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How interfaith work can be “good for the Jews”

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In its Nov. 1 issue, The New York Times published a powerful op-ed piece by Susan Katz Miller. Titled “Being ‘Partly Jewish,’” Miller’s essay attempts to refute the long-accepted argument that interfaith parenting confuses kids and weakens Judaism. Like many other Jewish writers of late, Miller references the Pew Research Center’s study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” She highlights one of Pew’s more overlooked findings: 25 percent of intermarried Jews are reportedly raising their children “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else.” I predict that this percentage will rise, since an increasing number of Jews see interfaith parenting as a viable option.

Miller also observes that formal interfaith education programs, once nearly unthinkable, are now a reality. These programs do what my Lutheran wife and I have done thus far in our marriage, and what we plan to do with our children: They emphasize “the common ground, the important differences and the intertwined history.” Miller says many interfaith parents want their children “to be ‘bilingual’ in two religious languages,” with the understanding that neither parent’s tradition will fall by the wayside.

Miller’s masterstroke, however, is her argument that Jewish children aren’t the only outcome of interfaith marriage that can strengthen Judaism. A Christian, Buddhist, or humanist who understands and appreciates Judaism, and can be an ally to the Jewish community — is that not also “good for the Jews”? A member of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (D.C.), Miller argues that if you give interfaith children the choice to identify as Jews, they may very well do so. In addition, their knowledge of Christianity will help them avoid the facile preconceptions that too many American Jews have regarding Christians.

Spokane is a long way from New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., arguably the epicenters of interfaith innovation. However, I see encouraging interfaith work happening here as well: within my own home and family, in the growing SpokaneFAVS community, and in Congregation Emanu-El’s ongoing use of the Unitarian Universalist Church as its place of worship. It can be tricky for two faith communities to share space, but it also ensures a certain amount of dialogue.

Progressive activism is a value that Emanu-El and UUC share. Of course, the congregations don’t always support the same causes. Several months ago, pro-Palestinian flyers posted at UUC rubbed some Emanu-El members the wrong way. However, the flyers were political, not anti-Semitic, and Emanu-El was able to make that distinction. Fortunately, in the relationship between Emanu-El and UUC, a situation like this represents a learning opportunity for both congregations rather than a basis for conflict.

When I was on Emanu-El’s board, some members wondered whether UUC supported billboards, sponsored by Spokane Veterans for Peace, that advocated ending aid to Israel. Both the billboards’ message and their way of conveying it struck several board members as borderline anti-Semitic. When the board reached out to UUC, we learned that the billboards might have drawn support from some members of the Unitarian community as private citizens. However, the church did not support the billboards in any official capacity, and UUC’s leadership understood why they hit a nerve for some Emanu-El members.

What I appreciate about this incident and its aftermath is that Emanu-El members dug deeper and engaged in dialogue rather than making snap judgments. Members of UUC, for their part, remained open to respectful communication. They did not react with anger or defensiveness, as some groups in their position might have. As Susan Katz Miller would likely attest, interfaith work is about resolving tensions between religious traditions. However, it’s also about building new ways of living and believing, and that’s the work I’m most interested in doing.

Join us for our next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., Jan. 4 at Indaba Coffee for discussion on the “Challenges and Importance of Interfaith Work in Spokane.” Schindler is a panelist.  

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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