Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

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 @beingboth.

 

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

 

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).

 

Bar Mitzvah of an Interfaith Child: Creative Ferment

In the final days before my son’s Bar Mitzvah and interfaith coming-of-age ceremony, we have been blessed with many opportunities for philosophical discussion (as well as a certain amount of inevitable logistical and sartorial tussling). Last Friday night, our Rabbi and our Reverend, who will co-officiate at the ceremony, came for Shabbat dinner, and we reflected together on the balance of the songs and readings: Judaism and Christianity, King David and Walt Whitman, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I left my son at the computer, with instructions to finish his D’var Torah: the speech reflecting on the Torah portion he will chant in Hebrew. When I returned a while later, I discovered that instead, he had been researching quotes that inspire him from Buddhist thinkers, for possible inclusion in the ceremony. Well, okay, great idea! We talked about all of the people in his life (including our minister and his official, chosen Spiritual Mentor for his coming-of-age year) who practice Buddhism. Then he wanted to know the definition of dharma. I could tell him that the dharma concept is common to a set of Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), in contrast to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Then we huddled over the laptop together, surfing through pages on the many meanings of dharma.

I remembered that at about my son’s age, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. In more recent years, I  have tried to keep up with all the brilliant contemporary novels by Indian writers (Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Abraham Verghese). This year, I bought my son a signed copy of Rushdie’s current coming-of-age tale, Luka and the Fire of Life, and he enjoyed the mix of adventure and philosophy. Part of the tremendous excitement of coming of age, to his bookworm mother, is that my son can now begin to devour all of the great literature of the world.

So, after an evening of possibly tangential but certainly important research and discussion on world religions, the speech remains incomplete. But we are both, mother and son, more enlightened (or at least educated)  than we were yesterday. My life has also been enriched by the daily decision-making required by the ceremony, through constant consultation with my two teenagers, my parents, my husband, our siblings, our clergy. Could my mother (Episcopalian by birth) read her favorite Bible passage from Genesis, or will she be interpreted as a creationist? (Hmmm, thinking). Are my son’s keen young eyes strong enough to read from our community’s tiny Torah, the one that will fit him so perfectly in the procession around the sanctuary? (Yes!) How do we handle being called to the Torah, when many of our family members (including my Jewish father) do not have Hebrew names? (Consult the rabbi).

We are creating this new interfaith tradition as we go along, guided in our decisions by the environmental theme  in my son’s Torah portion, and evident in his life, and in the life of our think-global-act-local family. Long before we chose a Bar Mitzvah date, my son had plunged in the freezing Chesapeake to raise funds for climate action, and written a ballad about global warming. In this spirit, could he wear one of my brothers’ (barely worn) timeless blue blazers from the 1980s, instead of buying an entire suit he will outgrow next month?  Yes. Could there be a perfect pair of penny loafers at Value Village, the used clothing store? Yes. But perhaps we should spring for the colorful Fair Trade yarmulkes imported from Guatemala by a former Peace Corps volunteer? Yes.

I am trying to find calm in these last whirlwind days before my son officially becomes a man. I love the idea of meditation: I have had little success with it, personally. My monkey mind races, my to-do lists proliferate. I do stop, at times throughout the day, to take a deep breath or two. And to focus on thankfulness: to my son and daughter and husband for taking on this challenge, to my extended family and friends for understanding the importance of the day, to my interfaith community for pioneering such a radically-supportive context.

New Profile of a Community for Interfaith Families

Recently, I was contacted by two students from the Columbia Journalism School. They were completing a “digital storytelling” project entitled “Being Interfaith,” in which they profile the Interfaith Community in New York City. The Interfaith Commuity (now in several regions and cities) grew out of the very first interfaith education program for interfaith children, an afterschool program that started in 1987 for students at New York’s Trinity School. In a coincindence one could describe as b’shert (Yiddish for destiny), the Christian half of the Jewish/Christian teaching team for that first interfaith religious education program was Reverend Rick Spalding, who happens to be my husband’s first cousin, and the minister who co-officiated with a rabbi at our wedding in that same year. But I digress.

The elegant and informative “Being Interfaith” website went live this week. It includes video segments on how interfaith families celebrate, how interfaith classes work, and what interfaith teenagers have to say for themselves. Of course, all of this is familiar to those of us in interfaith families communities, but it is gratifying to see our reality reflected in the media. The NY program and our program in DC have co-evolved, sharing ideas and inspiration, and advising each other over the years. The segment on celebrating Christmas and Hannukah is similar to a profile of my family broadcast on PBS, several years ago.

