Every November, I find myself thinking about how to sustain the inspiration many of us find at annual interfaith Thanksgiving services. Right now, more than ever, we must look for ways to support and connect with each other across religious divides. So today, I am delighted to bring you this essay from guest bloggers David Kovacs and Steve Ordower. –SKM
It was a Sunday Mass at Old St. Pat’s. The city’s oldest public building (it survived the Chicago Fire), this downtown Chicago Roman Catholic Church has a 160-year history of hospitality, welcoming generations of immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere. Today its diverse parishioners come from over 200 zip codes. And for almost 30 years, Old St. Pat’s has welcomed interfaith families.
As always, worship began with the penitential rite, a shared meditative moment of confession. But this time, the music heard was Kol Nidre.
In two days, it would be the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when this haunting melody would touch Jews around the world. Rabbi Ari Moffic joined Father Pat McGrath to offer a blessing. She introduced the meaning of Kol Nidre as she invited 800 people to share the moment together. “It was profoundly spiritual,” she reflected. “For Catholics, it was a deeply meaningful way to experience that penitential part of the Mass. And for interfaith families, they could interweave these parts of their lives and their heritages through this music that’s part of their hearts and souls.”
We captured this remarkable event in a new Leaps of Faiths video. This project is a true “Leap” for us – we’re creating a documentary about interfaith families, the choices they make, and their hopes for their kids and their spiritual lives together. Our film will respect any choice a family makes regarding their home and religious life, while taking a closer look at what happens for those who decide to “do both.” Over a generation, we’ve seen they can raise children who grow up far from confused; indeed many often develop deep connections to one or both faith traditions. St. Pat’s has become a spiritual home to many of them: a Catholic community where Judaism is valued and honored, liturgically and educationally. Much of our footage is from the Chicago Interfaith Family School, hosted by St. Pat’s and run by interfaith families whose children grow though grades K-8 learning both faiths, taught by their parents.
Another arc of our story is what happens when clergy regularly co-officiate. Father John Cusick and Rabbi Chava Bahle led the first Kol Nidre experience at Old St. Pat’s a few years ago. For many years at St. Pat’s, under the leadership of Pastors Jack Wall and Tom Hurley, and at some Chicago area synagogues, rabbis and priests have often stood side-by-side. They have led worship experiences and celebrated sacraments and rites of passage. As they make interfaith families feel welcome, they also enhance these experiences for Jews and Christians together, breaking down divisions in polarized times. As one parishioner said after praying to the melody of Kol Nidre, “The way the world is going, this is what we need. Seeing this it gives me a little bit more hope.”
We hear her voice in the video, along with clergy, interfaith parents, and kids, reflecting about the experience. “There is a fear that if a family wants to raise children with a dual faith identity that their children will be confused about an authentic Jewish expression,” says Rabbi Moffic. “Interfaith education programs like the Family School and worship experiences like this show that these families want Judaism in their lives in real ways and seek it out. It’s incumbent upon Jewish leaders to support and foster that.”
Susan Katz Miller has been our friend for many years and will be another voice in our film. The Family School, the Interfaith Families Project in Washington D.C., and the Interfaith Community in the New York Metro area all started more than 20 years ago, and all are dedicated to the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children. More recently, the Interfaith Union School was established in suburban Chicago. We’ve learned from each other, cheering each other on as we’ve all grown.
We share the concerns Susan describes in her recent post about “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage” – a study by researchers at Brandeis University. Like Rabbis Moffic and Bahle, we were puzzled by its conclusion providing “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.”
From our experience, first impressions mean a lot. What are Christian partners to think of the religion they are marrying into if it will not allow their own faith tradition to be represented at their wedding? And indeed, if a wedding is a day but a marriage is a lifetime, should the question of co-officiating be limited to a single moment? What can a more open-minded approach do for these couples as their families grow?
These are the kinds of questions we’ll raise in the film. We hope you’ll enjoy this video and the others on our website – please share them with friends. If you like our facebook page, or subscribe to our youtube channel, you’ll get word of new videos as we release them. And if you would consider donating to help make the dream of this project a reality, we would love to add your name to our growing list of supporters. In this season of Thanksgiving, we are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received, and look forward to telling the kinds of stories so many of us share.
