Heading to UUAGA, and Wild Goose

In the coming weeks, I am excited about visiting two states new for me as a speaker: Washington state, and North Carolina.

First up is the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA) in Spokane, where I will host a Story Slam at 3pm, and sign books in the Exhibit Hall at 4:30pm, this Thursday June 20th. In part because both of my books are published by UU presses (Beacon Press, and Skinner House), I look forward to meeting up with longtime colleagues in the UU world. And I get a warm fuzzy feeling anytime I’m invited to speak in a UU environment. So, invite me to your UU community!

Often these days, I find the story slam format fulfilling. This is how it works: I give over much of my allotted time to the audience, and encourage people to describe the rich complexity of the benefits and challenges of being in an interfaith family, or claiming more than one religious or spiritual tradition. My intention has always been to foment rather than lead a movement, and to encourage others to write and speak from anywhere in the gorgeous constellation of complex religious, spiritual and secular families and identities. By sharing the literal stage, and inviting guest bloggers onto this virtual platform, I get to do that.

My next gig is in July, at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, outside Asheville. Wild Goose, originally inspired by the Greenbelt festival in the UK, has been compared to Burning Man, Woodstock, and an old-fashioned tent revival. The week-long festival draws thousands (many of them camping out) and includes music, art, craft brews, and top speakers (this year including Rev. William Barber–perhaps the greatest civil rights speaker of our time, the tattooed Lutheran firebrand Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, and mystic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson). Wild Goose is open to all, but was founded by and appeals to socially progressive Christians, often allied with what was the post-evangelical “emergent church” world. I am excited to immerse myself in this world for the first time, and introduce festival-goers to Being Both and The Interfaith Family Journal.

I’ll report back from these points west and south, and look forward to hearing from you as I line up more Interfaith Story Slams and other book talks and teaching gigs for the fall, and into 2020.

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 (forthcoming in 2019).

The Interfaith Family Journal: It Takes a Village

The Interfaith Family Journal

The publication date for The Interfaith Family Journal is less just a month away!

On March 31st, you can hold in your hands an interactive book designed to support interfaith families including Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, Ethiopian Orthodox…the whole alphabet of religions and worldviews.

The Journal draws on decades of personal experience, surveys of hundreds of interfaith family members, years of facilitating workshops and coaching couples around the world, and conversations with all of you in person and online. Interfaith families helped to test drive the manuscript, spending hours working through the questions and exercises. Your feedback helped create a more perfect Journal. And your first reactions were humbling:

  • caused me to think deeply about why I think something or why a certain tradition is important to me
  • allowed self-reflection, helped us focus on issues in manageable segments, and encouraged us to really listen to each other’s viewpoint
  • helped us understand how we envision expressing our faiths to both ourselves and each other
  • invited us to have a conversation instead of leading us to choose a side.
  • had the feel of an unbiased, safe, non-judgmental couples’ counseling workshop

The test drivers thought the questions and exercises in the Journal were…

  • very helpful in determining what parts of our religious background are spiritually based vs culturally based, which was invaluable for us
  • a good mix of practical and deep
  • helpful because they covered so much ground and approached issues from a number of angles
  • a great tool for periodically checking in on growth or development in the course of the interfaith relationship (and especially during times of change, such as welcoming a child)

Different test drivers found different parts of the Journal particularly valuable, whether it was the interactive questions at the start of each chapter, the framework for talking about celebrations of life and death, the exercises designed to engage with extended family, or the creative family activities at the end of each chapter.

  • Something about answering a high number of questions in relatively quick succession felt very productive.
  • The Journal led to us calling our parents and grandparents to talk about their religious lives growing up. It was quite fascinating
  • We had never talked about death as it pertains to our religions. This section opened us up to that conversation for the first time.
  • We loved the creative sections. We were huge fans of the religions ancestry tree exercise. That is one that we plan on doing again when our children are old enough to participate.

This is the moment to pre-order copies for yourself and your interfaith family members, and to let friends and family know about the book by sending them a link to this page. My goal with this book has always been to help as many interfaith families as I can, around the country and the world, and I need your help to reach them.

