Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

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I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

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.

 

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Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

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

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this life is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

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

“…Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Will Be Able to Join Hands…”

January Snow

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr‘s birthday this year, I found myself standing with hundreds of other interfaith family members, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Leading us in song, their arms wrapped around each other, stood a trio of extraordinary spiritual leaders: a rabbi who met Dr. King and has spent a lifetime devoted to interfaith dialogue and social justice, a white minister born into a Southern Baptist family who now practices mindfulness and serves interfaith families, and an African-American woman who is a powerful Catholic gospel song leader.

Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis, and Catholic cantor Thomascena Nelson lead our celebration this year. And the good news is that communities across America now create such interfaith gatherings to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. This year, the synagogue I was born into, Temple Israel in Boston, formally invited a local imam to speak for the first time in its history, and I felt a surge of hope.

But for interfaith families, the words of Dr. King speak to us on a whole different level–an intimate level. My community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, includes over 100 families who not only hold hands once a year, but have married across religious boundaries and live an interfaith reality. Many of us also married across the traditional lines of race, culture, class, nationality, or sexual orientation. In our diversity we represent truly radical unity, a unity we experience day in and day out, throughout the year.

Singing with my interfaith family, I look out and see a dad raised Jewish and a dad raised Christian holding hands with their biracial daughter, who knows all the words to both the Christian and Jewish blessings. I see children adopted from Latin America and Asia, as well as intercultural interfaith families with parents rooted in those regions. I see an African-American Christian dad and a white Jewish mom lead an interfaith responsive reading, holding their squirming toddler.

I see a dream made real. Together, we form a community in which no individual is a guest, everyone can partake, nobody is excluded, and no parent must give up or minimize their own beliefs or practices or culture in order to join us. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Humanists and Buddhists holding hands, forming families, and celebrating together. We have reached a time and place when we can be who we are as families, together in joy.

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

 

Where do My Interfaith Teens Fit In? As Activists!

Rev. Brian Merritt, Rabbi Harold White, Rev. Julia Jarvis

Every religion, every denomination, bemoans the fact that it can be hard to keep teenagers engaged in thinking about religion. They’re busy thinking about, well, other stuff. But yesterday was different. Yesterday, my two teens had a transformative educational, political, spiritual experience at Occupy DC, through the lens of their interfaithness.

Today, the police will start enforcing a “no camping” rule, prohibiting the activists at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square from sleeping in the Occupy tents. So yesterday was a tense and busy day at Occupy DC. Nevertheless, our intrepid spiritual leaders, the rabbi and the minister who guide our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White, took a group of our teens down to McPherson Square to meet Reverend Brian Merritt of Occupy Faith DC, to learn more about the role that clergy and religious communities are playing in the Occupy Movement.

At Occupy DC, they were able to witness a General Assembly, explore the library filled with political and spiritual books, drop off some pumpkin muffins at the kitchen, and bring home copies of The Occupied Washington Times. Now, our interfaith kids want to return to sleep there. We’ll see if that is even feasible, after today.

So why does this post belong on a blog about interfaith families? I find it moving and inspiring that my teens were able to have this experience with both their minister and their rabbi (a rabbi who was deeply engaged alongside Christian clergy in the civil rights movement in the 1960s). As interfaith families, our microcosm of respect and engagement and learning has to be a helpful model for non-violent interfaith interaction in the larger world. And while my kids understand that there are differences between their two family religions, between any two religions, they also know that the thirst for social justice is something that Jews and Christians shared in the civil rights movement, and that they share now in the quest for more equitable taxation, and for voting rights for DC.

This Thursday, my radically-inclusive rabbi and my radically-inclusive minister will go together to the People’s Prayer Breakfast, a progressive alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, organized by Occupy Faith DC. All are invited. In fact, I am tempted to pull my kids out of school to attend.

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.”