David Kovacs and Steve Ordower are the co-producers of Leaps of Faiths, and also interfaith parents from the Family School. David and his wife Patty are one of the school’s founding families.
Thirty years ago, a rabbi and a minister co-officiated at my interfaith wedding. My husband and I felt strongly that both of our religions should be represented at this moment when we came together to form a family. It wasn’t easy to find a rabbi who would support us and celebrate our marriage with us in this way. Few rabbis did interfaith marriages, and even fewer would co-officiate with a minister. Many rabbis who would officiate tried to extract a promise about how the future children would be raised.
At the time, my family’s rabbi flatly refused to officiate at my marriage. My mother had to work all kinds of underground networks to find a rabbi willing to marry us. There was a risk that we would end up with a “sole officiant,” and that sole officiant would have been my husband’s beloved cousin, a minister.
I have seen progress in the Jewish communities in the intervening 30 years on many issues relating to interfaith families. Unfortunately, there is still tremendous pressure from Jewish institutions to force interfaith couples onto an “exclusively Jewish” pathway by putting conditions on the rabbi’s involvement at weddings. Ironically, some couples that want co-officiation would actually be willing to promise to give their future children an “exclusively” Jewish education and home. They simply want the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu) partner’s whole self to be acknowledged at the wedding, almost as a parting gift.
Recently, at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit organized by InterfaithFamily, researchers from Brandeis University presented new findings from a report entitled “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage.” Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok write that their study provides “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” They conclude that interfaith marriage may not be “devastating vis-a-vis the Jewish future.” But co-officiation is lumped in with Christian clergy officiation and secular officiation, with the result that the study is being interpreted as a call for rabbis to stick to sole officiation.
However, readers must resist the urge to assume that this report supports the idea that a wedding with a rabbi as a sole officiant somehow creates a more Jewish family than a wedding officiated by a rabbi and another clergy member. Beyond the greater philosophical and theological issues of what it means to be a Jewish family, or a “Jewish and” family, one must look at the context and assumptions made in producing this report.
First, as with previous reports from this group at the Cohen Center, the sample was drawn entirely from Jewish applicants to Birthright (the free trip to Israel for young people), so it excluded young people who would not or did not apply to Birthright for a wide range of political, theological, and sociological reasons. For instance, the Birthright website states that applicants must have “at least one Jewish birth parent” or have converted. A young person from the fast-growing demographic with only one Jewish grandfather, even if they identify as Jewish, is excluded. So, any result of this ongoing study cannot be said to apply to all interfaith couples, but only to interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner applied to Birthright, which is a strongly skewed subset of young Jewish people in interfaith marriages.
Second, the context here is that interfaith couples seeking officiants are often rejected by rabbis if they do not acquiesce to a list of conditions. (Less than a quarter of the interfaith couples in the Brandeis study had a sole Jewish officiant, and only 5% had co-officiants from two religions). First, many rabbis refuse to co-officiate. And even if the couple agrees to sole officiation by a rabbi, some rabbis will only perform the marriage if the couple agrees to raise future children in a “Jewish home” and withhold any interfaith education.
So those who end up with sole officiation are already a skewed sample of couples who have agreed to prioritize Judaism. It follows that of course they are going to have closer Jewish institutional ties—not because sole officiation by a rabbi magically makes them more Jewish, but because couples who want to acknowledge the Christian (or Buddhist, or Hindu, or secular humanist) partner in the wedding have been alienated. The authors write, “…it is clear that future research should explore what happens when a rabbi or cantor refuses to marry an intermarrying couple.” That is, indeed, very clear.
I asked two rabbis with extensive experience with interfaith families about how they see these officiation issues. “I have married many interfaith couples who are excited to meet with their local rabbi and join a congregation only to find out that that rabbi will only perform an interfaith wedding if the couple promises to raise exclusively Jewish children,” says Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. “Even if this couple intends to have only Judaism in the home with no religious Christianity, it is a turn-off. It is a turn-off because it seems to be based out of fear and a feeling of us-verse-them and this doesn’t feel comfortable considering that they have Christian family members who they love and who they want involved in their whole lives.”
