High Holy Days 2021: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah starts VERY early this year, this Monday (Labor Day) evening, September 6th. This year, you can zoom from anywhere into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services created by and for interfaith families, HERE or HERE or HERE.

Over the past decade, in some of over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the context of an interfaith family. Below, I reprint one of the most popular of those essays, preserving some of the wisdom of Rabbi Harold White (z’l) on ways for interfaith partners to connect to these Days of Awe. –SKM

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  2. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  3. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have “missed the mark” or sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  4. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  5. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  6. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  7. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. And some may choose to honor the Days of Awe in alternative ways. But these services can be enlightening experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner to accompany them in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. And for interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Over the past seven years, in some of my over 300 posts, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM

 

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, we have the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who spent 40 years in a Jesuit environment at Georgetown University. Recently, he shared some interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language. None of this is easy, but it is still essential experiential education for any family connected to Judaism. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides deep comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

 

 

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.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Interfaith Families, 2015

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(Each year, I adapt this post with new links to upcoming High Holiday services for interfaith families.–SKM)

Shofar blast! The Days of Awe (the Jewish High Holidays) begin early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 13th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 22nd. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Jewish communities are becoming more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families, with the help of national programs like the new #ChooseLove campaign. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. To connect with other families in your area celebrating both religions, you can now join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

The High Holiday services these interfaith family 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 Holiday services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community affiliated programs in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut will gather for the holidays both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities. The Long Island Interfaith Community meets at a unique Multifaith Campus (Muslim, Jewish, Interfaith, and Christian communities all sharing space). They will have services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days. This year, Rabbi Allen Secher, the beloved original rabbi affiliated with the Family School, will be returning to Chicago to lead services at Makom Shalom, the Jewish Renewal synagogue he founded, where many interfaith families will gather to observe the Days of Awe together. In the Chicago suburbs, many interfaith families from the Union School for Interfaith Families, and the Interfaith Union, will gather in Mount Prospect to worship together with Congregation Am Chai.

In Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. IFFP now hosts five progressive High Holiday services, specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by our new rabbi, Rabbi Rain Zohav. We also have two separate Children’s Services (on the mornings of both holidays).

And in the Philadelphia area, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, founded by an IFFP family who moved to Philly, will again celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year with an apple-picking trip. Growing up, my family always went apple-picking on Rosh Hashanah, to usher in the sweet New 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.

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.

High Holy Days: Now With Great Poetry

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Two blog posts this week hinted at the struggle many interfaith families, and many Jewish families, have with the intimidating length and inaccessibility of traditional High Holiday services. In The Forward‘s interfaith advice column, I responded to a woman who feared these services would alienate her interfaith husband from Judaism. And over at Kveller, a mother admitted she was not going to require her children to attend services, even though they are an otherwise deeply-engaged Jewish family. One response to such questioning has been to blame those who are disaffected: if you only knew more Hebrew, and more Torah, (if only you hadn’t intermarried), you wouldn’t be fidgeting at the three-hour mark. And in the other corner, we have Rabbi Rami Shapiro (a self-defined Holy Rascal), explaining why he avoids the “medieval worldview” of conventional High Holiday services himself, calling them unfulfilling. He says he would rather go take a contemplative walk in the woods.

Meanwhile, many of the most progressive Jewish communities have been working to create services that will honor tradition, while also breathing new life into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as all the rest of the days in the Jewish calendar). One of those visionaries is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, an accomplished poet and Jewish Renewal rabbi often known by her blogging moniker, The Velveteen Rabbi. This year, Rabbi Rachel has published (with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) a gorgeous new Machzor (the prayerbook specifically for the High Holidays). Days of Awe inspires with new translations, lively illustrations, and poetry that avoids platitudes. Along with her own marvelous poems, she includes poems from Yehuda Amichai, Leonard Cohen, Marie Howe, David Lehman, Alicia Ostriker, Omar Khayyam, Phillip Schultz, Hannah Szenes, Herman Taube, and Rumi. The translations and interpretations come from rabbis including Shlomo Carlebach, Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, David Shneyer, Hannah Tiferet Siegel, and the much-beloved Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal.

In addition to infusing the services with carefully curated poetry and translations, this prayerbook invites and welcomes all (interfaith, disaffected, seeking) by explaining the sense and structure of the services. For instance, the repetition of the Kaddish through the services can seem bewildering and stultifying. Rabbi Rachel stops to explain that the Kaddish acts as a door to mark the transition to each new section of the service, and her Machzor illustrates this concept with a series of lovely photographs of different doors inserted with each recurrence of the Kaddish.