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Immersion: Interfaith Families and Unitarian Universalism

Mount Hood, Oregon
Dramatic arrival in Portland for the UUA General Assembly

Technically, I am not a Unitarian-Universalist (UU), but I spend a lot of time interacting with and thinking about UUs. I sometimes claim the labels of UU wannabe, fauxnitarian, or UU ally. In part, this feels like fate, because I was born on Beacon Hill, the birthplace of American UUism. And my book, Being Both, was published by Beacon Press, the venerable yet feisty publishing house founded by Unitarians in 1854. Theologically, I am both a unitarian (I see the mystery some call God as one, not as a trinity), and a universalist (I don’t believe anyone is going to hell). And the intentional interfaith families communities I chronicle share most if not all of the UU principles. (Check out “So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”).

But both my appreciation of, and education in, the UUniverse reached a new level this week when I had the tremendous honor of speaking about interfaith families at the Sophia Fahs Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA), in Portland, Oregon. With more than 4000 UUs at the UUAGA, I spent many hours engaged with thoughtful UU leaders and educators and clergy, both in the Professional Development workshop for Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA), and at my lecture, and in coffee shop conversations.

It was a great joy to finally meet some of my favorite intellectual and spiritual colleagues and fellow disruptors from the UU twitterverse. And it was an ecstatic moment to get to celebrate the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage for all, in a community of thousands of people who worked hard for this decision, most recently through the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, a campaign with great resonance for interfaith families.

All week in Portland, I gathered perspectives and stories from UU leaders who also live in interfaith families. We talked about both the synergies and the challenges of being an interfaith family in the UU world, or in any specific religious community. Here are some of the take-aways so far:

1. Unitarian Univeralism has long provided a welcoming spiritual home for interfaith families, often in times and places where no one else would welcome them, for which we are all profoundly grateful.

2. Individual UU congregations vary greatly in the degree to which they use Christian frameworks and language. Those that emphasize words and concepts including church, ministry, and mission, create higher barriers for interfaith families who might be interested in Unitarian Universalism.

3. To a certain extent, even committed UUs who come from Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Pagan or secular humanist backgrounds still sometimes see UUism as Protestant in its esthetics and form, even while it emphasizes “radical hospitality.” And at times, they can feel like guests of this hospitality, rather than hosts.

4. There is a (creative) tension between the desire to affirm the unifying importance of specific UU identity, and the desire to affirm the role of interfaith families in UU communities and the complexity of interfaith identities.

5. As an advocate, I strive to help all interfaith children, in any and every community, to feel positive about interfaithness as an enriching rather than a problematic component of identity. This means I encourage any and all religious communities to draw on the knowledge and interfaith dialogue skills of the interfaith families in their midst, rather than politely ignoring interfaith heritage.

6. Unitarian Universalism has been on the forefront of inclusion for people of all genders, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all races, all cultures. And drawing on wisdom of many religions is explicit in the UU principles.

7. Extending this history of radical inclusion to explicitly affirm the experience of interfaith families inside and outside of UU communities helps to ensure that these families feel that they are part of the creative energy at the core of UUism, and not simply at the periphery.

This week, together with UU leaders from across the country, we talked about specific strategies for appreciating interfaith families as a resource and inspiration. I am deeply grateful that Unitarian Universalists thought this topic was so important that they brought me to Portland to engage in this conversation. And I look forward to continuing this work in collaboration with UU colleagues.

UU banners, UUAGA Portland 2015
UU congregational banners, UUAGA Portland 2015

An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas

I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.

Snow in Hawley, PA

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 Education for All: A Review of Being Both

Faith Seeker Kids

In my public speaking, I often point out that interfaith children need interfaith education, but also, when you think about it, all children need multifaith education in order to become more effective bridge-builders and peacemakers. In the UK, government-funded schools are required to provide multifaith education for all children. Here in the US, we take a very different approach: because of the separation of church and state, religion is rarely taught in public schools. I understand the benefits of this separation, but as a side effect, American kids don’t learn much about religion, beyond whatever they learn at their own church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.).

Some religious communities do understand the importance of interfaith education. The most widespread network in the US for teaching the beliefs and practices of world religions is probably Unitarian-Universalism. It’s not a coincidence that my publisher, Beacon Press, is a UU press. Beacon had the chutzpah to publish Being Both, in part I think because they understood interfaith education as a peace and social justice issue (for UU kids, for interfaith kids, for all kids).

Since Being Both was published, I’ve heard from many individual educators and clergy-members who are working to deliver interfaith education through new, innovative models. For instance, coming from a Jewish background, and inspired in part by her interfaith marriage, Lauren Zinn has created Religion Inside Out, drawing on multiple religious traditions, for “spiritually conscious youth in a global culture.” (She also wrote a great review of Being Both, reflecting on the importance of interfaith education.)

