Interfaith Families Project helps couples navigate tricky religious issues

By Michelle Boorstein
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fifteen years ago there were just four couples, Jews and Christians who had married and were navigating the trickiest, most sensitive issues for their interfaith relationships.

Today, the Interfaith Families Project has grown to more than 100 families and has begun to take on one of its toughest tests yet: the baggage and power of religious holidays. On Wednesday evening, the families will hold their first Rosh Hashanah service, marking the Jewish New Year with ceremonies designed to inspire both Jews and non-Jews.

"This is an acknowledgement that the group is the primary spiritual home for most of our families," said Susan Katz Miller, who was raised Jewish by parents who had a mixed marriage. Now a 49-year-old writer who lives in Takoma Park, she has two teenage children and a husband who was raised Episcopalian.

The gathering of about 300 people at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring reflects the deepening bonds of the interfaith group, one of the largest and oldest of organizations now popping up across the country for families seeking to live with -- but not necessarily blur -- two different religions. As interfaith marriages become more common among other religious minorities, including Muslims and Hindus, interfaith pioneers like those based in Takoma Park may offer a road map.

The group also held its first Easter service this spring. The new holiday services reflect the organization's evolution from something mostly pragmatic and secular (its 1995 charter explicitly banned prayer) that focused on religion classes and marriage workshops to something deeper: a nurturing, self-sustaining spiritual community with the confidence to tackle the biggest religious holidays.

"We used to encourage people to go to their own synagogues and churches for the holidays, but as it evolved, it was like, 'Why not be together? It feels good, we really know each other,' " said the Rev. Julia Jarvis, the group's spiritual director. This Easter, she said, one of the Jewish men said: " 'Let's do it together; let's put it out there! Let's really wrestle with Jesus!' "

Despite fears within the Jewish community that assimilation could lead to extinction, the rate of intermarriage among Jews has soared from about 13 percent among couples who married before 1970 to more than 40 percent among Jews who married after 1985. One of the most high-profile took place this summer when Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky at a ceremony officiated by a rabbi and a minister.

Thirty years ago, one partner in a Christian-Jewish marriage would be expected to convert -- often the Christian one -- and the conventional wisdom was that it was best (or least confusing) for children if parents picked one faith for the household. But the belief among members of the Interfaith Families Project is that everyone in the family can maintain his or her own faith and practice it in a traditional way. Some buck against rituals or teachings that they see as "watered-down" Christianity or Judaism and take pains to distance themselves from New Agey, soft spirituality.

"You can adapt things some, you can have beliefs that are more metaphorical, but if you reduce things to 'Chrismukkah' and having holidays that revolve around the Easter Bunny, that's not what religion is all about. You've lost the benefit of having a religion," said Sheila Gordon, a Conservative Jew and former college dean who co-founded the country's oldest interfaith group, called the Interfaith Community, in New York City in 1987. "You need to struggle with the theology, you need to understand the history. Then you get to have the benefits of religion -- rituals that guide your life and shape the flow of the year, ethnic and spiritual practices that have stood the test of time, not a red yarmulke with white fur."

Craving spiritual uplift

Like the other groups, the Interfaith Families Project was founded by a few couples looking to help their children learn the traditions and prayers of both sides of their family. Many parents had experiences of feeling unwelcome at the house of worship of the other parent.

They wanted their children "to feel they are in the center of their spiritual community, not in the fringes," Miller said.

The group took off, growing to 90 families in the first several years. But each step was weighed.

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