One poem from Days of Awe holds perfectly the tension between the desire to return to ancient communal prayer, and the desire to renew with a walk in the woods instead. Do both. (Ah, bothness…the favorite theme of all interfaith children). In the moving and elegiac poem “For I will consider your dog Molly,” by David Lehman, the poet takes us from a Rosh Hashanah morning service, in which he mourns his father and is comforted by “Hebrew melodies,” to an afternoon ramble with a companion and her dog to perform the traditional Tashlich ritual of throwing sins into the water. This poem, a narrative with characters and unexpected moments of humor and pain (and echoes of Ulysses), has nothing in common with some of the bland, cheesy verses that seem to end up in prayerbooks edited by committees.

As a small child in New England, the highlight of Rosh Hashanah for me was indeed the family tradition of afternoon apple-picking, not the long hours of services, though eventually I did grow to love the services too. With Days of Awe as a prayerbook, more families, interfaith and otherwise, will be able to both return and renew. Rabbi Rachel writes, “Take risks. Try new things. (Try old things!)” I expect Days of Awe will become the standard prayerbook in many Jewish Renewal communities, and, I hope, exert an influence throughout the increasingly diverse and complex Jewish world.

 

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.

Ask Interfaith Mom: My Kids are Bored at High Holy Days. Help!

Shofar, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I love our interfaith families community and being a member has helped me, and my marriage. But I like to go to the synagogue that I grew up in for the High Holidays, and that’s what we’ve done for the past few years. I want my children to know what a synagogue is like–what it looks and feels like. I was signing up for tickets and told my six and four-year-old children that I was signing them up for the children’s service while I’m in the main sanctuary. They both said no, they don’t want that, they want to sit with me. Then my older son said he likes church better because synagogue is boring and takes a long time. As of now, I’ve told my kids that they don’t have a choice and they have to come with me and they’re going to the children’s program. 

How can I handle all this better?

–Hurt and Angry

Dear Hurt and Angry,

Every Jewish parent (intermarried or not) faces the issue of trying to help children have a meaningful experience of the High Holy Days, and of balancing that need with adult needs for deep spirituality. I understand your desire to introduce your children to your childhood synagogue, and to help them feel comfortable in a synagogue environment. I feel the same way. My kids (now teens) started going with me to full-length services when they were in upper elementary school. But your kids are really too young to sit through adult High Holy Day services, or even to go to children’s services without a parent.

When my children were little, I took them to the children’s Rosh Hashanah service held in the afternoon at a nearby synagogue because it was convenient, geared towards children, and both short and engaging, with apples and honey and lots of blowing of the shofar. No one expected kids to be there without parents (it was somewhat chaotic, even with parents). Then I would go on my own to adult services in the evenings and mornings.

It is asking a lot to ask small children go to a program without a parent. It’s also asking a lot to have them sit through adult services, and it probably won’t be the most spiritual experience for you if you are having to shush them and oversee crayons and coloring books. The risk is that negative experiences for them could create lasting negative feelings about these services, this community, Judaism, or religion in general. Frankly, a lot of adult Jews (and Christians) who are now non-practicing had this kind of negative experience, feeling forced to sit through “boring” church or synagogue services, without feeling any spiritual connection.

One suggestion I have is to take them to your childhood synagogue for Shabbat on occasion during the year—the service will be shorter, the crowds less intimidating, and they will enjoy the Oneg snack afterward. Oh, and rabbis tell us that Shabbat is the holiest of days. In all, this will probably be a more successful way to instill love for the synagogue. And they will become more familiar with some of the prayers, and recognize them when they do go to High Holy Days when they are older.

I am not advising you to ignore the Days of Awe. I understand your strong desire to have your children participate in some kind of observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Just try not to buy into the religious competition around this (or any) issue. Instead, work to make any and all religious activities they participate in meaningful on their level, until they are old enough to understand the intellectual content of adult services. Since they are in an interfaith education program throughout the year, they will be learning Hebrew literacy, and about Jewish thought and ritual, and this will help them become more interested in what happens at synagogue.

For now, I think your best options include sitting through a short part of an adult synagogue service or interfaith families service, or staying with them at a children’s service. You could then go with your parents to some full adult services at the synagogue, without them.