And coming from a Christian background, Vicki Garlock has developed another multifaith education program called Faith Seeker Kids, with the goal of “helping churches and families bring interfaith education to life.” The program is rooted in the Christian Bible, but incorporates stories and rituals from many world religions. The intention is to raise children who are “unafraid to explore their relationship to the Divine, unafraid to question their own viewpoints, unafraid to explore other ancient texts and faith practices, unafraid to grow.”

On her blog this week, Vicki posted a lovely review of Being Both, calling it “a great mix of personal experience, stories, quotes, and factual information.” I hope you’ll read her review by clicking this link:

Book Review: Being Both by Susan Katz Miller

 

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

Rabbi to Lead a Unitarian-Universalist Congregation

Rabbi Chava Bahle
Rabbi Chava Bahle (Photo: Beryl Striewski)

Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher (Beacon Press) I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.

1.    I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.

For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming.  I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.

I was contacted some months ago by the Ministerial Search Committee, and we spent time discussing the meaning of this possibility – a non-Unitarian Universalist, and a rabbi no less, serving a congregation with a strong UU identity. I also spoke in discernment with other UU leaders, and with several rabbinic colleagues during that time – exploring the meaning of this from Jewish and UU points of view.

Once we felt we had talked through the implications and reached a place of joy, the public process began! A Candidating Week is announced – preaching two successive Sundays and many (many, many) meetings with committees, the board, constituent groups and individuals the week in between. In our case, we offered extra opportunities to ask questions, since this is, to say the least, an unusual candidacy. The process allowed for discerning conversation on both our parts. After the second Sunday of preaching, I left the building, and the membership voted by secret ballot. My candidacy was affirmed with just over 96% of the community saying “yes”!

2.     On the morning of your selection, you used some metaphors from Jewish texts in describing this historic moment. Tell us about that.

My Candidating Week began on Martin Luther King Day weekend, the start of the 30 Days of Love, the period between MLK Day and Valentine’s Day, when UUs around the world celebrate “standing on the side of love,” a campaign supporting LGBTQ people and families, economic and racial justice, immigration reform and other calls for a more equitable society for all people. One of Dr. King’s central metaphors was the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  The Exodus metaphor of a passage into new territory –the unknown – a journey that requires courage and vision spoke to me for the day of our decision. I wove texts of Exodus with midrashic texts to ask four questions: How do we ordinary people awaken hope, faith and courage, and are we ready to take a bold step even if we cannot yet know what will happen, or if the waters will part for us? How do we hold a focus on the positive core of who we have been and are yet to be? How do we with love and kindness move past the idea of creating an “other”? And can we cultivate a deep sense of joy while doing the work of repairing the world?  Because of the tzitzit [fringes] on my prayer shawl I titled the sermon “Religion on the Fringe.”

3. What do you find most inspiring about UU principles and practices?

The seven core principles of Unitarian Universalism speak deeply to my heart – beginning with the inherent worth and dignity of each person, creating a just and equitable society based on that worth, and recognizing the interconnected web of life of which we are a part (both the human family and our planet home) – these ideals are a shared starting point for the repair of the world. Seeing ideals in action at the UUCGT is a great inspiration.  Further, having visited other UU congregations, I have always felt a warm welcome as a stranger walking through the door.  The most often mentioned commandment in Torah is “you shall not wrong the stranger.”  Put in positive terms, this means we aspire to a place where there is no “other” – UU congregations do this incredibly well. Additionally the spirit of inquiry and intellect are profoundly inspiring to me.

4. How do you see your background and preparation as a rabbi as leading up to your work in a UU congregation?

Let’s go back to the journey metaphor. I was raised in a strongly Jewish-identified home with every part of our lives infused with Yiddishkeit, from Shabbes to tzedakah, holidays to tikkun olam.  I was raised Reform where I learned commitment to the prophetic vision of social justice and the place of the intellect in Jewish engagement.  I studied for a year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where I learned to think deeply about the whole of evolving Jewish civilization and where I chanced to meet Reb Zalman. From there I studied at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism where I learned to broaden the scope of my Jewish thinking and reading and – above all – to create a culture of welcome, egalitarianism and true interfaith honoring. I received a private smicha from a bet din of rabbis across denominations and finally found my home in Jewish Renewal, where I received a second smicha from the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Smicha Program. Later I was ordained as a Maggid (Jewish inspirational preacher and story teller) in the lineage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, by Reb Yitzchak Buxbaum; I fell in love with the warmth of Chassidut and the power of story.  Learning never ends.

