Thanksgivukkah by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

We are pleased to publish this reflection on the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah by Ruth Nemzoff. She shared her observations with us after reading about our work through the intense news coverage of Susan Katz Miller’s new book, Being Both.

Dr. Nemzoff is a member of the advisory board of She is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008) and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012)


Thanksgivukkah by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff,

Thanksgivukkah is all the rage. It is the amazing confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Due to the lunar calendar, which mark Jewish holidays, these two celebrations have not been on the same day since 1888. Manischewitz is promoting their products with it, Websites are blooming, articles abound. One only needs curiosity and a computer to find lots of information.

For Jewish families combining Chanukah and Thanksgiving is terrific, a chance to celebrate a secular holiday and a chance to educate their children about a historic event. They are thrilled with the chance to share their traditions as a family, since usually the holiday falls in December when the kids are back in school and grandparents are “over the hill and through the woods,” or more likely a couple of airports away.

For interfaith families, however, when there is both a Christian and Jewish spouse and the children are being raised Christian, the Christian side of the family may see Chanukah as a religious holiday, one that has no place in a home with no Jews or with kids who are not being brought up in the Jewish religion.

In these intermarried families, tensions may be rising. The Christian parents or grandparents may fear that lighting the candles is tantamount to conversion or at least pressure in that direction. While the Jewish grandparents are conjuring memories of Chanukah past and madly shopping for gifts, the Christian relatives who have never celebrated Chanukah wonder what they are getting themselves into.

Focusing on the universal themes of Chanukah allows interfaith families to focus on their commonalities. Chanukah is the celebration of a historic event. It celebrates a small band of Maccabees (guerrilla fighters) who overcame the Romans and allowed the Jews to reclaim their Temple in Jerusalem as well as their right to worship as they wished. Christians, too, were persecuted by the Romans for their religious beliefs. We can both celebrate this victory over religious persecution. The holiday gives us all a chance to contemplate how the belief in the rightness of our own ideas can infringe on the notions of others. It also gives us a chance to celebrate our freedom to choose.

The ceremony itself it quite simple and nothing to fear. One lights the helper or shamash candle, and then uses it to light a new candle for each of the eight nights of the holiday. The holiday is celebrated for eight days to commemorate the miracle that when the Jews reentered the destroyed Temple they found only a tiny bit of oil. It, however, lasted eight days until a new supply could arrive. This oil is important as both a symbol of knowledge and respect and more practically to light the ark of the Torah. Christmas and Chanukah both are celebrations of light, as the days get darker and darker. In fact, it is this celebration of light which is the only common theme in the two winter holidays. The candles also symbolize the great miracle that happened of “right winning over might.” A few short prayers are said expressing thanks for commanding us to kindle these lights and for allowing this miracle. The sentiment of praise for the unexplainable and wondrous bounty is similar in both Chanukah and Thanksgiving.

The Chanukah celebration can add to any Thanksgiving celebration by giving families a chance to discuss the complexities of religious freedom and the tension between minority rights and majority rule. It is also a chance to bring yet another historical perspective into a holiday which can easily descend into a Roman orgy of overeating.

Thanksgivukkah gives us the opportunity to enrich our Thanksgiving dinners with more than just cholesterol.

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Interfaith highlighted in major new study of American Jews!

Pew has a new report, surveying the American Jewish population. It is quite dramatic, sparking wide discussion within the Jewish community, and potentially has important implications for Jewish/Christian families like those in the Interfaith Community who seek respect and balance. A couple of high points from the report:

·         The rate of intermarriage has continued to rise to almost 60% of all marriages since 2005

·         25% of intermarried Jewish parents – like us (but without a supportive community and educational program!!) – indicate that they are raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.”

Many Jewish leaders are troubled by the implications of the Pew Report. The distinguished chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, however, sees opportunities in a thoughtful blog posting which acknowledges “the problem (of) the rising number of Jews drifting away from a substantive Jewish attachment” with intermarriage a contributing factor.

IFC’s goal is to keep “dual faith” families – the 25% — from drifting. We aim to sustain substantive attachment for the Jewish partner while also, with equal respect, to sustain the Christian attachment for the Christian partner — and both for the children. Providing substance about both, we keep each spouse connected to his/her tradition.

