Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

T-shirt, emma's revolutionMy children were four and seven years old on 9/11, though they both remember that day. In shock, we wandered to the center of town, and found a spontaneous gathering at the gazebo singing peace songs. I felt helpless: singing seemed to help.

Singing together, like drumming and working with clay, stems from a primal impulse. Song soothes the fretful, the sad, the cynical, the terrified. When my children were babies, I sang lullabies to them each night, including peace songs passed down from both sides of my interfaith family: “Oseh Shalom” and “Sim Shalom” in Hebrew, but also “Dona Nobis Pacem” in Latin. (I was not making a conscious effort to be even-handed: in those long sessions in the rocking chair, I sang every scrap of music lodged in my brain, including selections from “The Music Man” and “Hair.”)

The song I now think of as the quintessential interfaith song was written in the aftermath of 9/11. Our musician friends Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow (known together as emma’s revolution), created a healing chant: “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.They performed it for the first time in New York City in the first large peace rally after 9/11, and 10,000 people wound through the streets of the city singing it for hours.

At my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony last year, we were privileged to have Pat and Sandy (an interfaith couple!) lead our family and friends in singing “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” This song, with one essential word in Arabic, has now joined the Hebrew and Latin lullabies in our interfaith family canon. The words are deeply embedded in my children, and only good can come of this.

As 9/11 recedes into history, as our memories inevitably fade, we must remember those who were lost, and our troops overseas, and all who live in fear of war and terror. But I also want to remember the way trauma brought us out into the streets to try to conjure peace. Tomorrow, I will wear my “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” shirt. If you see me, let’s sing 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.

Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child

It is easy to be cynical about celebrity marriages. And it is easy to fret about the obstacles faced by interfaith and interracial marriages. But I can’t help feeling thrilled by the birth this week of Walker Nathaniel Diggs.

Walker is the son of Broadway luminaries Idina Menzel (a nice Jewish girl from Long Island) and Taye Diggs (her African-American costar from the original Rent cast). The two started dating in the 1990’s, they married in 2003, they have endured racist harassment, and they waited until they were both 38 to have this baby. So in celebrity terms, they have already shown powerful longevity in their relationship, which bodes well for baby Walker.

For many interracial/interfaith couples, the faith issues take a back seat to more obvious race issues. But it is clear the couple have also thought about their interfaith status. They named their terrier after Sammy Davis Jr., the African-American entertainer who converted to Judaism.

Menzel is a role model to generations of girls for originating the feisty roles of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in the girl-power musical Wicked. Last year, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle asked Menzel whether they would raise their (theoretical) children as Jews. Menzel replied, “…I feel strong connections to my culture and, so yes, I would like to bring them up with knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history. I’m just not sure about the rest. I’m a spiritual person, not a religious person.”

Those are the exact words uttered by many of the parents who found their way to independent interfaith communities . I am sure Menzel will feel pressure from Jewish institutions to raise her son exclusively as a Jew. And she’s got the whole “matrilineality” thing working for her. On the other hand, in a Jewish context Walker Diggs, with his Christian last name and brown skin, will always be obvious as an interfaith child. Christians will make the assumption that he is Christian. So he will grow up with an interfaith identity on some level, even if he is raised exclusively as a Jew. In an interfaith community, he would grow up with “knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history” from both sides of his family.

 

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.

“But Do You Actually Worship Together?”

Oak Tree II

On Sunday, our interfaith community met in the shade of an ancient oak tree. We spread blankets under the leafy canopy—new parents with babies, engaged couples, empty nesters. We stood, and chanted the Shema, and the Lord’s Prayer, and sang an Irish blessing. Those struggling with illness or sadness got up to place pebbles in a bowl, to share their burden with the community. Our minister reflected on the story of Jacob and Esau. Then, we sang the Hamotzi over our potluck feast. I crossed the lawn to greet our rabbi, a chaplain at Georgetown, who was decked out in a jaunty T-shirt reading “Georgetown” in Hebrew.

Our community encompasses Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Buddhists, Jews of every stripe, agnostics and atheists. We come together in spite of our diverse and divergent theologies. But for many interfaith families, we are the only spiritual home, the only place they feel comfortable. I don’t call what we do together worship, because for me, theology is not the point. Rather, the community itself, and the primal experience of singing together and sharing our joys and concerns, creates the neurological response that humans label spirituality. It has little to do with belief, and much to do with making art together and providing support for each other in times of trouble.

In our community, we call this a Gathering rather than a worship service. Each Gathering begins with this responsive reading written by Oscar Rosenbloom, a founding member of the Interfaith Community of Palo Alto:

Reader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community

To share and celebrate the gift of life together

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel

Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth

Some of us gather influenced by each

Reader: However we come, and whoever we are

May we be moved, In our time together

To experience that sense of Divine presence in each of us

Evoked by our worship together

All: And to know in the wisdom of our hearts

That deeper unity in which all are one.