I have been deeply inspired by teachers from other traditions as well – Buddhist, Hindu and Christian teachings have touched my heart and soul, and these are also part of the fabric of my rabbinate.

From prophetic social justice vision, deep spirituality and a culture of welcome – all this finds a loving home in Jewish Renewal. The OHALAH Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, our professional association, is a trans-denominational group of rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors committed to exploring and renewing Jewish spirit, klal Yisrael (community) and tikkun olam. My choice to serve this UU congregation is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even where my Renewal colleagues question, it has been done in a spirit of true inquiry and respect.

I believe my journey – like the Jewish journey through many lands and epochs – holds it integrity through roots and wings: a seeking heart. This aspect of seeking and friendly inquiry, and our shared 20 year history, is a great fit for this UU congregation.

5. What do you see as the convergences, common ground, and distinctions between UU and forms of progressive Judaism such as Jewish Renewal? And how will you honor or navigate the synergies and points of difference in your work?

I see common ground in a set of core values, the love of learning, and eagerness to heal to the world, ‘though we have come to these from different points of origin. The UUCGT loves exploring world wisdom, celebrates music and powerful story telling, works for social justice, and many seem drawn to grappling with ideas of spirituality. Also there is a sense of joy! Here I can support and lead the community.

I feel cautious about the idea of convergence.  They will remain, and I support them in, being a strongly identified UU community and part of the UUA. I remain strongly committed to Judaism and Jewish Renewal. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal rather than a creedal tradition. In this context, having a congregation’s spiritual leader from a different background can be a great strength. It is the work of the spiritual leader of the congregation to inspire, engage, and call upon the congregants to explore and develop their own beliefs and help motivate them to live their values. I can do that from my own strong base as a rabbi.

For the years that I have preached and taught here and in other non-Jewish settings, the navigation comes from the heart, from having integrity and also respect and openness to one another. Exactly what that will look like as this relationship progresses, we will determine together through shared learning, discernment, experimentation and honest conversation.  There is no road map to follow. We step into this journey with the strengths of where we have been and the full faith of co-creating the community going forward.

6. Tell us a little bit about your work with interfaith Jewish and Catholic couples in Chicago. Did that work prepare you for working in a UU context? And do you plan to continue that work?

The Chicago Interfaith Family School (the-family-school.org) was founded 20 years ago by two visionary leaders, Rabbi Allen Secher and Fr. John Cusick.  Out of their deep friendship and shared experience of working with interfaith couples, and the strong desire of those families to raise children in both the Catholic and Jewish traditions, they assisted a small group of couples in creating the Family School.  As co-clergy with Fr. John, Fr. Tom Hurley and emeritus Reb Allen, I am incredibly proud to serve that community.  I do plan to continue my relationship with Family School, although my travel to Chicago will be reduced.

In truth the Family School is a different model than the one here at the UUCGT.  The Family School is committed to raising children, and supporting families, who are “both/and” – deeply committed specifically to Jewish and Catholic heritages, life cycles and education.  While Unitarian Universalism shares the idea of bringing people from distinct cultures together, each congregation draws upon these and other traditions to create its own unique Unitarian Universalist identity.

For years and with great regularity, I have been teaching and preaching in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts. This has been the real preparation for becoming the Rabbi of the UUCGT.  I have learned grounding in my own tradition, and a sensitivity to the use of language, context and knowledge about traditions that differ from my own.  I think this will serve my new congregation well.

7. How do you answer those who are saying that rabbis should be serving the Jewish people?

I am so glad you asked this. In part, I agree. Where we disagree is about (a) whether all rabbis should focus on only Jewish people and (b) what it means to serve the Jewish people.  I have long been a servant for people of all backgrounds – that is part of my vocation. By being in the world, trying to be the best, most loving exemplar I can be to all people, I believe I am fulfilling my mission as a rabbi and by extension serving the well-being and fate of the Jewish people by building loving bridges. In my heart I believe this calling is my basheret [meant to be].  It is not every rabbi’s call to sojourn in this way, and that is healthy: diversity is necessary in every living system. As Reb Zalman might say, the liver shouldn’t be trying to convince the heart to be a liver. We all have a function in creating a vibrant system. I am excited and delighted to serve this new community.