The logo for the project (above), while striking, uses specific Christian and Jewish symbols, limiting the scope. Going forward, the message I think of as “interfaith education for interfaith children” is beginning to reach intermarried Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, secular humanist and other families.

The most newsworthy and fascinating aspect of the “Being Interfaith” site is the talking-head segments with New York institutional and academic experts, acknowledging that interfaith families are raising their children with both, and that this trend is not going away. These segments are essential viewing. Sociology professor Samuel Hellman puts interfaith identity in the context of “the post-modern world” of “multiple identities.” Sheila Gordon, a founder of the Interfaith Community who continues to lead and expand the program, talks about the shift in just the last five years to greater recognition and acceptance of interfaith communities from clergy, in particular Jewish leaders. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Exectuvie Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, describes the official policy forbidding families to join synagogues if they are raising their children in both religions. But he then goes on to describe a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in many congregations on this issue. Although he also insists on a distinction between interfaith Jewish children who have Christmas trees, and children raised with fully interfaith identities.

As intercultural and interfaith marriages become more and more common, the appeal of allowing children to gain knowledge about both religions and cultures is not going to diminish. It is encouraging to finally witness this reality beginning to sink in, and to gain tentative acknowledgement.

How is “Interfaith Purim” Different From All Other Purims? It Isn’t.

For interfaith families sharing Judaism and Christianity, spring is busy with holidays. From Christianity, we have Mardi Gras, Lent, Easter. From Judaism, we have Purim, Passover and Shavuot. When I tell folks we are celebrating any of these holidays with our independent interfaith community, I often get questions like, “How is interfaith Purim different from regular (Jewish) Purim?”

And the answer is: it isn’t, at least not in terms of the celebration, the rituals, the liturgy. The point of our interfaith community is not to change the traditions, or merge them, or create a third religion. Rather, the intent is to give our children the deepest experience of these rituals we possibly can, while remaining radically inclusive of who gets to participate, and how.

So next Sunday, our Purim celebration will look and sound and taste like any other Purim celebration. That means our Rabbi will read the Biblical story of Queen Esther, an intermarried Jewish heroine in ancient Persia, as our third-graders act out the “Purim shpil.” Families will bring in boxes of pasta to shake as groggers (noisemakers), to drown out the name of Hamen, the villain in the story. And then we will donate the pasta to the Manna Food Center–last year we donated 50 pounds of the stuff.

As in any Jewish community, kids (and some adults) will dress up as Queen Esther, or other characters from the Bible, or as random pop culture idols. If I have the guts (ha ha) I will wear my belly dancing costume, just to get into the vaguely Middle Eastern spirit. We will create traditional Purim carnival booths with pie-throwing, eating donuts dangled on strings, and frolicking under a parachute with the toddlers. We will have a silent auction, and a children’s used book exchange. We will nosh on home-made hamentaschen. And we will end the celebration with Israeli folk dancing.

So how is this interfaith? Why not just go to a Purim celebration at a synagogue?

The difference lies only in who is hosting, who will be there, and how they feel about each other. In our interfaith community, we make no assumptions and no demands about anyone’s ancestry, or beliefs, or commitment, or religious intent in raising children. The point of our celebration is not to persuade, or influence any family’s religious decisions. The purpose is to share the joy and specificity of Jewish ritual with all families who want to share in it. And to provide a place to celebrate and educate and pass on traditions, free from institutional pressures or expectations, however subtle, about raising exclusively Jewish children.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Yellow Fever, and Jewish Orphans

Lent is fast approaching, and my teenage daughter must come up with a craft activity relating to this season in the Christian calendar, for the kindergarteners in her interfaith Sunday School class. I was trying to help, but I had trouble thinking of a craft activity related to not eating candy. Then, because we lived for three years in Brazil, my thoughts turned to Carnival, or the New Orleans equivalent: Mardi Gras. How about a craft activity relating to the festivals that celebrate the final days before Lent? Perhaps, making Mardi Gras beads?

So I was already thinking about New Orleans when a message arrived this week, as if straight out of my ancestral past. Ironically, my daughter knows that she has ancestors who lived in New Orleans. I presume they did not celebrate Lent because they were Jewish, though they may have, indeed, celebrated Mardi Gras. Apparently the first Rex, or King of Carnival, was a Jewish businessman named Louis Solomon.

