2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of the Dallas Morning News.

Today, the memory makes her only slightly wistful.

Eileen O'Farrell Smith was sitting in a Catholic church watching a priest bathe the forehead of her best friend's white-gowned baby when a pain shot through her heart--would there ever be a similar baptism ceremony for her own daughter, Liliana, born the same day?

"There was this sense of loss, and I just could not tolerate that grief," Mrs. Smith said of that day, eight years ago. "That is when the conversation started."

That conversation--between Eileen, raised a Catholic, and her husband, Stephen, raised an Orthodox Jew--led the Chicago couple and their three children to a group of other interfaith families like their own. But what began as a discussion forum for the adults has now branched out to include a Sunday school for their children that is neither Christian nor Jewish, but is built on a curriculum with a footing in both faiths.

"This is not something that is 'his' or 'hers,' " Mrs. Smith said. "This is ours, as a family. There is no 'pick one.' 'Pick one' is not an option."

As intermarriage rates skyrocket, more families like the Smiths are finding their way into interfaith groups. And where these groups once existed largely for the benefit of couples navigating the choppy waters of interfaith marriage, several groups around the country are taking the next logical step--establishing formal interfaith religious education for their children.


At a convention of interfaith families hosted in June by the Dovetail Institute, a nonprofit interfaith family service organization, groups from Palo Alto, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Memphis, Tenn., expressed interest in forming their own Sunday schools. Mrs. Smith, who for the last five years has studied the faith formation of interfaith children under a grant from the Lilly Foundation, estimates there may be as many as 30 such groups in various stages of maturity nationwide.

Wherever these groups form, they are seeking a solution to the same problem--a lack of established interfaith religious education for children. In the void, parents are stepping in, writing their own curricula, or building on a curriculum borrowed from another group of interfaith families.

"This is a forum for exploring," said Alicia Torre, a Palo Alto mother of three children in a parent-run interfaith Sunday school group. "What this does for kids, and the reason parents want their kids in an interfaith Sunday school, is they want them to know their traditions--what people they are a part of, who are the people they come from."

The Chicago group, now known as the Chicago Forum, was originally an adult discussion group for exploring issues of interfaith marriage. One of those issues--a big one--was how to educate the children in religion. The parents formed a focus group, hashed things out in each other's living rooms, and by 1993, the school started its first class--of kindergartners and first graders--with nine children from six families. This fall, the school will have grown to 70 children from 43 families.

The school is under the oversight of a Catholic priest and a Reform Judaism rabbi. Many families, including the Smiths, attend both Friday night Shabbat services at local Reform synagogues and Sunday morning Mass at Old St. Patrick's Church. Before Sunday morning Mass, they trickle into about eight church classrooms. Each group of children is taught by two parents, always a married couple.

The curriculum was written primarily by Patty Kovacs, a Catholic who has two children with her Jewish husband. Mrs. Kovacs recalled that the first year of lessons was largely an attempt to respond to the children's questions about holidays and to follow the calendar from Rosh Hashana to Christmas.

By the time the children were in second grade, she had written lessons on the names Jews and Christians use for God. By third grade, the children covered the laws of Moses and the Beatitudes of Jesus, and by the fifth grade they learned about the sacraments, rites of passage, and the lives of the saints. She's working on a course in religious history, from the rise of Islam to Vatican II, for the oldest children, who are about to enter seventh grade.

Mrs. Kovacs, who has been a teacher and school counselor, said that at first the work was a real balancing act for herself and the parents.

"In the beginning, there was a lot of, 'Let's make sure we have everything 50-50,' " she said. "But over the years the trust level has increased to the point that now I am looking for [parent] feedback. I say, 'How do you want me to do this?' "

The most important thing, Mrs. Kovacs said, is to write a curriculum that will give the children a firm understanding of their backgrounds so that someday, should they decide to choose between faiths, they will be as well-informed as possible. So far, no child has made such a decision.

"What we are not teaching them is, 'This is what you have to believe,' " Mrs. Kovacs said. "It is not dogma-driven. It is theme-driven."

Mrs. Smith put it this way: "The balance comes from each tradition standing by itself. We don't try and create a new one. This is not Jews for Jesus."


But they do have to present Jesus in a way that is satisfactory to both faiths.