8. The religious press in America is filled with stories about rise in the religious “nones,” and the decline in affiliation with traditional religious institutions. And yet, your selection has galvanized one UU community and apparently already created a surge in membership there. Do you see your work with this UU community as a unique set of circumstances that may never occur elsewhere, or as an inspiration for the interfaith future?

Time will tell on this important question. I don’t foresee there being a big run of rabbis to UU pulpits! I am delighted that the local community is seeing membership growth before I even start next fall, because it says that a UU congregation with a committed spiritual leader has great potential, even in a rural area like northern Michigan.

The implication for the so-called “nones” – a term I reject because it does not aptly name the positive longing I see in them – is that it is possible to make a place in spiritual community that speaks to their hearts and minds, asks of them commitment to friendly exploration and allows room for a range of answers in a shared congregational experience.

My experience with interfaith families, questioning spiritual seekers and others is that the calling of the heart for belonging, peace, harmony and love, and the desire of the mind for inquiry, seeking truth and making sense of the world, require community.  While there is much we can do on our own, the human desire for community, for shared experience, for fellow travelers on the way, is powerful and necessary.

I think this relationship has the potential to model how a community can be an “incubator” for love, peace and justice in the world across boundaries.

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

Note: A version of this post ran on Huffington Post.

Ask Interfaith Mom: What About Humanist or Atheist Interfaith Families?

Dear Interfaith Mom:

We’re a family that is interfaith by heritage, but we don’t belong to any religious community. And we’re fine with that. We’re atheists, we lead a secular life, and we already have plenty of communities (through our neighborhood, schools, family and work). Why do you put so much emphasis on the importance of interfaith family communities? Not every interfaith family feels a need to commune with other interfaith families.

–Sincerely, Happy Humanist

Dear Happy Humanist,

If you have the communities you feel you need, that’s great. There is no single “solution” that is going to work for every interfaith family. Some will be fulfilled choosing one religion. Some will be just fine choosing no religion. Some families with humanist or atheist parents have traditionally found homes in Unitarian-Univeralist (UU) communities, in Ethical Culture, or in Humanistic Jewish congregations.

With the increase in interfaith marriage, and the decrease in religious affiliation (the rise of the “religious nones”), innovative new communities have been growing at the grassroots. There’s been a lot of recent media coverage of emerging atheist congregations, designed with many of the benefits provided by religious communities (singing together, reflecting together, community service and support), but without the need for God.  In fact, this idea is not new: Ethical Culture (the movement that supports Ethical Societies in many areas)  has existed since the late 19th century.

But it’s not always easy for interfaith families to find the right spiritual, religious, or humanist community, and not every community specifically addresses the issues faced by interfaith families. That’s why I spend a lot of time writing about meeting the needs of interfaith families. The major communities designed by and for interfaith families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity (in Washington, Chicago, and the New York area) include many atheist, humanist or secular parents, as well as parents with a broad array of beliefs in God. The one thing these families share is a desire to give their children an educational foundation, or literacy, in both family religions. So parents who choose these communities need to be comfortable with their children learning about different approaches to God in dual-faith Sunday Schools (while understanding that these programs never tell children what to believe).

When the school-year ends, my own interfaith families community does not meet formally for Gatherings or Sunday School. But in this endlessly hot summer, I have still felt strongly connected to this community, in the way that many people feel connected to a synagogue, temple, mosque, or church. As a group, we are bringing food weekly to one family with a parent facing cancer. Last week, our minister organized a healing service for family and friends of a young adult child in crisis. Meanwhile, our rabbi is planning High Holy Day services for early September—a time when we will return to celebrate together the Jewish roots we share (through our own parents, or through our interfaith children and grandchildren).

In short, Happy Humanist, you may not want or need this type of community. But know that there are communities (whether UU, Ethical Culture, humanist, or interfaith families communities) that would welcome you as atheists, or with any theological or non-theological label you choose, should you ever feel that you want or need us.

–Interfaith Mom

Ask Interfaith Mom: Is it OK for Interfaith Parents to Adopt Interfaith Identity?

Path Through Dunes

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I’m the Jewish parent of my interfaith family. My husband and I are raising our children in both traditions. He grew up Methodist. What we are discovering is that we don’t want our interfaith children to have a different religious identity from us so we’ve decided to call ourselves “interfaith” also. I try to celebrate and dive into Christmas just like my husband dives into the Hanukkah nights. Now we are all “interfaith”!  What do you think of this?