While they are small, the most successful strategy may be to also mark the holidays in more informal ways, by engaging their senses. Say the blessings at home and dip apples into honey. Many families go apple-picking after services: a reward for sitting still, with apples as a theme. Some families make a cake because Rosh Hashanah is the “birthday of the world.” Take it out into the night candles lit, let the wind blow them out, and then leave the cake in the backyard for wild animals to eat (check out this children’s book on the cake tradition). Most children find this thrilling. And do go to a local creek or river or beach for the tradition of Tashlich, in which you toss breadcrumbs representing sins into the water. You can do this on your own, on your own schedule, at any time during the holidays–maybe invite friends to come along. (The Jewish parenting website Kveller has lots of resources for children’s activities and books for Jewish holidays). These are the kind of multisensory experiences that inspire spirituality in children, and in adults as well. In other words, do what you can to make the holidays meaningful for them, rather than an obligation or competition. In this way, you will have a greater chance of instilling love in your children for these religious traditions and rituals.

–Interfaith Mom

High Holy Days: Finding an Interfaith Community

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With Rosh Hashanah beginning on the evening of September 16th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 25th, autumn sends many interfaith families on a search for a spiritual home. Some of us find shelter in Unitarian-Universalist communities, some of us find a good match in Baha’i or Buddhist practice. For those who want to give their children specific Jewish education and identity, 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.

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.

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. Intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, fueled by a desire to provide literacy in both Judaism and Christianity for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

As the High Holy Days approach, I wanted to provide a single post with links to the major independent interfaith family communities supporting families in celebrating both religions.The High Holy Day services these organizations 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 that shares profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families 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 in 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 complete set of traditional, progressive High Holy Day services specifically designed by and geared towards interfaith families, led by Rabbi Harold White, the retired chaplain of Georgetown University. Families from our community have also launched a new interfaith community in the Philadelphia area.

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 that coincide with the new school year. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Interfaith Connections

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, we have the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who spent 40 years in a Jesuit environment at Georgetown University. Recently, he shared some interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration or thanks, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language. None of this is easy, but it is still essential experiential education for any family connected to Judaism. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and promotes bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

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.

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.

Yom Kippur in Our Interfaith Family

 

I cannot quite let go of Yom Kippur yet. As happens in many years, my introspection on this Day of Awe was deep enough to have changed me, at least for now. I want to keep the sense of the new year, the desire to improve, as long as possible. I want to remember the benefits of unplugging, stepping back, tunneling inside my own head. And while many would (mis)characterize the observance of our interfaith families as somehow “light” on the invisible scale used to weigh Jewish practice, this Holy Day was utterly fulfilling for me.

First of all, I was pleased that my entire family (my Christian husband, both my interfaith teens) decided to fast together this year. For my thirteen-year-old son, this was his first time, and it served as reassurance to this Jewish mother that he is, indeed, coming of age, and that he, does, indeed, take pride in his Jewish identity, no matter what kind of ceremony or Bar Mitzvah we might end up creating to mark this transition.

In some years, I have found fasting alone to be difficult, especially if I did not have the luxury (living abroad in cities without synagogues, or as a mother of young children) of day-long services. This year, my fast was easier due to the solidarity provided by a whole family chorus of rumbling tummies, and to the accountability provided by many sets of sympathetic eyes when passing through the kitchen.

We met up with our interfaith families community for a final hour of prayer and repentance, led by our teen group, and to break the fast together. The service started with a moment of creative chaos. Luckily, being an interfaith “project,” we posess well-oiled flexibility. In this case, the staff person from the Unitarian church did not show up to let us in the doors. So, seeing as it was a gorgeous fall day, we all unloaded the folding soccer-mom chairs from our minivans and set up on the lovely deck under the trees, prepared to hold an outdoor Yom Kippur. Quite a few community members independently came up with some version of this wry metaphor: we may be marginalized as interfaith families, locked out, but we will persist in celebrating Yom Kippur anyway. It was a totally unscripted and unanticipated moment of interfaith community bonding.

In the end, we got into the sanctuary at the last moment (setting off an alarm, which added to the chaos). After a moment of centering, the service finally began. At the apex, a Jewish dad from our community, Bob, chanted the Kol Nidre, one of the central, haunting prayers of Yom Kippur. The gorgeous, resonant, minor melody floated over and through us three times, each time louder, each time with deeper emotion. In those moments, there was nothing “light” about our observance of this day. No professional cantor could have sung more soulfully.

The closing moment of the service was provided by my young friend Cheney. Cheney has autism, and he also has a mystical affinity for Judaism. He was given a shofar at his Bar Mitzvah (at which, yes, he did chant his Torah portion).  So at Yom Kippur, my sixteen-year-old daughter, who has been friends with Cheney since she was born, had the honor of calling out the final Tekiah Gedolah to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast. And Cheney, looking radiant and positively rabbinical with a full beard on his teenage chin, stood in front of his congregation and blew a perfect, long note on his shofar. I plan to hang onto the echo of that note for as long as possible. I am thinking it will carry me all the way to next year.