Rabbinic Reflections After 30 Years in an Interfaith Family

By Rabbi Heather Ellen Miller

April 30, 2009


Throughout rabbinical school, my study partner was always amazed by my stories about my family. He was fascinated that my family included Jewish, Unitarian, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian Scientist, agnostic, Protestant, Catholic and Kabbalah Center enthusiast relatives. My family is a smorgasbord of world religions–I never considered it out of the ordinary.

I can recall teaching dreidel to my Christian Scientist step-grandmother after Christmas dinner one year and being asked to say a blessing over a Thanksgiving turkey by my agnostic grandfather in Virginia.the smorgasbord of world religions

“My family is a smorgasbord of world religions.”

My mom, who is Jewish, used to bring her Unitarian mother-in-law See’s chocolates every year for Christmas. My Unitarian dad used to say “amen” with enthusiasm every week when we made the blessings over the bread for Shabbat. I claim ancestral stock who, on one side, were Protestant ministers and preacher’s wives and on the other were rabbis, cantors, rebbetzins, kohanim (descendents of the priests in the Temple) and shochets (kosher slaughterers.)

It confused the Israeli Border Police when I filled out the official customs form to enter the state of Israel. Only six spaces for letters were available and under “father’s first name” I was filling out C-H-R-I-S-T-O. I had to explain to Israeli Border Police that I would be in their country for the greater part of the year studying to be a rabbi.

When I went to rabbinical school I hadn’t planned to focus my energy on multi-religious families and their place in Jewish communities. I had intended mainly to identify as a social justice rabbi, working everyday to make the world more complete, to perform acts of tikkun olam and dismantling injustice. However, during my first year in rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I realized that my personal experience in an interfaith family would be useful for my colleagues to hear when I began fielding questions about my life. I joined a few others from interfaith families who had a similar experience to organize a panel where we could share our experiences and engage in Q&A with the group as a whole.

Later, I found myself paying particularly close attention to discussions about interfaith liturgy, the various opinions on interfaith marriage in rabbinic literature and the history of the debate on interfaith marriage in modern Jewish life. I wrote my thesis on the controversy over intermarriage at the 1844 Brunswick Rabbinical Conference and the fact that interfaith marriage was one of three issues discussed during the first meeting of Reform rabbis.

My rabbinate today relies, in part, on my experiences with interfaith marriage. Many liberal congregations include those who are intermarried as a significant proportion of their membership demographics. My congregation, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is no different. About half of those who are married, are intermarried.

I often find myself discussing Jewish customs and traditions with the mothers who are not Jewish at our preschool, preparing interfaith couples for marriage and officiating at their weddings, parents in interfaith marriages for their children’s b’nai mitzvah, or speaking with parents or grandparents about their children or grandchildren’s decision to marry someone from another faith. I also teach a class on the topic of my thesis and will soon host an interfaith couple’s group, similar to the one I ran during my internship, at Temple Sinai of Bergen County, in Tenafly, N.J., where intermarried families can learn from one another’s experiences.

After more than 30 years of living in an interfaith family, close connection with several interfaith families and intellectual analysis of interfaith history within the Jewish community, I have come to realize a few things. Though the Jewish community assumes that interfaith families present problems, I have noticed that on the whole they tend to offer some important skills and benefits to the greater Jewish community. Of course, these skills differ by family, but I have found that interfaith families often think intentionally about their ritual observance instead of just going through the motions. Someone is always asking them “what do you do? why are you doing that?” These families exhibit deep and personal respect for various traditions because their family members come from different traditions. They seem more comfortable in speaking about God and theology, which makes sense because of their life experiences. For example, because when someone in your family dies and you have to go to a funeral of a different faith, you tend to ask those questions.

In my family I also learned that those who identify with a particular faith group may have differing ways of expressing that religion. We must look beyond the label. I take into account the Reform, Conservative, Cultural and Kabbalah Center members of my family who all self-identify as “Jewish” but who often exhibit very different practices and customs.

I have learned, in my 30 years in an interfaith family, that the best way to reach out to interfaith families is not to take interfaith families (or Jewish families that are not interfaith for that matter) at face value, but rather to start to recognize some of the nuances, and respond to needs, skill sets and patterns on a case-by-case basis. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach in building community. Every person is unique and so is every relationship. Rather than classifying entire groups of people with one distinction, let’s look closer on a case-by-case basis before making recommendations.


About Rabbi Heather Ellen Miller

Rabbi Heather Ellen Miller was born and raised in an interfaith household in Los Angeles, California. Through her family life, she gained a deep respect for interfaith pluralism. She graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and was ordained through Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She currently serves the community of Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Calif.