Ten years into our journey with this interfaith community, my chidren have memorized the Shema, the Hamotzi, the Lord’s Prayer. They also recite by heart that interfaith responsive reading. They can articulate their sense of connection to this community, and the songs and readings stir their souls. Our community is an immense tree with branches growing in all directions, representing Jewish, Christian and other beliefs. No matter how much it irks some religious institutions, we insist on standing together to create a motley but massive trunk for this tree, a strong support for our children to climb and explore.

 

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

A Rabbi and a Minister…

My rabbi often expounds on “radical amazement,” a concept that his teacher, philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to describe our response to creation. Me, personally, I am radically amazed that I have a rabbi. And I am equally, if not even more radically amazed that I have a pastor. We are living in strange and wondrous times, when a person, an interfaith person, can have both.

Here’s how it works. Rabbi Harold White and minister Julia Jarvis lead the Interfaith Families Project in song, prayer and reflection twice each month. That means sometimes the rabbi will give a reflection about Lent, and the minister will give a reflection on Sukkoth. It sounds meshugenah but this cross-fertilization leads to dazzling insights. And for those of us who are interfaith children, it leads to profound opportunities to feel like an integrated whole, rather than a half-something.

I never thought I would have a rabbi again. I had reconciled myself to a life of exile from organized Judaism, and I assumed that meant exile from the likes of Rabbi White, who combines warmth and crinkly smile lines with deep wisdom and erudition. My exile began, like that of many other intermarried Jews, the day my father went to our family rabbi and asked if he would officiate at my marriage to a lapsed Episcopalian. The answer my father brought back was, “He says he can’t touch it.” Later, I learned that many synagogue Boards forbid their rabbis to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment. This may help to explain why I have returned to a rabbi, but not to a synagogue.

I never dreamed I would have a minister, nor did I pine for one, since I never had one growing up as a Reform Jew. But it turns out that everyone can benefit from a minister. Clergy of all stripes actually know this—they often benefit from spiritual direction from different faith traditions. Julia Jarvis is a gifted empath who has given me personal support, and creative dedication to the task of raising healthy interfaith children in our community. She has given me the courage as a Jew to accept the help of a pastor. It may seem radical. But it is also amazing.

“How Can You Be Both? What About Jesus?”

I didn’t grow up with Jesus. My parents raised us as Jews, and the topic never came up at our dinner table. So no, I don’t believe Jesus is my personal savior. So you could call me a Jew who is particularly knowledgeable about Christianity. Or you could call me a Unitarian I guess. But go and ask ten of your Christian-born friends if they believe that Jesus is their personal savior. If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to make an educated guess that most of you born or raised Christian think of Jesus as a role model, an important historical figure, a revolutionary rabbi, an inexplicable mystery, or even an inspiring myth. Or as the son of God, in the sense that we are all sons and daughters of God. All of which works for me just fine. It is rare that I find I actually disagree on theological grounds with the Christians in my circle of family and friends.

It wasn’t until I came of age, and got safely through my Bat Mitzvah, that I began to tentatively probe at my Christian roots. As a teenager in the 1970s, I would privately indulge in Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell and feel like I was gobbling forbidden fruit. Jewish composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz apparently understood the primal appeal of the Jesus story. I’m glad that he, and so many other Jewish writers and artists throughout history, felt free to infuse the story with such passion (so to speak). And I’m glad that my children can feel swept away by these stories, without feeling a lot of Jewish guilt. The head rush I know as spirituality is almost always the direct result of great art, music, or community action. Ideology, not so much.

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.

My Interfaith Declaration

I’m an interfaith child. I’m not confused or lost. I embrace my Jewish and Christian family. I explore the history and rituals of both religions. It is natural for me to switch off between my Jewish and Christian lenses, the way I switch between my reading glasses and my distance glasses. Each pair is useful. I carry them both with me. I need both perspectives.

I’m also an interfaith parent. My children are not confused or lost. They have been raised to celebrate both their family religions.  They have learned about both traditions in a religious education program with over 100 other interfaith children in Washington, DC. Our interfaith community here is part of a growing, international movement of interfaith families who do not want to choose one parent’s religion over the other. My children know that this choice is still unusual and highly controversial. They take pride in being different, in learning both Hebrew and parables. They wear the progressive lenses that fuse two ways of looking at the world.

I have hesitated for years before launching this blog, in part because I know it will attract some anger from both individuals and institutions. But as I advise interfaith families and groups around the country, as we forge this hybrid universe together, I wanted to create a forum to share our stories. I invite you to be brave, and do just that.

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