Anyway, I often describe to my children how my great-grandfather, Rabbi Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder, met my great-grandmother, Sarah Adler, when she was an orphan in New Orleans, and he was the Hebrew teacher at the orphanage. This is not quite as scandalous as it sounds. The Hebrew Benevolent Society supported orphans until adulthood, even paying dowries for the girls in their care. We know that Sarah was orphaned when her parents, Neuman and Augusta Adler, both died in New Orleans in one of the great yellow fever epidemics of the 1860s. My grandmother used to recount how her mother remembered being removed from the mosquito netting around her mother’s deathbed.

All I knew was this fragment of the story of my great-great-grandparents, until my cousin Sig took a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana this year, and stopped in Natchez, where Rabbi Rosenfelder once served the local congregation. A local history researcher named Teri Tillman gave Sig a tour of the Natchez synagogue. Later, Teri’s expert research skills turned up a newspaper clipping describing the deaths of Sarah Adler’s parents. This week she sent us this poignant story, the purple prose transcribed from the pages of the  New Orleans Daily Picayune, from September 7th, 1867.

Afflicted Family

The yellow fever, in its ravages, often, in a few brief hours, darkens and makes desolate many hitherto happy homes. Heart-rending incidents of this kind we hear of daily.

A few days ago, Newton [sic] Adler, an humble and industrious tailor, with a happy and cheerful wife and seven daughters, the oldest barely ten years of age, resided and pursued his avocation on Lafayette street, near the City Hall. Within a moment, both husband and wife were stricken down with the yellow scourge; the shop was closed, and the little ones seemed to run about uncared for by any one, and ignorant of the great affliction of their parents, who side by side, rested in the dark room in the rear of the tailor shop.
 
 
Several days passed and yesterday the wife was relieved from her suffering by the cold embrace of death. The body was quietly removed by a few friends, and the husband in mental and physical agony lingered until 2 o’clock this morning, when he also died. This morning, the seven little ones thus suddenly thrown upon the cold charity of the world, were taken charge of by the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the small stock of goods belonging to the deceased packed up and the store closed.
 
 
Unaware of the fate awaiting them, the tailor and his wife peer out from these oval-framed photos, passed down through four generations of my family. Augusta and her three oldest girls wear gingham dresses I imagine they sewed themselves. A few short years later, the couple had perished together, and my great-grandmother Sarah was living in the first Jewish Children’s Home, at the corner of Jackson and Chippewa Streets in New Orleans. There, she met the Rabbi who would marry her, and take her north, up the river, away from the perils of tropical disease. When they reached Louisville, Kentucky, they settled down and raised eight children, including my grandmother.
 
 
 

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal, and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Interfaith Bar Mitzvah: A Planning Report

We are an interfaith family, but in many respects, we are preparing for a “typical” Bar Mitvah. I am busy figuring out how to whittle the gargantuan guest list to fit the intimate space and the vision of a meaningful day with the people who truly know and love my son. I am working with the caterer on a menu free of crabcakes and Smtihfield ham (not easy in the Chesapeake watershed). Do we need a photographer? Do we need flowers?

Meanwhile, my son has mastered chanting the blessings for before and after the reading of the Torah. He’s working on learning his Torah portion (called a parsha) and on some of the other central prayers he will lead in this Shabbat service. And he is thinking about the meaning of his parsha, discussing it with rabbis and mentors, and figuring out what he will say about it in the speech known as a D’var Torah. All very traditional tasks.

But at the same time, we are very mindful of the fact that Jews are a minority in our community of friends, and in my son’s family tree. And we want to convey the fact that my son is transitioning into adulthood at the heart of an interfaith community, the community we chose when he was still an infant. So we are designing a service and a program that will explain every element of the ceremony, every prayer and ritual, instead of using a standard prayer book. The intent is to be as welcoming, inclusive, personalized and comprehensible as possible.

When we say the Sh’ma, we will explain the central role of this prayer in Judaism. When we say the Shehechiyanu, we will explain how this prayer is used to celebrate reaching any joyous occasion (even a meshugganah interfaith Bar Mitzvah!). When my son says the V’ahavtah, we will not only include the English translation (“Thou shalt love the Lord…”) but we will explain that this is the prayer from Deuteronomy found on the scroll in every mezuzah, (which will also mean explaining, “What’s a mezuzah?”).

And we will point out the words in the V’ahavtah, “thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children,” because that is the point, or at least one of the points, of gathering our family and friends as our son comes of age. My father married a Christian, but he made sure I learned this prayer. I married a Christian, but I made sure my children learned this prayer. Our family may be wild and woolly, patrilineal renegades, motley, mixed, outside the box, beyond the pale. Some think we are sadly mistaken. And yet we are serious, willing to put time and considerable effort into the religious education of our children. We strive to be diligent.

