High Holy Days 2013: Finding an Interfaith Community

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This post is adapted from last year, with new links to upcoming services.

Shofar blast! The Jewish High Holy Days begin extraordinarily early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 4th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 13th. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Some of us find shelter in Unitarian-Universalist communities, or in Quaker or Baha’i or Buddhist practice. For those who want to give children a specific (though not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. Links to find services for the Days of Awe through all of these communities are found below.

Many Jewish communities are beginning to understand that some interfaith families will have Christmas trees, will celebrate Christian holidays with extended family, will, on some level, always be interfaith families, even if the non-Jewish spouse agrees to raise Jewish children. Jewish religious educators and clergy have set up new programs to serve these families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy, or education in Christianity for your children. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, fueled by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut, and Boston gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School and the Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project, now provides a full set of four traditional, progressive High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by Rabbi Harold White, the retired chaplain of Georgetown University. New this year, there will be a specific children’s service for Rosh Hashanah as well. Families from our community have also launched an interfaith community in the Philadelphia area. Join them for Rosh Hashanah apple-picking this year.

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

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.

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