Interfaith Families in the Pews: Q & A with Reverend Vicky Eastland

 

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Photo: Susan Katz Miller

 

 

While reporting my recent article in The Washington Post on Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, I ended up with a lot of material that did not make it into the story. As an unofficial historian of the interfaith family communities movement, one of my goals is to record and preserve as much of our ongoing story as possible. Below, I share an extended interview with the minister at Brookville Church, Reverend Vicky Eastland. Here, she discusses her role as a Reformed Church in America minister, in the context of Brookville’s Multifaith Campus—a joint project of the Brookville Church, The New Synagogue of Long Island, the Muslim Reformed Movement Organization, and the Interfaith Family Community of Long Island.

 

Susan Katz Miller (SKM): When the search committee first contacted you about coming to Brookville as the new pastor, the Interfaith Community already had a close relationship with the church there. What was your first impression of this relationship?

Rev. Vicky Eastland (VE): Initially, one of the reasons Brookville was interested in me was because I was one of the founding members of an interfaith council in upstate New York where I was pastoring a church at the time: we met to do community service and events together. When I heard the word interfaith, that’s what I thought of. It wasn’t until I received a series of questions the church wanted me to answer on paper that I realized it was about interfaith families. I still had no idea what this interfaith families community was, that was connected to the church.

SKM: I know Pam Gawley (co-founder with Sarah Cirker of the Interfaith Community of Long Island) has said she may be the only Jewish woman to serve on a church search committee for a new pastor.

VE: When I showed up for my second interview, I was really quite surprised because the search team of the church stepped aside and let Pam and Sarah lead the interview. It ended up being a great experience for all of us. I remember one of the search team members saying something that has stayed with me: “We’re not just looking for the next pastor, we’re looking for someone to take us further in our relationship with the Interfaith Community.” This was an integral part of helping them decide who the next pastor would be.

SKM: The Interfaith Community of Long Island, which was founded to support Jewish and Christian interfaith families, now holds their interfaith Sunday School at Brookville, and these interfaith families attend the church service at Brookville on a specific Sunday each month, as part of their interfaith education program. Do the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity pose a challenge for you in those services?

VE: The most challenging aspect for me since I’ve been at Brookville is surrounding the Sacrament of Communion. Personally, I don’t think we should turn anyone away from an experience with God, so I understand opening the communion table to non-Christians. But the wording in the Reformed Church in  America (RCA) liturgy is very Christocentric. I was using that liturgy, and I had a Catholic woman ask me, “Can you please not use those words? My husband who is Jewish feels like all Christians are blaming him for the crucifixion of Christ.” There were Sundays when I left the service, and I started crying because I felt like something I said was offensive to someone from IFC. But then there was pushback from other Christians who were saying, “We don’t want you to take those words out.” But for a while I did, because I don’t think anything should be excluding people who want to be there.

In my second year, we moved IFC Sunday to a non-communion Sunday, and I’ve gone back to the RCA language for communion. Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, told me, “We want this to be authentically Christian.” We’re all on this journey together. And the Catholic woman who was worried about how her Jewish husband feels? That husband actually participates now in communion.

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I was very Christocentric in my sermon–but its hard not to be on Resurrection Sunday. That cognitive dissonance that I had in the first year, I don’t  have so much anymore. In the service I said, “I know there are people who are with us today that aren’t Christian, and don’t believe what we’re saying here, and that’s okay.” A Jewish mom came up to me afterwards in tears, and said she was so moved to be acknowledged. It was not planned: it just came out of me.

SKM: I know the Muslim study group had been meeting at Brookville Church on Sunday afternoons for many years, but how did it become integrated into the Multifaith Campus?

VE: When I got there in the fall of 2013, I realized the rabbi, Rabbi Stuart Paris, had never met the Muslim leader, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. I started doing introductions, friendships formed, and we realized our individual missions were so similar–we all wanted to bring reform to our specific faiths. None of our groups is exclusive, anyone is welcome at any of the groups. Then we said let’s do something together, around a holiday not based on any of our faiths.

That first Thanksgiving together was the highlight of my entire ministry career. We started out with our new Brookville Multifaith Campus sign dedication, on the lawn of the church. One of the members from the Muslim community did the call to prayer in Arabic  outside on the PA system. We had about 200 people, the maximum we can fit into the chapel, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Dr. Sultan said he’d been to a lot of these interfaith Thanksgiving services where the representatives each preach from their own holy scripture, and it feels almost like a competitive situation. So he suggested that instead we preach from each other’s holy scriptures. I ended up preaching from the Quran, Dr Sultan from the Torah, and Rabbi Stuart from the New Testament. That’s what we’ve done ever  since—this year was our third Thanksgiving together.