Maybe this is our time?

…..when the work we have been doing will be recognized for its importance in supporting strong families while nurturing authentic religious traditions

…..when there will be a real understanding that today’s families can incorporate two religions

…. when religious institutions will no longer expect the spouse from the other tradition to abandon his/ her heritage or be marginalized

…. when couples and families can be enriched by learning about each other’s religious tradition and will find the process deepening their appreciation of their own

… and when every interfaith couple and individual in an interfaith marriage  will have the resources and respect they need to pursue their own course at their own pace

We are ready!

Over the past decade we have painstakingly built a comprehensive K-8 curriculum that teaches children about both Judaism and Christianity in an engaging and  non-doctrinaire way.  Our curriculum has been carefully and professionally developed by educators trained at Union Theological and Jewish Theological Seminaries.

All our classes for children are intentionally team taught by a Jewish and a Christian educator. Our professional teachers are drawn from leading seminaries, Union, Columbia (Georgia), Iliff, as well as JTS, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew College (Boston), and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School .

Many of these teachers go on to lead congregations and college chaplaincies across the country.

And we have tested our approach in the real life laboratories of multiple diverse locations where communities of Jewish/Christian families have formed around our work.

One of these local communities, moreover, has even evolved a formal relationship with both a church and a synagogue in a shared space where traditional services are held and our interfaith classes are also offered.

Read more! Post your own comments! Tell others about our work! Help us seize the day!

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Til Faith do us Part: not my interfaith experience!

Those of us who are part of interfaith families welcome Naomi Schaefer Riley’s Til Faith Do Us Part and its promise to shine a light on the significant phenomenon of families with two religious heritages.

Riley’s view is that the best approach both for families and for religion is for those in interfaith marriage to decide – at the outset – in which tradition to raise children.  There is no question that such an approach –when it works for the couple – is the simplest way for a family.

It works for Riley and her family because, as she tells us, she was forthright about her need to raise children as Jews. In fact, she baldly stated this requirement on her first date with the man who was to become her husband! Apparently, he never had any problem with this, nor has he since felt the tug of his own fundamentalist Christian religious heritage (which he had rejected). Nor apparently did his expectations of fairness in marriage extend to religion.

BUT, Riley’s approach does not always work; in fact, increasingly, it is at odds (as Riley points out) with our increasingly pluralistic and tolerant society.

AND, Riley’s preference for a pre-nup about religion would definitely not have worked in my marriage. Unlike Riley’s story, both my Christian husband and I (the Jewish one!) are strongly rooted in our religious traditions and neither was about to be marginalized while we were dating – or in the four decades since. So, with the support of many other like-minded couples and a team of imaginative clergy, we sought to sustain authentic religious tradition .

Our marriage, our children and our commitment to our respective faiths has had the support of a small but important organization –the Interfaith Community. This organization is premised on a curriculum for children carefully developed by religious educators from both faiths and based in a network of local chapters throughout the Northeast.  I know that this institutional support has led to strong families and religious continuity. And, in over 25 years of working with thousands of Jewish-Christian families, the Interfaith Community has  found that the families are enriched by access to two religions, they grow both spiritually and intellectually;  their divorce rate is negligible; and the children are educated about and have access to two authentic religious heritages. (They can reflect intelligently and with substance about divinity of Jesus; and while they can grasp that religion is much deeper than superficial symbols of food or holiday décor.) The Interfaith Community is filling a vacuum for families like mine which are committed to respect and fairness and who care about religion.

Interfaith marriage is not inherently a threat to strong marriages and, in a world where people are falling away from religion, it can and does support religious continuity. But – just like interfaith families who choose one faith and whose choice is endorsed by religious institutions — interfaith families who choose to nurture two traditions also need support.

What is needed is for those who care both about religion and about families to support the groundbreaking work of institutions that work with the new norm of “two religions, one family.”