Rabbi Moffic explains why she supports these interfaith couples. “These couples are hoping to connect with clergy who understand the beautiful messiness of modern families, and the layers and blending and dynamics that exist and how families are doing their best to pass on the traditions, customs and values that have been meaningful to them, to the next generation,” she explains. “But they are also trying to be respectful of their whole family including their partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism. They’re looking for clergy who will embrace an interfaith couple who does want Judaism in their lives and wants learning and social justice and holiday celebrations and Shabbat practices. They are looking for rabbis who also don’t cast judgment and set tests for couples to pass, which leads to ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ and people feeling shameful about the decisions they are making. If we stop with this ‘sole Jewish officiant’ and exclusive Judaism and understand couples are doing their best and aiming for shalom bayit (peace in the home) it will feel so much more affirming and realistic.”
Rabbi Chava Bahle describes it as a privilege to co-officiate with other clergy at interfaith marriages. “My lived experience is that meeting my intercultural couples where they are–whether I am a solo or co-officiant with Christian clergy—and helping them in whatever way they engage with Judaism has been very sweet for everyone involved, even relatives who weren’t so sure. I would suggest a study in which we ask where these folk find their meaning, and how we might invite them to dialogue with us. They have extremely important things to say to us, not only hear from us.”
For my husband and I, meeting with a rabbi and a minister before marriage, and having them work together with us on the wedding service, did not keep us from wanting to give our children bonds to Judaism. To the contrary, meeting a rabbi who was willing to respect my husband’s Protestant heritage and work in partnership with a minister inspired us, and inspired the family and friends who attended our backyard wedding in 1987. We appreciated the faith and confidence and bravery that rabbi displayed in agreeing to co-officiate at our wedding. And his act of supportive chutzpah played into our determination to ensure that our children celebrated Jewish holidays beyond Hanukkah, became b’nai mitzvot, and felt empowered to claim Jewish identity in the 21st century.
A few months ago, I had the honor of interviewing Rabbi Chava Bahle about her historic selection as a rabbi to lead a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) community. We talked about her background as one of the handful of rabbis working directly with an interfaith families community raising children in both family religions. For almost ten years, she has been the rabbi at Chicago’s Interfaith Family School.
Now you can watch Rabbi Chava tell her story at a recent TEDx talk in Traverse City, Michigan. She describes this moment in history as a spiritual paradigm shift, when we begin to look around and see “us” rather than “them.” In listening to her funny, moving and inspiring talk, it is easy to imagine why a UU community took a leap of faith and hired a rabbi to lead them. In her TEDx talk, Rabbi Chava describes what she sees as the importance of the Catholic and Jewish families in Chicago as “game-changers.” Embedded in her talk is the excellent video created by the Family School for their 20th anniversary this year, in which you hear interfaith parents, Catholic and Jewish clergy, and young people raised with both religions, talking about the benefits of interfaith education.
For Being Both:Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I interviewed Chicago clergy, parents, and young adults from the Family School. I am looking forward to visiting Chicago in the fall, to celebrate the release of the paperback edition of my Beacon Press book with the groundbreaking community there. In the meantime, it is thrilling to me to have one of the clergy members most closely associated with the interfaith families movement telling her own story, and testifying to a public audience about all that is compelling about raising children with both family religions. I look forward to more clergy, parents, and young people who are part of this paradigm shift, those creating and supporting and growing up in interfaith family communities, bearing witness to the movement we have created.
1. I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
I was contacted some months ago by the Ministerial Search Committee, and we spent time discussing the meaning of this possibility – a non-Unitarian Universalist, and a rabbi no less, serving a congregation with a strong UU identity. I also spoke in discernment with other UU leaders, and with several rabbinic colleagues during that time – exploring the meaning of this from Jewish and UU points of view.
Once we felt we had talked through the implications and reached a place of joy, the public process began! A Candidating Week is announced – preaching two successive Sundays and many (many, many) meetings with committees, the board, constituent groups and individuals the week in between. In our case, we offered extra opportunities to ask questions, since this is, to say the least, an unusual candidacy. The process allowed for discerning conversation on both our parts. After the second Sunday of preaching, I left the building, and the membership voted by secret ballot. My candidacy was affirmed with just over 96% of the community saying “yes”!
