A Historic Moment for Interfaith Families

Today, we arrive at a historic moment in the interfaith families movement.

The announcement went out that a minister who grew up in an interfaith family will become the first adult interfaith kid to become a clergy co-leader of a community celebrating Judaism and Christianity.

Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block grew up in a multicultural, interfaith family. She comes to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) as the Interim Christian Minister, on the retirement of our beloved longtime minister, Reverend Julia Jarvis. “As someone who grew up in a Jewish-Christian home, I longed for a place like IFFP,” Samantha says in today’s announcement. She has a divinity degree from the progressive Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I first met Samantha when Religions for Peace asked her to be part of a video interview with me on interfaith families, seven years ago. I discovered that not only was Samantha a fellow interfaith kid, but that as a student at UTS she had taught in the groundbreaking Interfaith Family Community (IFC) program in New York City.

IFC was the first program created by and for interfaith families to give interfaith children interfaith education. In their unique teaching system, IFC has often paired co-teaching Christian and Jewish seminarians, from UTS and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), two seminaries across the street from each other in Morningside Heights in New York City. One of the great beauties of this system is that for over 30 years now, clergy in training have had first-hand experience with the benefits of co-teaching the two religions to interfaith kids. And then they go out into the world as clergy, carrying this experience with them.

So, there is a powerful symmetry and sense of fulfillment in the idea that one of these seminarians, one who grew up in an interfaith family and experienced the beauty of teaching interfaith kids both religions, is now returning to lead another of the “big three” (NYC, DC, Chicago) communities created by and for interfaith families celebrating both religions. “Samantha brought her special life experience to our programs,” said Sheila Gordon, IFC’s Founder President, on hearing the news today. “Having her in a leadership position at IFFP could be a real game-changer for the future of dual faith families everywhere.”

The truth is that the moment I met Samantha, I dreamed that someday she would lead a community of interfaith families. And as soon as she met me, she wanted to know more about IFFP in DC. In 2014, I invited her to DC to give a guest reflection at an IFFP gathering. And the next year, she invited me to UTS, to speak on a panel alongside Sheila Gordon, as part of Samantha’s thesis project on interfaith families. On that visit I also spoke in the gorgeous chapel service she created and led, entitled “Out of the Box: Our Sacred Complex Identities.” In that service, Samantha reflected on her identities in poetic rap form, and inspired me to try to do the same. It felt like a grace-filled dance.

With the appointment of Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block to work in partnership with our IFFP rabbi, Debbie Reichmann, and lead our community, we have reached what, for me at least, is a sacred moment. This is the moment when an interfaith kid grows up and dares to become an ordained religious leader. When they dare to say they can lead a spiritual community created by and for interfaith families. When they dare to affirm that clergy, too, can claim more than one religious heritage. This is a moment I have been waiting for, well, all of my life.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Being Both: The Final Stages of Book Labor

Being Both, ARC

Two shiny, colorful, three-dimensional copies of Being Both arrived at my house this week. These Advance Reader Copies (ARCs), or galleys, have not been through the copy-editor, proofreader or indexer yet. They don’t yet have cloth covers, or dust jackets. But they are tangible proof that, after a decade of dreaming and advocating and writing, the book is about to be born. And as with any birth, I am excited, but also a tiny bit terrified: I need to think about breathing slowly and deeply.

In order to calm my nerves, I head over to my new author website, susankatzmiller.com, to read the responses to Being Both from early readers. I am deeply humbled by these words: “an inspiring and gorgeous testament to the power of love,” (Reza Aslan, author of No god but God), “it may help you live more courageously” (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness), “a must read” (Sheila Gordon, President of the Interfaith Community), “engaging, comprehensive, nourishing” (Mary Heléne Rosenbaum, co-author of Celebrating Our Differences) and “a singular contribution to the future of religion in America” (Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl). I am so grateful to these readers for their willingness to spend time thinking about Being Both.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the wise advisors who read complete early versions of the manuscript, including Marika Partridge, Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Reverend Ellen Jennings. And for support and fierce editing through the many earlier years of book gestation, I must thank my writing group, the Calliopes, including Colleen Cordes, Christine Intagliata, Robyn Jackson, Mandy Katz, Diane MacEachern, Susan Fishman Orlins and Karen Paul-Stern.

Starting on publication day (October 22 2013), I plan to spend much of the next year traveling and speaking, reading from the book and listening to your interfaith questions and stories. If you are interested in hosting an event, scheduling an interview, or reviewing the book, please contact publicist Travis Dagenais at Beacon Press, at tdagenais@beacon.org. After living for so long in this online interfaith community, I cannot wait to meet as many of you as possible, to continue our interfaith discussions in person, and to celebrate the birth of this book together.

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.