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The Interfaith Exchange, Part 1: Are Interfaith Families Actually Good for the Jewish People?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 2, 2014 | 6:12 am

Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is an award winning Journalist. A graduate of Brown University, Katz Miller began her journalism career at Newsweek in New York. After working in the Los Angeles and Washington bureaus, she moved to Dakar, Senegal for three years. While there, she wrote travel pieces for the New York Times, was tear-gassed in the streets while covering an election, interviewed the President of Senegal for Newsweek International, and wrote Christian Science Monitor pieces from Benin, Togo, the Gambia, and Sierra Leone. On returning to the States, she became a US Correspondent for the British weekly magazine New Scientist. She then spent three years freelancing from northeastern Brazil. After her two children were born, she and her husband settled in the Washington, DC, area, and she founded the first blog devoted to interfaith family communities and interfaith identity, onbeingboth.com, and began blogging at Huffington Post Religion.

The following exchange will focus on Katz Miller's book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press, 2013).

 

Dear Susan,

Your book will be controversial and, as I'm sure you know, some of its Jewish readers will be upset with what you're saying. But before I ask you any of the tough questions, I'd like to give you the opportunity to briefly explain what you mean when you say in your book that "some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions" - Christianity and Judaism - "is actually good for the Jews".

Do you mean "good for the Jews" as in personally good for some Jews (as it is for you, finding joy in "being both")? Or do you mean that it's also good for Judaism (can it survive if most Jews become "both")?

And another - still easy - one: in some parts of the book you seem to suggest that being both is just better than being "nothing" ("for many of us, giving our children both religions may be an alternative to giving them nothing"). In others you seem to suggest that having "both" religions is actually preferable to having one religion ("we feel the benefits of celebrating both religions outweigh this drawback", the drawback of not experiencing "total immersion in a single faith"). So, what is it: the best choice among all alternatives, or just the best one for people who can't choose one religion?

I'm looking forward to reading your first response,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,
 
I believe that the fact that many families are raising children with both religions is good for Judaism. Here's why. Many of the families "doing both" have come to this decision after previously doing nothing. In my survey of more than 250 parents doing both, about 40% said they had not belonged to any religious institutions as a family, prior to joining a community that supports celebrating both. Others said they had tried churches, or synagogues, or secular humanist communities, and had left them, because they had not found a good fit. Through doing both, these families have found a way to feel comfortable in engaging with Jewish holidays, rituals, texts and history. In effect, these are children who would have received no Jewish education at all, without support for both religions provided by an interfaith families community. Take the example of my children. They have only one Jewish grandparent--my father. If we were to feel forced to choose one religion, the "logical" religion would be Christianity, especially given that our Judaism is patrilineal. And yet, my children learned Hebrew and got up and read the blessings over the Torah when they turned 13. I have a hard time seeing all this as bad for Judaism. As for the fear that most Jews will become "both," I think it is misplaced. Judaism is vibrant and compelling. My research indicates that more children raised with both religions are choosing to identify as Jews in adulthood, than as Christians. They express the idea that their Judaism is more secure, more important to them, given that they have made an informed decision to be Jewish.

As for your second question, I do not believe there is one single alternative that is best for every interfaith family. For some families, conversion of one spouse will work beautifully. For some families, choosing one religion will work even if one spouse maintains their own religious affiliation. For some families, if both parents are secular humanists or atheists, raising children with no religion may be the right choice. Others choose a new, more universalist pathway, such as Unitarian-Universalism or Quakerism or Baha'i. Each pathway that an interfaith family chooses will have distinct benefits, and distinct challenges. Each family must decide which pathway (choosing both, choosing one, choosing none, choosing a new religion) works best for their particular configuration of beliefs, practices, geography. And much will depend on the availability of supportive clergy, religious institutions, and extended family.

My lifetime of experience with interfaith families leads me to believe that no pathway (even conversion) will completely "solve" the interfaith nature of the family. But then, I do not look at interfaith families as a problem to be solved. Interfaith children know that they are interfaith children, no matter what religious label and education they are given. If the family is a happy and functional family, they will be going to weddings and funerals for extended family members on both sides of the family. So I advocate for all families, no matter what religious labels they choose for their children, to help their children to celebrate all that is positive about being an interfaith family, rather than projecting the idea that interfaith families are fraught, and interfaith children somehow problematic. It is important that children see themselves as representing a love that transcends boundaries, and to see their existence as reducing religious misunderstanding in the world.

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