2. On the morning of your selection, you used some metaphors from Jewish texts in describing this historic moment. Tell us about that.
My Candidating Week began on Martin Luther King Day weekend, the start of the 30 Days of Love, the period between MLK Day and Valentine’s Day, when UUs around the world celebrate “standing on the side of love,” a campaign supporting LGBTQ people and families, economic and racial justice, immigration reform and other calls for a more equitable society for all people. One of Dr. King’s central metaphors was the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The Exodus metaphor of a passage into new territory –the unknown – a journey that requires courage and vision spoke to me for the day of our decision. I wove texts of Exodus with midrashic texts to ask four questions: How do we ordinary people awaken hope, faith and courage, and are we ready to take a bold step even if we cannot yet know what will happen, or if the waters will part for us? How do we hold a focus on the positive core of who we have been and are yet to be? How do we with love and kindness move past the idea of creating an “other”? And can we cultivate a deep sense of joy while doing the work of repairing the world? Because of the tzitzit [fringes] on my prayer shawl I titled the sermon “Religion on the Fringe.”
3. What do you find most inspiring about UU principles and practices?
The seven core principles of Unitarian Universalism speak deeply to my heart – beginning with the inherent worth and dignity of each person, creating a just and equitable society based on that worth, and recognizing the interconnected web of life of which we are a part (both the human family and our planet home) – these ideals are a shared starting point for the repair of the world. Seeing ideals in action at the UUCGT is a great inspiration. Further, having visited other UU congregations, I have always felt a warm welcome as a stranger walking through the door. The most often mentioned commandment in Torah is “you shall not wrong the stranger.” Put in positive terms, this means we aspire to a place where there is no “other” – UU congregations do this incredibly well. Additionally the spirit of inquiry and intellect are profoundly inspiring to me.
4. How do you see your background and preparation as a rabbi as leading up to your work in a UU congregation?
Let’s go back to the journey metaphor. I was raised in a strongly Jewish-identified home with every part of our lives infused with Yiddishkeit, from Shabbes to tzedakah, holidays to tikkun olam. I was raised Reform where I learned commitment to the prophetic vision of social justice and the place of the intellect in Jewish engagement. I studied for a year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where I learned to think deeply about the whole of evolving Jewish civilization and where I chanced to meet Reb Zalman. From there I studied at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism where I learned to broaden the scope of my Jewish thinking and reading and – above all – to create a culture of welcome, egalitarianism and true interfaith honoring. I received a private smicha from a bet din of rabbis across denominations and finally found my home in Jewish Renewal, where I received a second smicha from the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Smicha Program. Later I was ordained as a Maggid (Jewish inspirational preacher and story teller) in the lineage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, by Reb Yitzchak Buxbaum; I fell in love with the warmth of Chassidut and the power of story. Learning never ends.
I have been deeply inspired by teachers from other traditions as well – Buddhist, Hindu and Christian teachings have touched my heart and soul, and these are also part of the fabric of my rabbinate.
From prophetic social justice vision, deep spirituality and a culture of welcome – all this finds a loving home in Jewish Renewal. The OHALAH Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, our professional association, is a trans-denominational group of rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors committed to exploring and renewing Jewish spirit, klal Yisrael (community) and tikkun olam. My choice to serve this UU congregation is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even where my Renewal colleagues question, it has been done in a spirit of true inquiry and respect.
I believe my journey – like the Jewish journey through many lands and epochs – holds it integrity through roots and wings: a seeking heart. This aspect of seeking and friendly inquiry, and our shared 20 year history, is a great fit for this UU congregation.
5. What do you see as the convergences, common ground, and distinctions between UU and forms of progressive Judaism such as Jewish Renewal? And how will you honor or navigate the synergies and points of difference in your work?
I see common ground in a set of core values, the love of learning, and eagerness to heal to the world, ‘though we have come to these from different points of origin. The UUCGT loves exploring world wisdom, celebrates music and powerful story telling, works for social justice, and many seem drawn to grappling with ideas of spirituality. Also there is a sense of joy! Here I can support and lead the community.
