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Interfaith Families Project helps couples navigate tricky religious issues

By Michelle Boorstein
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; B01

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.

"They were very paranoid about language," said Jarvis, who was raised Southern Baptist, ordained in the United Church of Christ, is now part of a Buddhist community and, when asked if she is a Christian, says: "Good question."

The group craved the kind of spiritual uplift and energy that comes from sharing deep beliefs about things like social justice and human goodness. But it didn't want to be seen as trying to create "a religion." Many were wary about orthodoxy of any kind.

When Jarvis proposed doing some prayers when the group met, members asked: What do you mean by "prayers"? When she proposed a sermon they said: What do you mean by a "sermon"?

They decided to call their weekly worship, which takes place at Einstein High School in Kensington, "The Gathering," and crafted a liturgy that includes basic Jewish and Christian prayers, poetry readings, singing and a ritual in which people place rocks representing concerns into a bowl.

"We do a lot of Pete Seeger and the Beatles because they were so spiritual, songs that have notions that are inspiring, like 'Love is all you need,' " Jarvis said.

About 70 percent of members come to the group's weekly services and community service projects, said Rabbi Harold White, Jarvis's co-spiritual leader who recently retired as Georgetown University's chaplain after 42 years.

Like Jarvis, White has an eclectic faith profile. He left the Conservative Jewish movement in the 1970s because he supported female rabbis (which the movement eventually approved) and interfaith marriages. He describes himself as "steeped in mysticism," studied the work of spiritual psychiatrist Carl Jung and says perhaps the most inspiring interfaith event in his life was Vatican II, the council that modernized Catholicism in the 1960s.

Sense of belonging

The impetus for the group having Rosh Hashanah together was White retiring from Georgetown and becoming available to lead the families' worship during the Jewish high holidays.

The services will be relatively traditional, White said, but with less Hebrew and more explanations. They will emphasize that the holiday marks the New Year, with secular and even Christian hymns about birth, new beginnings "and maybe a funky rendition of 'Amazing Grace,' " Jarvis said.

A pioneering rabbi when he began marrying interfaith couples nearly four decades ago, White has married children and named grandchildren of initial couples whom he married, and some of those families will follow him from Georgetown to Silver Spring for services this week.

"I'm not saying interfaith marriage is ideal, that it's better," he said. "I begin with what is. People who I deal with are not people who are trying to escape their religious background; they fall in love, because opportunities exist in a way that didn't used to."

Miller's childhood rabbi -- from the Reform movement -- would not marry her and her non-Jewish husband. Her husband agreed to raise their then-future children Jewish, but Miller wanted the family to be "on equal footing" religiously. "I didn't want one spouse to feel like the guest."

The family still has to explain its blended faith practices and at times, she admits feeling "edgy" when her children return from a Sunday school lesson about Jesus. But the Interfaith Families Project has provided her family with a spiritual identity and sense of belonging.

"I believe what we're raising are children who have a positive and fairly educated relationship" to their faiths, said Miller, who blogs about what she calls "a hybrid universe."

"We like to say we're not confused, we're just complicated."

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