 

Interfaith Families Project: 15 Years and Thriving

Fifteen years ago, four friends–two of them Jewish (Stacey Katz, Laura Steinberg), two of them Christian (Mary Joel Holin, Irene Landsman)–got together and dreamed of educating their interfaith children in both family religions. The idea seemed so obvious, so natural, that they wrongly assumed at first that such a program must already exist in the Washington DC area. This was before the age of the internet, so they began working the phones, calling any telephone book listing with “interfaith” in the title. Irene Landsman recalls that they were told either, “Some of our best friends are Jewish” (by the churches) or, “You have already made a big mistake, but we’ll help you raise your kids Jewish” (by the synagogues).

The idea of an interfaith Sunday School was new to DC, but already percolating in a few other cities. Stacey Katz read Lee Gruzen’s seminal book describing the first interaith religious education program for interfaith kids in New York. Then she found Dovetail, a national network for interfaith families, and talked to the creator of an interfaith Sunday School in New Haven. Encouraged, the four “founding mothers” in Washington created the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). This week, we celebrated the 15th birthday of IFFP with them, and with some of the “founding children,” now college graduates.

In the first year, the four families simply celebrated holidays together in their own homes. Next, they networked, going through school directories and  cold-calling families with promising name combinations like “Kelly/Rabinowitz” or “Levine/Degrassi.” A dozen families signed on for the first one-room interfaith Sunday School. By 1998, the year my family joined, IFFP had grown to 30 families and hired a Sunday School director, the very progressive and visionary Reverend Julia Jarvis. Five years later, there were 90 families and IFFP could afford to balance the minister with a staff rabbi, the very progressive and visionary Rabbi Harold White. Today, there are 120 families in the community, and more than 140 children in the Sunday School.

On Sunday, the founding mothers and children, and founding father Ron Landsman, seemed overwhelmed by the two cakes, the balloons, and the fuss, but mostly by the sea of hundreds of young couples, parents, toddlers, teens, and grandparents who turn out most Sundays to sing and reflect and discuss Judaism and Christianity and the joys and challenges of being an interfaith family.

In front of this vast and grateful community, the founding families explained their creation process, and what the group means to them. “I was in deep denial about my daughter’s religious education,” recalls Ron Landsman, remembering the period before IFFP. His spouse, Irene, explains it this way: “Ron said he didn’t care, but the day our babysitter took our daughter to mass, he realized he did care.” Looking back now, Irene concludes, “IFFP brought peace to our home…it was a healing force.”

The guiding principle of balance, of equal weight for both religions, was important from the outset. “We’re a very balanced set,” Stacey Katz noted of the four founding mothers. “In the early years, we had a very strong rule that the Board had to be a balance of Christians and Jews, because we realized people reallly did have hot-button issues.”

When asked about the choice of the word “Project” rather than a more official or permanent-sounding identity, founding mother Laura Steinberg spoke out strongly in favor of the do-it-yourself  nature of IFFP. Even with hired staff, dues, and a full program of activities, the group continues to run on volunteer power, with parents teaching in the classrooms, and members brainstorming new events and forging new directions each year.  Says Steinberg, “In the beginning, IFFP was an idea. I hope it always remains an idea–something growing, dynamic, without boundaries.”

Interfaith Child: The Bar Mitzvah Plan

So the decision has been made, we have two rabbis involved, and we’re heading for a Bar Mitzvah this spring. Over the winter vacation, my son, 13, even got to study his Hebrew with my 86-year-old father, who happens to be his only Jewish grandparent.

Some folks are curious, bewildered, or even disgruntled, about why we would undertake the involved process of Bar Mitzvah preparation for a child raised in an interfaith community. Let me try to explain.

Many of our reasons should sound familiar: we want our child to learn the Sabbath prayers, affirm a deep connection to Judaism, celebrate his imminent manhood, and have the formative experience of standing up and leading a worship service. And we want to provide an opportunity to bring the generations of our family and friends together, to kvell and feel nachas and dance a joyful hora.

So why is this Bar Mitzvah different from all others? My child’s family tree includes more Christian than Jewish branches. Celebrating a coming of age together provides a chance to share with extended family the possibility of interfaith community. We will honor and acknowledge all of my son’s heritage in this rite of passage, including a blessing from our interfaith minister. Coming from our interfaith worldview, it would be both inauthentic and disrespectful to do otherwise.

Judaism’s Hebrew liturgy has survived through the millenia, through the diaspora, through the Holocaust. When my children learn to decipher Hebrew, and recite Hebrew prayers, they affirm their connection to this powerful history. But at the same time, all religions and rituals evolve over time, and Judaism is no different. In creating a coming of age ceremony that reflects the full heritage of my children, we realize that we are pushing boundaries.