Since that first Thanksgiving, I have traveled to the Sultanate of  Oman, a Muslim majority nation in the Middle East , and I have  had a lot more exposure to the Muslim faith. The Quran has come alive to me in ways I never would have imagined. We’ve been talking with the IFC about how to add an Islamic unit to the interfaith Sunday School curriculum. For now, we’ve decided to wait until there are more young Muslim interfaith families in the IFC community.

SKM: As the Brookville Multifaith Campus becomes established, do you see this as a template for other communities?

VE: We’re now at the point where I’m starting to form a team with people from members of all four communities, to work on becoming a 501c3 (non-profit institution). The long-range hope is that that this will turn into a model that will change the makeup of our church. I believe that’s the direction all houses of faith should move in. I think it’s a model that everyone should look at.

Many churches, here and across the country, have been shrinking, even closing. Recently, I met with a group of clergy from Long Island. They came to learn about what we’re doing–how it’s working, why it’s working, and what we’re doing that’s making it so successful. We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society. How is that going to play out in our houses of  faith? Clergy can no longer bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the needs of interfaith families are not important. We have to find ways to meet their spiritual needs. Ours is a model that others can follow.

 

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.

 

Report on Millennials from Interfaith Families Who Apply to Birthright

Sheila Gordon of IFC
Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community

Yesterday, researchers from Brandeis University released a report on millennials who grew up in interfaith families and applied to Birthright. The report was funded in part by Birthright, the program to send young people with at least one Jewish parent on a free trip to Israel, so the conclusions must be read in that light. However, since very few studies (besides my own) have been conducted on children of interfaith families, each study is valuable, even if it represents a particular viewpoint. Sheila Gordon, co-founder of the original NYC program providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and Interfaith Community intern Ben Arenstein attended the release event. I invited them to report on the release of the study.–SKM

A new study of the growing interfaith population was released yesterday: Millennial Children of Intermarriage. Sheila Gordon, President of Interfaith Community/IFC (and Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage for forty years) attended the release event along with IFC interfaith intern Ben Arenstein–a millennial interfaith child himself and currently a second year student in a joint degree at Columbia College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Produced by the Cohen Center at Brandeis, the study–subtitled “Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement”–looked particularly at the impact of Birthright (which has taken half a million young adults to experience Israel) and college programs like Hillel and Chabad. The study found that engaging in such programs can powerfully strengthen Jewish identity and participation. In short, it is not too late to engage people religiously who are 20 or 25 years old. In fact, Brandeis researchers found that the more different types of Jewish experience in college (i.e., college-based formal and informal experiences and Birthright) the more likely the interfaith millennials are to be as engaged Jewishly as millennials from inmarried families. (The only category in which this was largely not the case was the comprehension of Hebrew by interfaith millennials–which remained low despite Jewish involvement in college.)

The Jewish identity of millennials, as the Brandeis study has confirmed, undergoes a heavily formative period during college years. Post-secondary education–a time wrought with experimentation and change–also serves as an opportunity for Jews to explore their identity. Because millennials of typical interfaith families tend to have limited involvement in Jewish social interactions and Jewish formal education before college, time at university can in many cases serve as a transformative period in which interfaith children now have both access to Jewish programming and the means to independently pursue that programming without parental oversight.

The authors of the study see it as leading to a reframing of Jewish communal policies about intermarriage and new paradigms for understanding the implications of interfaith marriage. What particularly impressed Sheila and Ben were the observations that any programs that are developed need to take into account the perceptions of these interfaith millennials:

  • They appear to define their Jewishness in a way that is different from those raised in entirely Jewish homes–specifically that, while they may see themselves as strengthening their Jewish identity, they proudly see themselves as multi-cultural–and, in turn, they are often dismayed by ethno-centric attitudes. So we may be seeing a different kind of Jewish identity.
  • They are often hesitant to become Jewishly involved because of elitism and stigmas against interfaith children by the larger Jewish community.
  • They and their families–in order to develop their religious and cultural identity–need to feel that the community in which they are developing that identity has to be open and supportive.

