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 InterfaithFamily.com. 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)

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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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“There were frogs in his bed and frogs in on his head!”

IFC children act out the 2nd plague, frogs, in play about the Exodus story told on Passover at March 10th Passover and Easter event.

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The Endless “Schlep”

Kate Bahlke Hornstein is an Episcopalian woman. She and her Jewish husband  live in Cambridge, MA with their two daughters. They participated in early IFC programs in New York before IFC chapters had evolved. When they moved to Boston, Kate reconnected and became the founding Chair of the IFC Boston chapter.

In her blog submission, Kate reflects both on the meaning of being in an interfaith family and on the value of “schlepping” to do the Community’s work.

Back in fifth grade, our teacher read us the book, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish girl who is forced by Russians to move with her family to Siberia during World War II. While Esther starts out being somewhat spoiled (refusing to wear any underwear that isn’t silk, as I recall) she soon adjusts to life on the Endless Steppe. Her family stays sane not only by becoming less spoiled and adjusting to their new extremely difficult circumstances, but also by holding fast to their past life and identity. I remember one passage where Esther’s proud grandmother pushes back her fingernail cuticles each night so that she can maintain her “manicure” while living in the harsh conditions of the work camp. The family also sustains itself with their religion and their belief that “thoughts are free,” i.e. no one can take away your identity.

This book made a deep impression on me, not that I could relate to Esther’s life at all! Growing up in a secular/Episcopal family  in comfortable small-town America, I could count the number of Jewish families I knew on one hand. OK, maybe more like three fingers. The harshest work I recall was when my mother asked me to trim some branches from one of our olive trees, and when I painted the outside of our church with a group of college students.

I think what I liked best about the book was the idea that there could be a culture existing within another and that you could carry your identity with you wherever you go. Esther’s family is grateful that “thoughts are free” and that their belief in God and in their own identities can persist,  even when they are forbidden to express their  beliefs.

As a 48-year-old Christian married to a Jewish man and raising my two daughters “interfaith,”
my life has unfolded in ways I couldn’t have imagined growing up. My attic now contains boxes and boxes of holiday “things”–for Passover, Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah, Halloween and a large stack labeled “Interfaith Community” or “IFC-Art, IFC-Art Supplies, IFC-Paper, IFC Art Supplies 2 and IFC-Celebrations.”

Nearly every week I am schlepping one box up the stairs and another one down, either in preparation for a family holiday celebration or an upcoming Interfaith Community class or holiday program.

Most weeks I do this good-naturedly without complaining and with a sense of excitement and anticipation of the upcoming holiday. But occasionally, I find myself tearily wondering if it might not have been easier to choose another way to do things. “This is not my holiday,” I think.  “Why should I work so hard to preserve my daughters’ Jewish traditions, traditions that are not my own?”  A harsh email or thoughtless word from someone who doesn’t know me well, and who questions my belief in raising my children with two religions, can bring me low and wondering why on earth I am doing this. “This is hard,” I think.

I see in those moments how Jews in America at one point may have quite sanely decided to assimilate. I see also why spouses in interfaith couples convert to Judaism or Christianity or choose one religion for their children.  It’s much easier to go along with holiday of the moment, of the majority, or the religion of one partner, than to risk being called different, or worse, to have one’s children thought to be so. It’s also much less work.

And then my thoughts turn to my own kids. Since they were babies, we’ve celebrated two sets of holidays, attended church and temple, and held lively theological debates around the dinner table. One of the things of which I am the most proud is the way they connect positively with both their Jewish and Christian identities.  I am proud of my daughter who in fifth grade patiently explained why she was eating matzah for lunch to a group of Muslim children. Or how beautiful my older daughter’s voice sounds when she sings from the hymnal on Christmas Eve. Or how we’ve argued around the dinner table about what actually took place at the Resurrection. I also think about when my husband and I watched “The Passion of the Christ” to see the anti-semitic content;  but what affected him the most was the realization that Christ’s suffering could have been more than a myth, but pain, as well as love for others, experienced by someone I see as an aspirational figure.

Over the past four and a half years, nearly 150 people have attended Interfaith Community Boston events. Some come once, some have attended since the beginning, but I hope everyone who comes to us will take away something of value–the belief that “thoughts are free,” and the affirmation of whatever identity they’ve chosen to preserve for themselves and their families. As a chapter member recently wrote in an email to me, “thanks for giving my child a place to belong.”

When I think about what my family has gained and the positive things we can offer to the community, I realize that loading up the car, vacuuming the rug after an IFC event, or helping a child to find a lost art project are much more than “schlepping.” In this work, I am helping preserve the identity not only of the Jewish people and those who identify as Christians, but also my own children’s sense of self.   As Esther says, “I needed my past, my beloved past.”

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The Colton Family- Our Journey to IFC

Brian and Randi Colton have been members of the Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter of the Interfaith Community since 2007. Brian writes that their family’s wonderful experience with the IFC inspired him to write this blog posting.

“I hope this encourages other families to tell their stories so we can continue to learn from each other.”- Brian

The Colton Family – Our Journey to IFC

by Brian T. Colton

Randi and I met 20 years ago in college.  It’s cliché to say we knew right away we’d be together forever, and yet that’s exactly what happened.  We both come from different religious backgrounds.  I come from a conservative Roman Catholic family, where everyone was involved at the church (including my father, who is a deacon) while Randi’s parents each practice Reform Judaism, with her father also adhering to Buddhist principles.

Growing up, major holidays were a very big part of our lives, with my family coming together for Christmas and Easter Masses and celebrations, and her family celebrating the traditional Hanukkah and Passover rituals at home.  I had been an altar boy, lector and Eucharistic minister at Mass, and was a leader of the youth group as a young adult.  Randi had been Bat Mitzvah and while her family did not regularly attend services, they did celebrate the major Jewish holidays.  When we began dating,  I attended mass occasionally but my religious practice had waned a bit; my family would invite Randi to Mass with us,and whenever we would all go together , Randi would  come.

While looking into getting married, we did participate in the Catholic Church’s pre-marital workshop for couples — Pre-Cana (called “Engaged Encounter” in our area); wealso met with a rabbi.  We were married in a joint ceremony at Bear Mountain by both a priest and a rabbi.    In the early years of our marriage, we each practiced our own traditions and supported the other.   But when we decided to start a family, we knew that the religion question was going to come up again.

We had never come to a definite decision on how to raise the kids, mostly because we presumed there was going to be family pressure from both sides to pick one religion over the other –and we wanted to avoid that. Randi and I have always believed both that positive family experiences and making your own decisions are very important. So we didn’t want to force religious beliefs that should be discovered naturally through exploration and education.  When our first son, and then our second, was born, we knew we would need to make some sort of a decision on what to do religiously.  I researched some options but nothing felt quite right for us.

Then five years ago, I discovered the Interfaith Community online and reached out to Soraya Meyers, the Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter president.  She was immediately warm and inviting to us, and we attended an Easter/Passover gathering as a “test run”.  It was a revelation!   The judgment-and-stress-free environment made it very appealing to us. We joined immediately, and have been members since.

At the IFC, we join with the other families in a prayer circle where we can talk about whatever is on our minds.  Our kids attend classes with fantastic teachers and learn about the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity.  Randi’s mother has even attended IFC holidays with us. We’ve made some good friends in our chapter, have enjoyed attending NYC events, and look forward to continuing our involvement in IFC for years to come.

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