In designing these ceremonies for my children, I try not to become completely paralyzed by the (often conflicting) “requirements” for a Bar Mitzvah, issued by various sages and authorities. The truth is that the Bar Mitzvah tradition is not an ancient one. Since I began planning for my daughter’s coming-of-age five years ago, I have spent a lot of time fending off the “a Bar Mitzvah has to include such-and-such” statements. With each of my children, I have tried to help them craft a rite of passage best suited to their own place in their spiritual journey.

Technically, a child who reaches the age of 13 becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (“son or daughter of the commandment”), whether or not a ceremony occurs. Originally, reaching this age simply meant the child could now fully participate in Jewish rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur or counting as part of a minyan. In the Middle Ages, this milestone began to be recognized by calling the Bar Mitzvah boy up to the bimah for the first time, to say the blessings over the Torah reading, in what is known as an aliyah. More recently, the tradition of the first aliyah at age 13 evolved into chanting all of the Shabbat prayers, the entire Torah portion, and the accompanying haftorah. My son will lead prayers, and chant from the Torah.

I know only too well from personal experience that as interfaith children we are constantly called on to defend our Jewish identities, and that saying I “had a Bar Mitzvah” helps to deflect these inquiries. In creating these ceremonies for our children, we arm them with a positive retort when questioned on this subject. This does not diminish the fact that the actual day of celebration for my daughter was truly a spiritual experience for her, for her parents, and for many of the Jews and Christians who shared it with us. And I know that it will be just as meaningful for my son, in the spring.

My Big, Fat Interfaith Wedding

I got married 23 years ago today. Okay, so our wedding wasn’t really big or fat. It was a relatively modest affair, in a tent in my backyard, organized in a matter of weeks. But it was a joyous occasion for us, and for the extended family on all sides: Reform Jews, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Catholics who married in and became Protestants, and at least one Protestant who now attends a mosque. We had been dating on and off for 12 years, and any hesitation our parents felt about our intermarriage was outweighed by relief that we were finally getting off the fence. Anyway, the fact that my own parents had been happily intermarried for a quarter of a century by then, tended to mute any concern about religious differences.

When we decided on a rabbi and a minister to co-officiate at our ceremony, we signaled to our friends and family that we were going to respect and draw on both family religions. In 1987, there was no such thing as a community for interfaith families. The interfaith movement was actually born that same year, when a group of families in New York City set up an interfaith afterschool program for their children at the private Trinity School. By almost incredible coincidence, the minister closest to us and the one we chose to co-officiate, my husband’s wonderful first cousin, the Reverend Rick Spalding, co-taught with a rabbi in that interfaith afterschool program.

Both because of his immersion in the interfaith culture of New York, and his family ties to us, Reverend Rick gave a warm and personal reflection at our wedding, casting our interfaithness in a most positive light. For a rabbi, we had to scrounge around a bit, after the rabbi at my temple refused to officiate. Finding a rabbi who would perform an interfaith marriage seemed to require my parents to make sotto voce inquiries, as if seeking a connection for some sort of illicit trade. I was grateful when they found Rabbi Benjamin Rudavsky, a brave and controversial rabbi who understood early on that rejecting interfaith couples is not good for the Jews. For me, the balance of the family warmth provided by Reverend Rick, and the ancient Jewish rituals and language provided by the rabbi, seemed fitting and right.

Although we met with both the Rabbi and the Reverend to plan our interfaith wedding service, we did not really have a plan for raising our children. In fact we were not ready for children yet at all, and we waited seven years before having our first child. But the idea that Rick was teaching those interfaith kids in New York certainly planted a seed of possibility in our minds.

Just three days after marrying, we set off to spend three years in Africa, and later spent three more years in Brazil. Ten years went by before we found ourselves settling back in the US with an infant and a toddler, and looking to establish a coherent religious identity for our family. In the meantime, the idea of an interfaith community had spread from New York to Washington, and as fate would have it, we settled right in the suburb where the DC interfaith group was beginning to take off. The rest, as they say, is history chronicled on this blog.

Today, I celebrate our 23 years as an accomplishment: a journey of passion and adventure, but also of hard work and compromises. Disagreements? There have been many. But I can say, with total honesty, that we have never had a disagreement about religious practice or theology, or how to raise our children as spiritual beings. We have found our interfaith community to be a font of inspiration, emotional support, and intellectual stimulation. And the essential interfaithness of our marriage has inspired creativity and heightened our mindfulness of family rituals and shared values.

 

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