In addition, Ben would encourage the policy makers to bear in mind that this survey is not just a collection of data points, but based on a set of real individuals, each of whom has come to terms with his/her interfaith identity in unique and very personal ways. To help someone along that journey is a beautiful thing, but to use data sets to push them in a certain direction is to undermine the individuality of that person.

Sheila told those gathered that the findings further underscore the value of dual-faith education programs (such as provided by IFC and IFFP) for interfaith families. Educating young children ( and, in turn, their parents) about both heritages provides the supportive community and respect for the individual journeys that are essential. Young adults who wish to continue their journeys in college are better prepared both intellectually and emotionally to do so. She urged those present to support dual-faith education programs and communities.

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.

Network of Interfaith Family Groups: How to Create New Communities

Autumn Maple Leaves

The days get shorter, the school year begins, and the Jewish High Holy Days start this week. Are you looking for the joyful company, the wise counsel, the loving support of other interfaith families? In Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I chronicle the national grassroots movement to find and form interfaith family communities celebrating both religions, and I describe how the established communities meet the needs of families.

But how do you go about creating a new interfaith family community?

Here I suggest a number of steps and strategies for families who celebrate more than one religion, and want to find like-minded people.

  • Join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups on facebook. The Network launched this year to help families across the country find each other, to join in on-line conversation, and ideally form new regional groups. The Network page lists contacts for the following regions: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Harrisburgh PA, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, central NJ, New Orleans, Raleigh NC, Richmond VA (Christian/Jewish or Christian/Muslim), San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul MN, western MA, Wheaton IL, and north woods Wisconsin.
  • Find other families celebrating both religions in your region, by networking with the clergy who officiated at your interfaith marriage, or who perform such marriages locally. They probably have married other couples who are planning to stay connected to both family religions, and can connect you.
  • Start small. Get together with two other young interfaith couples and have a Shabbat or a brunch. Or, get together with two other interfaith families with young children to celebrate a holiday, and inject a little bit of learning for everyone. As the group grows, take a look at the website and engaging programs at the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, a small group that thrives on volunteer power, and without a lot of infrastructure.
  • If you are struggling to figure out the group model that will work best for your region, or having trouble fitting all the pieces together, I’m now available as an interfaith community coach.

In the fall, the abundant Jewish holidays provide inspiration to create multi-sensory experiences for young children. Even if you do not yet have a community where you feel comfortable, engage your children in these traditions. Dip apples in honey for a sweet new year. Walk to a creek or river or sea, and drop in bread crumbs or sticks or leaves to represent qualities you want to give away, in the Tashlich ritual. Children remember such things.

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.

7 Ways for Interfaith Families to Find Community

This year, I posted my annual roundup of communities that welcome interfaith families over on my Huffington Post blog, in order to reach more interfaith families looking for comfortable spiritual or religious or secular homes. I hope you’ll take a look. It includes mention of Jewish, Humanistic Jewish, Ethical Society, Unitarian-Univeralist and interfaith family communities…

CHELSEA CLINTON MARC

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are about to become interfaith parents. And as interfaith parents, they are about to face an ongoing series of decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith children. This time of year, with the nip of autumn in the air to remind us of the passage of time, and the Jewish High Holidays fast approaching (September 24th and October 3rd), many interfaith families are making the annual decision on whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both…  Click here to continue

Interfaith Children Speak Out: Cara

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate today’s release of my book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I am launching a new series on teens and young adults raised in interfaith family communities. These portraits are drawn from interviews and from my survey of 50 young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms here (although I am proud to say the book is full of real names). Many of these detailed portraits did not fit into the book, so this is new, bonus material!

Cara: Educated in the Earliest Interfaith Classroom

Cara attended the very first dual-faith education program designed for interfaith children (the program that evolved into The Interfaith Community) in Manhattan in the late 1980s. The daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, she was 8 years old when she started afterschool classes in Judaism and Christianity, co-taught by a Jewish and a Christian teacher. Cara explains that she did not find learning about both religions confusing because “they were taught to me as one emerging from the other chronologically, and the parallels in the religions were presented.”

In college, Cara, like many children in my research who were raised with a dual-faith education, went on to study some of the other religions of the world. She also, like many of these children, attended Jewish services on campus and took part in Jewish social activities through Hillel, the nationwide program for Jewish college students. Often, Cara has had to defend her claim to Judaism, because she would be considered a “patrilineal Jew,” and traditional Judaism holds that the religion is passed only through the mother. She explains, “Conservative Jews tell me all the time I’m not Jewish. They have their rules–that’s fine. I’m culturally Jewish and that’s enough for me.”

