. You must be prepared to have to explain how this works to those who will question and challenge you. But as interfaith families, we will face questions of one sort or another, no matter which pathway we choose. What I love is the joy you have found in sharing traditions with each other. Your children will benefit from this joy.

Interfaith Mom

Ten Things I Love About Christianity

Rio de Janeiro, 1996, photo Susan Katz millerRecently, someone asked me what I get out of Christianity: why not stick to calling myself Jewish? It is sometimes hard for Jews to understand, after a long history of oppression and conflict, why Christianity holds any appeal for interfaith children. Above and beyond our own Christian parents (Mom, you are of course the number one thing I love about Christianity!), here are ten random Christian things I appreciate:

Soup Kitchens. The life of Jesus, the way he tended to the poor and the sick, inspires hands-on grappling with poverty. From the international aid agencies run by Christians, to the urban clinics and shelters, these “ministries” may have begun as missionary work, but most aid workers have no such ulterior motives. For me, cooking a meal and serving it to the women at Luther Place involves a kind of border-crossing that does not occur when I simply send off a check.

The Gospels. My rabbi tells me that Jews believed in physical resurrection, even before the time of Jesus. But this story—complete with politics, betrayal, murder—was perfected by the Gospel writers. Whether it’s refracted through the Wizard of Oz, the tales of Narnia, ET, Godspell  or Kazantzakis, the story of Jesus moves me. And it’s not important to me whether it “really happened” or not.

Bishop John Shelby Spong. The former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, Jack Spong, came to speak to our interfaith families group—he’s probably the most senior Protestant theologian willing to be seen with us. He rejects the literal interpretation of Virgin birth and physical resurrection, he ordained openly gay priests. Spong is radically amazing.

The Music. Imagine a world without Gregorian chants, the liturgical music of Bach and Handel, Gospel, bluegrass and Johnny Cash. My Jewish dad and I both love to sit down and pound out Protestant hymns on the piano.

The Renaissance. I love  Cathedrals, embroidered vestments, illuminated manuscripts, religious paintings, oh, just about everything in Italy I guess…

Nuns and Priests. Many of the nuns and priests I have known working in the developing world (some of them giving out condoms on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic) have been champions of local languages and culture, lovely souls, peace-builders. I also have a thing for Jesuit intellectuals who question in a way I recognize as “Jewish.”

Liberation Theology. In Latin America, the Catholic church often provided the only counterweight to oppressive military regimes. The current Pope continues to try to dismantle the remnants of liberation theology. But many who fought for justice drew on Catholic social teaching: among them Dorothy Day, Paolo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero.

The Abolitionists. The abolitionists represent a high point in the Protestant influence on US history: the Bible inspired Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman.

Simplicity. The Quakers were instrumental in the anti-slavery movement. And while I love the ornate ritual of a Cathedral mass, as a New Englander I also love the simplicity of the Puritan, Shaker and Quaker esthetic: the white steeples, the wood furniture, the closeness to the land and farm, the quiet, the simplicity.

Christmas in New England. Singing carols on the town green, the snow piling deep and soft, a brass quintet, and yes, yes, the tree. My parents, the only interfaith couple on the street, hosted a Christmas party for the neighborhood every year of my childhood, with my Jewish dad at the piano leading carols fueled by a killer punch made of sauterne and champagne. My friend Ian Spatz, father of interfaith children, has a tongue-in-cheek theory that Jews actually intermarry because of Christmas envy. There may be something to it.

 

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