On the High Holy Days, Interfaith Families Seek Out Community
October 03, 2014
Note: An earlier version of this piece ran in the Huffington Post.
Yom Kippur starts tonight, with the moving and mournful Kol Nidre service, and I am grateful to belong to a radically inclusive community of interfaith families, families that will mark this High Holy Day together. As it happens, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky welcomed a baby girl to their interfaith family, just a week ago today. As interfaith parents, they now face decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith child. Baby Charlotte arrived just after the autumnal equinox, when the nip in the air reminds us of the passage of time, and many interfaith families are making the annual decision about whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both.
Even though we bridge contrasting theologies, many interfaith families still seek the benefits of religious community: a place for children to gain religious literacy, a place to reflect and sing and experience rituals together, a source of support in times of trouble. And no single type of religious community is going to be perfect for every interfaith family. Here, as an adult interfaith child and as the parent of two grown interfaith children, I lay out a number of options for finding a spiritual (or secular) home for your interfaith family:
1. Pick one. Even if you are going to practice only, or primarily, one religion in the home, your family will benefit from finding a progressive house of worship that welcomes you as an interfaith family. Many churches welcome interfaith families, though few have programs specifically for us. The Jewish organization InterfaithFamily runs programs in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston to help interfaith families connect to Judaism in those cities. Be sure to check with each synagogue to make sure you understand their policies on the participation of interfaith partners and children, as these vary greatly.
2. Pick none. If both parents are secular humanists or atheists, you have a number of options. Traditionally, many such intercultural (a better term in this case than interfaith) couples from Jewish/Christian backgrounds have found comfortable homes in the network of more than 20 Ethical Societies in 12 states. Many Ethical Societies have regular gatherings, community service programs, and youth education programs to foster ethical engagement with the world.
3. Pick Culture, Not Theology. If an intercultural couple wants their children to learn about Jewish culture, but without God, they may seek out one of the 30 Humanistic Jewish communities in 17 states (and Canada), all of which welcome interfaith families. More recently, new God-free communities with more culturally Christian origins, including a UK-based model called Sunday Assembly, have been springing up around the world.
4. Pick Universalism. The largest and oldest denomination with the theological breadth to include interfaith couples of every variation is Unitarian-Universalism (UU). "By welcoming people who identify with Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Earth-Centered Traditions, Hinduism, Islam and more, we are embodying a vision 'beyond belief'," according to a statement on the UU association website. Many interfaith couples have found a comfortable home in UU congregations, and there are more than 1000 UU communities (mainly in the US, but also around the world).
5. Pick both (New York). With the growth of Jewish and Christian interfaith couples, communities designed specifically by and for such interfaith families have evolved since the 1980s. The oldest such organization, Interfaith Family Community (IFC), now has six branches with interfaith education programs for children in New York, Connecticut and Boston. Children learn about both Judaism and Christianity, in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Christian teachers.
6. Pick both (DC). In Washington DC, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) has over 100 families and over 100 children learning Judaism and Christianity in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Christian teachers, in grades pre-K through 8. IFFP also has a full schedule of family gatherings with song and reflection, holiday celebrations, teen group, adult education, and community service programs, all led by a rabbi and a minister working together. A small group on the IFFP model has spun off in Philadelphia.
7. Pick both (Chicago). If you live in Chicago, and you're part of a Jewish and Catholic family, you're in luck. The Interfaith Family School provides Catholic and Jewish education for interfaith children in grades kindergarten through 8, in classrooms co-taught by Jewish and Catholic parents, in downtown Chicago at Old St. Patrick's. And in the northern suburbs of Chicago, a second program teaching Judaism and Catholicism to interfaith children, the Union School for Interfaith Families, uses a similar model. (Protestant/Jewish families are also welcome in these programs).
As the number of interfaith families across the U.S. and across the world, continues to grow, traditional religious communities are likely to become more welcoming, and new communities created by and for interfaith families will spring up. Being part of an interfaith family no longer means having to leave a sense of community behind.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She is a former reporter for Newsweek and New Scientist and lives with her interfaith family outside Washington, DC.