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Feature: At Interfaith Families Group, A Rabbi Does the Easter Sermon

SILVER SPRING, Md. (RNS) On the second night of Passover, Rabbi Harold White will lead a traditional seder dinner with matzoh and bitter herbs and all the trimmings.

Five days later, he’ll deliver the sermon on Easter Sunday.

That’s what life looks like inside the Interfaith Family Project (IFFP) in suburban Washington, where Jewish-Christian couples have decided their kids shouldn’t have to choose one faith over the other. Instead, they can do a little of both.

With as many as half of Jews marrying non-Jews, this year’s overlap of Passover and Easter is prompting more than a few families to find new ways to navigate the dueling holidays, much like the annual “December dilemma” pitting Christmas against Hanukkah.


Increasingly, such families are turning toward one another for guidance, creating both formal and informal programs. For families at IFFP, it means hosting regular Sunday morning “gatherings” and bringing White and the Rev. Julia Jarvis on as staff clergy to help guide the project.

Not surprisingly, an interfaith Easter will look and feel a little different. There will be no talk of the Eucharist, White and Jarvis said. Instead, services will focus on renewal.

“For both Jews and Christians, the springtime is the season of rebirth,” said White, who was ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

The project started in 1995 when four women from interfaith marriages were trying to figure out what to teach their children. IFP now numbers some 120 families and runs a Sunday school that teaches about Judaism, Christianity and Hebrew literacy.


IFFP teaches about Judaism and Christianity separately, but also emphasizes the things they have in common, such as welcoming the stranger and pursuing justice. Many participants consider themselves neither Christian nor Jewish, but simply interfaith, said longtime member Sue Katz Miller.

“No two people are going to have the same belief system, even if they’re both Jewish,” said Miller, who was raised Jewish by her Jewish father and Episcopal mother.

The group’s Sunday gatherings — “Calling it worship is a bit of a hot-button issue,” Miller said — include reflections from Jarvis or White, secular and religious songs, and prayers. Participants pray both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sh’ma, Judaism’s most central prayer.


Rather than presenting God as the “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” or that “Jesus is the only way,” Jarvis said, “We teach that Jesus is a historical figure and how he lived.”

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, she said, “he taught them to pray to God and not to him, that he too prayed to God and that he was filled with God, and we are filled with God, too.”

“It’s not about saying children have to follow Jesus, and not about Jews being the chosen people,” said Jarvis, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ.

For White, the group’s focus “means that Christians get a better understanding of who they are through a better understanding of Judaism, and Jews get a better understanding of who they are through the study of Christianity.”


While IFFP may be among the best organized, it’s not the only intentionally interfaith congregation in the U.S. In Philadelphia, two ex-pats from the Washington group are trying to start their own version of IFFP. So far, the group has five families but no clergy.

“There’s nothing else like it around,” said Felise Shellenberger, who is Jewish. “You can educate your children in a way that’s educational, not judgmental and is about both faiths.”

The Shellenbergers expect some seven or eight families to attend this year’s Passover seder, where they will use an interfaith text. They’re not planning to host an Easter service.

“That is an activity that is very church-centered, unlike a seder, which is very family-centered,” said Shellenberger’s husband, Mark, a United Methodist. Most families in the group “almost always go to the Christian family’s church” for Easter, he said.


In Chicago, the 18-year-old Interfaith Union defines itself as a resource center for interfaith families, working with about a half dozen priests and a handful of rabbis, according to Eileen O’Farrell Smith, the project’s director. The group counts about 180 active families, and offers joint Hebrew naming/baptism ceremonies, a Sunday school program for children and Friday evening Shabbat dinner clusters.

While these interfaith groups aim to make Jewish and Christian members equally comfortable, some mainstream religious leaders wonder about the faith that’s transmitted to children.

“I don’t believe you can be both Jewish and Christian,” says Sister Mary Boys, a theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a veteran of Christian-Jewish dialogue. At the same time, she said, “People who are open to learning about another religious tradition will in the process learn more about their own.”


Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, the former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said religious identification requires not just knowledge about a given faith, but also an “emotional affiliation.” He wonders how a child who celebrates two different faiths “gains not only a respect for and an allegiance to key elements” of each, but also an emotional connection to allow him or her to choose one.

For their part, IFFP organizers aren’t concerned.

“We’re not trying to inculcate any particular belief system,” said Miller. “People feel spiritually supported by being together as a community … independent of any particular credo.”

– DEBRA RUBIN, Religion News Service

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    What a totally fantastic idea—which seems to be working for those who are members! Sounds very Unitarian to me also—which is one way inter-faith families have handled things. As for the critics? they don’t have to participate.

  • Susan Katz Miller

    This is an accurate depiction of our interfaith families community in DC, and the communities across the country that are evolving to meet the needs of interfaith families.

    However, the headline is inaccurate and deeply problematic. We would never refer to ourselves as an “Interfaith Church” for at least two reasons. For one, the word “church” implies Christian, and would not be inclusive of the Jewish half of our community. But also, we are a supportive community for interfaith families, not a religious denomination.

    Susan Katz Miller

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    So this should have been titled: Interfaith Community Project Group. This is a nice way to teach the children of interfaith couples of Christian and Jewish religions what their faith means to them. On their own time in their homes they can go deeper into both religions beliefs as the children age. This gives everyone the togetherness of community.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Thank you, Susan Katz Miller, for pointing out the misleading title of the article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Grace Lerner

    Ditto Sue Katz Miller. The title should read Interfaith Community. I grew up attending IFFP and had no idea this article could even be referencing my beloved IFFP after reading just the title.

  • Wayne Sutton

    Inter-faith is fine until we allow it to include Islam,Buddhism, etc.
    Remember CHRIST alone was the message the Apostle Paul preached.
    Wayne – personal prophecy ministries.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Wayne, Christ isn’t the only holy person about—-for you maybe, but fortunately not everyone. And what would be wrong with other faiths, Islam, Buddhists etc. learning about each other and getting along? Oh I forgot—there is only ONE JC. NOT.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan your point is valid but you should find a more respectable delivery if you truly want to be taken seriously as accepting of interfaith process. And by the way there is only one Jesus Christ.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    At least you think my point was valid, cknuck! :o) However, for some there is only on Divine Being, and that was my little “humor” at the end of my statement, since I think there is really a choice of who one worships, or doesn’t, as the case may be. I’m just glad there are groups like the one in the article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Goldiemae

    In our community, we have a Jewish temple that also includes in their congregation and worship, members of a Christian church and a Muslim Mosque. Their focus is entirely upon interfaith worship, and it seems to be very functional in bringing people of different faiths together. We also have a Messianic Jewish congregation here, where people of all faiths gather to learn about Jewish customs and traditions, but these Jews believe in Jesus, whom they refer to as “Yeshua”. So you see, we live in a very ecumenical community, that seems to be thriving. The Jews are waiting for their Moshaich, or Messiah, to come and make the world a better place. At the same time, the Christians are waiting for their Messiah, who will grant enternal life to those who are saved. They adhere to the idea of the “second coming”; whereas the Jews ascribe to the theory of a first coming. The ideas are similar, and some of us like to think that Moshaiac and the Messiah are one and the same. The most devout sect of Jewish observance are the Hassidics. Even they believe that Moshaiac will come from the House of David, which was also the temporary home of Jesus. The similarities are too striking to be taken lightly.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    I like the thought of that Goldiemae wish I knew of a place like that it sounds very respectful.

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