It has been more than a decade since my children entered Jewish day school. Our choice was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and I don’t regret a minute of their education there. But in the beginning Ken and I paused over the fine print of the application that asked us to confirm that our children had a Jewish mother or were converted in a mikveh—a ritual bath. A part of us felt that any child with a Jewish parent—mother or father—who sought out a Jewish education should have one. But we are also temple-going Conservative Jews who support matrilineal descent. It was a conundrum—one that after all these years I haven’t fully worked out.
I’ve had this discussion many times with my good friend Susan Katz Miller. Sue grew up Jewish with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. The Jewish community frequently misunderstood her patrilineality and often made her feel like an outsider. Although she had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, she steered clear of a Hillel in college that made her feel unwelcomed. She married her Episcopalian husband in an out-of-the box interfaith ceremony that was almost unheard of twenty-five years ago.
In her new book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Sue chronicles her experiences as a Jewish interfaith child as well as the bold move to bring up her children with both Jewish and Christian traditions. She and her husband are part of an interfaith community called the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Sister organizations exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Through IFFP, Sue and her husband have sent their children to Sunday School and celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays with their interfaith community.
Over the last decade, I’ve watched Sue grow in her commitment to Judaism in ways that I did not always fully appreciate. And in the end what Sue and her family are doing may not be so bad for the Jews. After all, her children are religiously knowledgeable citizens of the world. Their Jewishness flows from just one Jewish grandparent, yet Judaism gets equal time at the Katz Miller household. As Sue writes in the introduction to her book:
“Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians or any other faith or denomination represented in marriage. The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all these possible outcomes as positive.”
I do too until my bias for rearing children in one religion comes into play. Like me, Sue and her community are invested in Judaism’s survival. She writes that, “Interfaith families who choose both [religions] for their children do feel concern for the survival of Judaism in the world. But many of us also feel that we are ‘making a Jewish choice’ by giving our children access to both cultures, rather than choosing nothing, choosing only Christianity, or choosing a third religion.” But for me it’s not only about demographics; it’s about raising literate Jews committed to Judaism alone. I see that commitment as the ultimate survival tactic.
As much support as there is for Jewish continuity at IFFP, there is also the Jesus factor to consider when it comes to embracing Judaism and Christianity. As a Jew who went to a Catholic high school, I’ve thought a lot about the role of Jesus in Jewish history and his place in my Jewish pantheon. Sue unambiguously declares that she sees Jesus as a teacher, not as a personal savior. She describes herself as “a Jew who celebrates interfaithness.” She also reports that her children’s formal religious curriculum presents Jesus as a Jew who lived 2000 years ago. The class explores Jewish history until the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are examined in a Jewish context and also presented as a critique of the Judaism of his time.
But it’s a sixth grade interfaith education syllabus in Chicago that forthrightly asks the question that is on my mind:
“How can we teach this material and not sound like the evangelical group Jews for Jesus? We answer these questions with a very Jewish approach focused on the importance of learning history, a foundation of any good Jewish education. As many of our sister and brother Catholics have discovered, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is key to a much deeper understanding of his wisdom and ministry—an understanding that we have experienced through out marriages with Jewish partners.”
I appreciate the sensitivity to Judaism in Sue’s interfaith world. I’d go as far as to argue that she has a very Jewish approach to interfaith education and celebrations. Am I comfortable with everything she’s doing? Not always. It’s similar to the discomfort I felt when I read the fine print all those years ago on Schechter’s school application. But embracing two religions pushes my boundaries even further. And yet, I love that Sue’s kids claim their Judaism, patrilineal or otherwise. And I love that my friend has written an important, thought-provoking book for Jews and Christians, and interfaith families.