I feel cautious about the idea of convergence. They will remain, and I support them in, being a strongly identified UU community and part of the UUA. I remain strongly committed to Judaism and Jewish Renewal. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal rather than a creedal tradition. In this context, having a congregation’s spiritual leader from a different background can be a great strength. It is the work of the spiritual leader of the congregation to inspire, engage, and call upon the congregants to explore and develop their own beliefs and help motivate them to live their values. I can do that from my own strong base as a rabbi.
For the years that I have preached and taught here and in other non-Jewish settings, the navigation comes from the heart, from having integrity and also respect and openness to one another. Exactly what that will look like as this relationship progresses, we will determine together through shared learning, discernment, experimentation and honest conversation. There is no road map to follow. We step into this journey with the strengths of where we have been and the full faith of co-creating the community going forward.
6. Tell us a little bit about your work with interfaith Jewish and Catholic couples in Chicago. Did that work prepare you for working in a UU context? And do you plan to continue that work?
The Chicago Interfaith Family School (the-family-school.org) was founded 20 years ago by two visionary leaders, Rabbi Allen Secher and Fr. John Cusick. Out of their deep friendship and shared experience of working with interfaith couples, and the strong desire of those families to raise children in both the Catholic and Jewish traditions, they assisted a small group of couples in creating the Family School. As co-clergy with Fr. John, Fr. Tom Hurley and emeritus Reb Allen, I am incredibly proud to serve that community. I do plan to continue my relationship with Family School, although my travel to Chicago will be reduced.
In truth the Family School is a different model than the one here at the UUCGT. The Family School is committed to raising children, and supporting families, who are “both/and” – deeply committed specifically to Jewish and Catholic heritages, life cycles and education. While Unitarian Universalism shares the idea of bringing people from distinct cultures together, each congregation draws upon these and other traditions to create its own unique Unitarian Universalist identity.
For years and with great regularity, I have been teaching and preaching in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts. This has been the real preparation for becoming the Rabbi of the UUCGT. I have learned grounding in my own tradition, and a sensitivity to the use of language, context and knowledge about traditions that differ from my own. I think this will serve my new congregation well.
7. How do you answer those who are saying that rabbis should be serving the Jewish people?
I am so glad you asked this. In part, I agree. Where we disagree is about (a) whether all rabbis should focus on only Jewish people and (b) what it means to serve the Jewish people. I have long been a servant for people of all backgrounds – that is part of my vocation. By being in the world, trying to be the best, most loving exemplar I can be to all people, I believe I am fulfilling my mission as a rabbi and by extension serving the well-being and fate of the Jewish people by building loving bridges. In my heart I believe this calling is my basheret [meant to be]. It is not every rabbi’s call to sojourn in this way, and that is healthy: diversity is necessary in every living system. As Reb Zalman might say, the liver shouldn’t be trying to convince the heart to be a liver. We all have a function in creating a vibrant system. I am excited and delighted to serve this new community.
8. The religious press in America is filled with stories about rise in the religious “nones,” and the decline in affiliation with traditional religious institutions. And yet, your selection has galvanized one UU community and apparently already created a surge in membership there. Do you see your work with this UU community as a unique set of circumstances that may never occur elsewhere, or as an inspiration for the interfaith future?
Time will tell on this important question. I don’t foresee there being a big run of rabbis to UU pulpits! I am delighted that the local community is seeing membership growth before I even start next fall, because it says that a UU congregation with a committed spiritual leader has great potential, even in a rural area like northern Michigan.
The implication for the so-called “nones” – a term I reject because it does not aptly name the positive longing I see in them – is that it is possible to make a place in spiritual community that speaks to their hearts and minds, asks of them commitment to friendly exploration and allows room for a range of answers in a shared congregational experience.
My experience with interfaith families, questioning spiritual seekers and others is that the calling of the heart for belonging, peace, harmony and love, and the desire of the mind for inquiry, seeking truth and making sense of the world, require community. While there is much we can do on our own, the human desire for community, for shared experience, for fellow travelers on the way, is powerful and necessary.
I think this relationship has the potential to model how a community can be an “incubator” for love, peace and justice in the world across boundaries.