Now in her thirties, Cara describes her religious identity as “interfaith.” She is not married, and does not see any particular reason to choose a single faith. She writes that she felt “no need to choose at 8, or 12, or 18” so “why now?” When asked why she chose an interfaith identity, Cara credits both her interfaith education, and her liberal arts education in college. She writes, “once you see the range of religions and ways people live their lives” she felt she could “no longer see any need or purpose to commit or define myself to one.”

Cara continues to attend church on Christmas and Easter, in part because she loves the music. She reports that she also feels comfortable in synagogues, and attends a Reform Jewish synagogue on the High Holy Days. When asked about her concept of God, Cara writes, “there is no god–god is yourself. The mind is a powerful tool, and the power of belief can achieve a lot.”

Cara says she did not experience any disadvantages in being educated in two religions. As for advantages, she appreciated the “double dose of exposure and education” and the fact that she “got to learn twice as much about the world as other kids.” When asked how her interfaith education affects her general outlook on life, Cara writes that it “makes me open-minded to anything, interdisciplinary in a lot I do, open to lots of new cultures, traditions, religions, values.”

Overall, Cara reports that she thinks her parents made a good decision to raise her with both religions. And when asked how she might raise any future children, she writes, “Interfaith—hopefully with strong Jewish exposure.”

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.

Autumn Return: Interfaith Families and the Annual Search for High Holy Days

With shorter days, cooler nights and the last moments of summer, many interfaith families feel a strong annual longing, a sort of homing instinct, driving them to search for cultural, religious or spiritual membership. For those of us who grew up in a religious community, the fall reminds us that belonging brings all sorts of benefits (not least of which may be access to tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services). Some Jewish/Christian interfaith families find a welcoming Jewish community, some choose Christianity, some join ethical culture or secular humanist groups, some explore Buddhism, some find a home in Unitarian-Universalism, some manage to maintain affiliation with more than one religious community. My family chose an independent interfaith community celebrating both religions.

In recent weeks, the idea that an increasing number of interfaith families are choosing communities that teach both Judaism and Christianity received rare, cautious coverage in the Jewish press. Both Tablet Magazine and interfaithfamily.com (a Jewish outreach website) took note of the “Being Interfaith” project posted by two journalism students, a project I wrote about last April. These tentative, somewhat skeptical acknowledgments of  “doing both” signal a welcome evolution: a growing realization by Jewish institutions that raising children with both religions is not a phenomenon that is going to evaporate any time soon, and that it thus deserves analysis. Each pathway for interfaith families has benefits and drawbacks, and the benefits of raising children with both religions are strong enough to continue to attract new families each fall. In fact, Reform Judaism has shifted in recent years to emphasizing the importance of converting non-Jewish spouses, possibly driving more interfaith couples to seek out communities that do not exert any pressure (however subtle) for adults to change religious identity.

I have listed some options for independent interfaith communities in major cities in the Resource links in the right-hand column of this blog. In Chicago, Jewish/Catholic families have at least two options: the interwoven Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group and the Chicago Interfaith Family School (downtown), and The Interfaith Union (in the suburbs). In New York, the venerable Interfaith Community has its flagship program (in Manhattan), as well as suburban offshoots (in Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut), and a group in Boston. My own community in Washington DC, the Interfaith Families Project, now has a branch in Philadelphia.

Each of these groups has grown organically, with varying degrees of support from local clergy, and each interfaith community takes a slightly different approach to meeting the needs of interfaith families for welcoming and accessible, yet authentic, High Holy Day services. At the Interfaith Families Project in DC, we now have full Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the first time this year, led by Rabbi Harold White, with mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell as cantor. In New York City, the Interfaith Community has a long tradition of High Holy Day services created and led by the interfaith families themselves. In Boston, families from the Interfaith Community will attend services together at a synagogue. In Chicago, the Interfaith Union refers families to five different local Reform, Renewal, humanist and independent Jewish communities.

For anyone with a Jewish background, the call of the shofar signals a moment to pause, take stock of the past year and contemplate the future. Too often, the Jewish partner in an interfaith family goes off alone to High Holy Day services. In my opinion, the experience is far more resonant in a community, whether it is a welcoming Jewish community or an independent interfaith community, in which the entire family feels comfortable sitting together, allowing for a meaningful glance or quiet squeeze of hands at key moments of repentance and resolve.