Ms. Torre, the Palo Alto parent, calls the Jesus question a "litmus test" for parents considering interfaith education. By way of illustration, she recalled one parent-led class in which a child asked, "Is Jesus God?"

"The parent answered, 'Well, some of your parents believe Jesus was God and some of your parents don't believe that,' " Ms. Torre said. " 'But all of your parents believe he was a great religious teacher and you need to learn what he had to say.' " If parents are uncomfortable with that explanation--as many Jews are--interfaith education may not be right for them," she said.

"We are very straightforward" about the differing ideas of Jesus, Mrs. Kovacs said. "The problem is we keep thinking the kids will be confused because we keep looking at it as a theological problem. But the kids just want to know the nuts and bolts."

Rabbi Allen Secher, half of the clergy team that oversees the Chicago Reform, said the kids know a lot more than the nuts and bolts. He said he thinks their faith formation is, in many cases, richer than that of children raised in one faith.

"In many cases, these kids are better informed because their parents passionately care, and that makes a huge difference," he said. "Here is a case where the parents are being judged week in and week out [by their peers and the students]... and the kids are learning because ... the parents show they care."

David Kovacs, Patty's husband, said interfaith education "goes beyond religion" in that it equips children for the diversity of the American population. And while he recognizes that some day the children may decide to identify with only one religion, he hopes they will continue to feel a part of both.

"There are people who look at this and say, 'You are missing the point of the value a religious identity can bring,' " he said. "I understand that. But when I hear our kids talking to other people, they say the value of this is they can look at things in stereo. They can turn up the left speaker or the right speaker or listen to both at once."

Many people are not comfortable with interfaith religious education. The official stance of the Catholic Church and the main branches of Judaism is a strong preference for raising children in a single faith. For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad taught that children should be raised in one faith, said Aslam Abdullah, editor of Minaret magazine, based in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, worries that any interfaith approach to education will only undercut the integrity of each religion involved.

"I certainly understand what these people are trying to do, but I think it is unfortunate, I think it is misguided," he said. "Religion is a framework for how to live one's life, and it is very difficult to have two different value systems playing against each other."


But these kinds of groups may be the vanguard of things to come, especially as intermarriage rates climb.

While there are few solid statistics on the number of interfaith marriages, every faith group is aware that they are on the rise, particularly among young adults, who are often less tied to their faith than their parents were. Web chat rooms are filled with talk of mixing and meshing traditions in wedding ceremonies, holiday celebrations and, increasingly, child-rearing.

Twenty-nine percent of Catholics marry non-Catholics, but that number rises to 40 percent among young Catholics, said James Davidson, a professor of sociology at Purdue University. Though there are no statistics, Mr. Abdullah said that intermarriage between Muslims and people of other faiths, particularly Christian, is "quite substantial." Fifty percent of Jews marry non-Jews according to a 1990 national study, but Egon Mayer, director of research for the Jewish Outreach Institute, said the percentage may be higher.

Still, Mr. Mayer said, there is no conclusive sociological evidence that children raised with two faiths are any better or worse off than children raised in a single faith.

"Is this a good thing or a bad thing?" Mr. Mayer asked. "In the absence of evidence, I would have to say, who knows?"

Nora Smith, 13, said she thinks she knows. As Mrs. Smith's eldest daughter, she was one of the first children enrolled in the school, which she started attending at age 6. When people ask her what she is, "I tell them I am Catholic and I am Jewish," she said.

"I think that is a good thing because... I understand why the Catholic religion believes this and the Jewish religion believes that," she said. "It is confusing to talk about, but for me it is interesting because it opens up a whole new world."

While Nora and the other children meet each week, parents who are not teaching gather in a nearby classroom for a religious education, discussing topics ranging from ancient myths to interfaith issues. Sometimes, after a child asks, the adults craft a religious rite of passage appropriate for interfaith children.

So far, two girls have become bat mitzvah in ceremonies that included both a priest and a rabbi as well as the Torah and the New Testament. Several children have taken their first communion, again in the company of a priest and a rabbi. And at age 4, Liliana Smith finally had her baptism--and a Hebrew baby-naming ceremony--in one seamless ceremony.

"It was breathtakingly beautiful," Mrs. Smith recalled. She has posted the ceremony on the group's website, www.chicagoforum.org.

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