–Interfaith Family

Dear Interfaith Family,

First of all, if it’s working for you, it’s working! And I like your feisty and creative attitude. What I see as important here is that you feel a sense of unity, and mutual appreciation, and you are giving your children knowledge of and access to their complete religious heritage. The labels are less important.

Families want to feel unified. For some interfaith families, the solution is to choose one religion and have that be the family religion (whether or not the “out-parent” converts). This choice can work if there is one parent willing to forgo, or minimize, their religion. Other families decide to unify around being secular humanists or join ethical societies, dropping religious tradition and ritual altogether. This can work if neither parent feels attached to the God concept, or the specifics of their original religion. And still other families choose to unify around a “third” religion, such as Unitarian-Universalism (UU), Buddhism, Baha’i, or Quakerism.

For families in which both parents want to continue to celebrate a religion, and share that religion with children, we now have interfaith family communities providing dual-faith education, and the opportunity for families to sit and sing and reflect together as equals, with no “out-parent.” This can work when both parents are open to learning about and sharing, on some level, the spouse’s religion. Clearly, this is the case in your family.

You are not alone in feeling that the interfaith identity label, the label more and more of us have chosen for our children, has unique benefits and positive associations. I feel that way myself. In telling your story, you still identify yourself as the Jewish parent. It makes sense to continue to embrace the fact that you are the parent who brings Jewish extended family and Jewish history to the family. Surely your children know this, even if you have all adopted the interfaith label. I don’t think this complexity of religious identity will be confusing to them. It represents a reality. They have one parent from a Jewish background, and one parent from a Christian background. As an interfaith family, you practice together, unified by shared rituals and love.

Those of us in complex families often give more than one answer when we are questioned about our identities, as psychologist Maria Root has documented. I continue to claim my Jewish label, particularly in the presence of anti-Semitism, and I expect my children to do the same. But I also claim the right to celebrate my interfaith identity, as my children do. And you have that right, as every human being has the right, to self-identify in whatever way best describes your very individual and interior religious and spiritual landscape.

In short, I think it is marvelous that your whole family shares an interfaith identity. You must be prepared to have to explain how this works to those who will question and challenge you. But as interfaith families, we will face questions of one sort or another, no matter which pathway we choose. What I love is the joy you have found in sharing traditions with each other. Your children will benefit from this joy.

Interfaith Mom

Three New Year’s Resolutions: Interfaith Mom

Entering the New Year, wearing the glittering, particoloured hat of an interfaith mom, I have three main goals for 2012:

1) Gracefully release my first child into the world. My daughter’s about to turn 18; she will leave for college this year. I have spent much of the past few months interviewing college students and young adults who graduated from interfaith education programs like ours, as part of the research for my book. I am examining the role religion plays in their lives once they are outside the protective bubble of an independent interfaith community. As she leaves our family, and, effectively, leaves the Interfaith Families Project in which she has been raised, I give my daughter this advice: continue to study and explore religion, deepening your knowledge, seeking the forms of spirituality that work best for you. Take advantage of the opportunities provided on campus to connect with both sides of your religious heritage. But also, feel empowered to create an independent space on campus for interfaith children to come together and support each other: to replicate in miniature the interfaith community that nurtured you. And also, feel empowered to explain the particular skills and experience you bring, as someone raised in an interfaith community, to interfaith dialogue and interfaith activism efforts such as the campus-based Interfaith Youth Core.

2) Figure out what an interfaith community will mean to me in my “post-mom” phase. I still have a son just starting high school, but he has finished his formal Sunday School training in our interfaith community. So far, I find that even without children in the program, I continue to be drawn to our community on Sunday mornings–to the songs and reflections, to the chance to celebrate joys and mourn losses together, to the deep friendships I have made in our thriving community, to the lively adult discussion group, and to the tempting yoga class our community provides.

3) Finish the book! This fall, I recorded dozens of final interviews with interfaith parents, interfaith children, and clergy working with interfaith families. Over the next six months, I will wrestle this new material, and my hundreds of survey responses from interfaith parents and children, into a book with the working title, The Joy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Family. I cannot wait to bring you these new voices and stories from the emerging movement of interfaith families raising children with two religions. Next year, inshallah, the book will reach your bookstore and your e-reader, thanks to Beacon Press.

Want to help? I am still seeking to interview more families raising children in two religions other than the Jewish/Christian combination (i.e. Muslim/Protestant, Buddhist/Jewish, Pagan/UU, Hindu/humanist, etc.). Please contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com.