Sheila C. Gordon, President, Interfaith Community

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A Teacher’s Experience

I’m Madeline Richer, a junior in the Double Degree program with Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, studying Religion and Human Rights at Barnard, and Talmud (Jewish law) at JTS.  Last fall, I was the Jewish co-teacher for Interfaith Community’s “Holiday Course” for K-2nd graders.  I was intrigued at the opportunity to share my love and passion for Judaism with children, while simultaneously learning more about Christianity.  (I love this stuff – I am a religion major, after all!) Growing up, I had several friends whose parents had different religions.  Some leaned more towards one faith or the other, and many ended up not identifying with religion at all.  When both synagogue and church hold religious school on Sunday mornings, it’s just logistically difficult to learn about both religions.  The blessing of American religious freedom is that individuals have the ability to choose their own religion and choose to what extent they will adhere to religions’ traditional doctrines.  Interfaith marriages are an inevitable outcome of such a freedom. When I learned about Interfaith Community’s programs, I immediately recognized that they were serving a societal need that tends to get overlooked. 

I recall a conversation I had with a friend last fall when I told him I would be teaching at Interfaith Community.  He questioned how, as a product of an all-Jewish household and having since college become fairly observant, I would approach teaching my students what Judaism means.  “Are you teaching them how to be Jewish and Christian at the same time?” he asked me.  “No,” I said, “I’m teaching them about Jewish holidays and my co-teacher is teaching them about Christian holidays.” He replied, “So what is the ultimate goal? That they’ll eventually choose one or the other?” I told him that my goal is simply to educate in an atmosphere of acceptance.  Some might ultimately choose either Judaism or Christianity, some will find a way to practice both, and many will probably say that both faiths enhanced their experiences.  I suppose that at some point, these children will need to make decisions about what role they want religion(s) to play in their lives.  However, that’s a decision that all people make in their lives, often more than once, whether or not their parents came from the same religious faith.


 I’ve made a choice to keep Shabbat despite the fact that my two Jewish parents didn’t.  Many friends of mine who grew up Orthodox have significantly reduced their observance since coming to college.  We live in a country whose foundational spirit of individual freedom allows and encourages us to make these choices for ourselves.  The difference between us and kids of interfaith marriages is that we had multiple religious education options from which to choose.  We attended Jewish day schools or synagogues’ Sunday school programs or took Israel gap years or some combination of these.  We had no trouble getting the information we needed in order to eventually make choices about our religious observance.  For kids in interfaith families, such education isn’t always so accessible.  In my experience teaching for Interfaith Community, children were enormously eager to learn about both sets of holidays, confirming that there is a thirst for religious education in families of multiple religions.  Interfaith Community offers classes that provide information about both Judaism and Christianity, giving kids access to the education they need to be able to figure out how they’ll connect to their parents’ faiths. 

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Easter and Passover with Interfaith Community

On Sunday, March 10th, New York Interfaith Community families gathered at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan to anticipate the upcoming holidays of Easter and Passover.   The adults joined in a discussion led by IFC president Sheila Gordon, while the children participated in an interactive lesson about the two holidays led by IFC education director Clay Dockery, and Samantha Gonzalez-Block.

In the discussion group, the adults introduced themselves and described their diverse religious backgrounds. They discussed the different emotional, spiritual, and intellectual aspects of their religious connections.One Christian woman who had loved the spirituality of regular church attendance growing up remarked that she had found a new, vibrant sense of religious connection to the importance of family through her Jewish husband’s family.  The discussion also touched on how religion helps individuals and communities deal with death, and what couples wanted for their children with regards to religion.  Overall, the program provided a safe, open forum for interfaith couples to discuss what religion means in the context of their families.

In the holiday-based program for children, Clay first gave a lesson on Easter, and Samantha followed with a lesson on Passover. The children’s comments were elemental and profound: “What does the Easter Bunny have to do with Jesus?” and “Why can’t it be the Easter Bird?” “All these stories… they teach us something, like how Easter teaches about being thankful, and Passover teaches us about freedom.”

At the end of the afternoon, the children performed a play for their parents about the Exodus story, which is commemorated on Passover. (Scroll down for photos.)

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Moses asks Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

IFC child plays the role of Moses in play about the Exodus story told on Passover at March 10th Easter and Passover event.

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And the 5th plague was Cattle disease

And the 5th plague was Cattle disease

IFC child acts out the 5th plague in play about Exodus story told on Passover at March 10th Passover and Easter event.

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