Millennials, make up your mind! On religion, they want it both ways

While the children of interfaith marriages used to lean in one direction, these days they honor both traditions

Published December 1, 2013 1:30PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Odelia Cohen</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/<a href=''>Hepp</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Odelia Cohen via Shutterstock/Hepp via iStock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Being Both"

Whether we are born into one religion or two (or more, or none), our spiritual identity evolves as long as we think and breathe. Faith may wax or wane, allegiance shift, inspiration arrive in the form of a brief mystical encounter or new love. Every one of us creates a complex map of personal religious and spiritual influences: grandma’s Old World rosary, dad’s worship of opera, a professor’s eloquent presentation of Buddhism, an old boyfriend’s passion for Israeli folk dancing, a small daughter’s communing with deep forest spirits.

Because faith forms and reforms throughout life, it would be misleading to talk about how children raised with two religions “end up.” But in this chapter, I provide a first opportunity for the graduates of the programs this book has described to share their own complex and mutable identities at one moment in time. This snapshot of teens and young adults who graduated from interfaith education programs is based on fifty responses to an original survey, in-depth follow-up interviews, and my experience raising two interfaith children with my husband over the past eighteen years.

The survey respondents were self-selected, responding to listserv requests that went out to the interfaith communities, as well as teens still in classroom programs. This group portrait is a work in progress. The first of the interfaith children who went through comprehensive (kindergarten through eighth grade) interfaith education are now in their early twenties. Approximately 57 percent of the respondents were women. Ages ranged from fourteen (just completing a program) to thirty-four (the oldest graduate of the earliest prototype program in the 1980s). They were raised in the communities in Washington, New York, Chicago, and California. Seventy percent had six or more years of interfaith education, and all had at least three years. About 40 percent have a Catholic and a Jewish parent; about 60 percent have a Protestant and a Jewish parent.

Choosing one
At this point, very few of the children surveyed have chosen to practice only one religion. One twenty-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian mother and Jewish father raised in New York has chosen to be Episcopalian. One seventeen-year-old son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father in Washington has chosen to be Quaker. The twenty-one-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father in Washington has chosen Judaism. And so has Chicago’s Matthew Kolaczkowski.

Matthew Kolaczkowski: “Because I Was Able to Choose”

Matthew Kolaczkowski, twenty, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who together helped to found Chicago’s Interfaith Family School. Matthew and his two younger siblings grew up going to church or interfaith Sunday school every week and synagogue only on High Holy Days. “The synagogue didn’t seem to be as accepting as the church was,” he recalls. Matthew deeply appreciated the interfaith education he received in the Family School. “It really showed me how important tolerance was and all the negative effects if that’s ignored. We went over a lot of history, over and over again—the conflicts that could have been avoided.”

Even when presented with the more traditional theology of the Catholic Church, Matthew did not find learning about both religions confusing. “It just makes you think, and that’s exactly what you should be doing with your religious education,” he expounds. “I think people should question everything. It’s really answering those personal questions that makes it clear what’s meant for you and what’s not.”

Matthew developed an appreciation for Jesus as a “very wise man who had excellent ideas that people to this day do not take to heart” and who “may have been a prophet.” He believes that “What really lasts and what people should concern themselves with are his teachings.” At the same time, Matthew decided to deepen his knowledge of Judaism by becoming a bar mitzvah, and he was lucky to have Rabbi Allen Secher to support him in this. “At the time of my bar mitzvah, I worked really hard, studied to learn my portion, write my dvar [an analysis of the Torah portion]. It drew me really close,” he recalls.

Matthew gives many reasons for his choice of a Jewish identity. “It was the teachings, the theology,” he says. “I wasn’t convinced that Jesus was the son of God. I really liked Jewish tradition, that it went back so far. I liked how Judaism focused a lot on questioning—the commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries.” But to be sure of his decision, Matthew continued attending Catholic confirmation classes even after his bar mitzvah. “I wanted to try it to make sure that my hunch was correct, that I was doing the right thing,” he explains. By the time he was sixteen, he felt confident: “I feel even closer to the religion I ended up going with because I was able to choose it.”

He also felt confident that his parents would understand his choice. “I didn’t see it as choosing between parents, I saw it as a lifelong decision I would have to live with, and I knew that my parents would support me either way,” says Matthew. “It’s a really important decision and it shouldn’t be made on other people’s agendas.” Now studying chemistry at the University of Illinois, Matthew intends to follow his father into the pharmaceutical industry. He has made a personal choice to be Jewish. But when he thinks about raising children, he still feels drawn, as do virtually all of the children raised with both, to the type of interfaith education he experienced. “I’m really happy with the education I received and I’d really like to pass that on if could,” says Matthew. “It’s almost a shame if I marry someone of the same religion.”

“I want to stay both”
An overwhelming majority of survey respondents continue to claim both religions as part of their identity. When asked, “How would you describe your religious identity at this point?,” more than a dozen, more than a quarter of the sample, chose the label “interfaith.” Eight others chose “Jewish and Catholic” or “Jewish and Christian.” Seven chose “agnostic,” and four chose “atheist.” More than a quarter of the sample refused all of the offered labels and wrote their own. For instance, the fifteen-year-old son of a Conservative Jewish mother and Catholic father in Washington, described himself as “Zen, Catholic, and a little bit Jewish.”

More than 80 percent of those identifying as interfaith responded that they do not expect to eventually choose a single religion. One fourteen-year-old who described himself as interfaith wrote that his identity “will probably always be changing, evolving, discovering, diving in, easing out, going up, going down, spinning around, running around, sitting down, and last but not least, floating.” Some expressed concern that choosing would cause them to lose something positive. “If I choose one religion over the other, I fear I would become too single-minded,” wrote a sixteen-year-old in San Francisco. And a seventeen-year-old from New York wrote, “I want to stay both, because it’s original and it represents a part of who I am. There’s no reason I need to choose either religion.”

Many respondents pushed back against the whole idea of religious labeling. An eighteen-year-old from Chicago wrote, “I don’t think the label is as important as what you actually believe, and what I believe probably has some aspects that are Christian, some that are Jewish and some that are neither or a blend of the two.” A nineteen-year-old from Washington wrote, “I don’t think it’s really necessary to put a label on it. I believe in God (ish) and I believe in the goodness in people and the beauty of this world and I kind of don’t care if that fits into any category.” Several respondents testified to dual-faith status as a spur, rather than an impediment, to developing spirituality. A twenty-three-year-old wrote, “I feel the coupling of both faiths has given me unique avenues to God. I think identifying with the benevolent, shared commonalities between them (rather than narrowing the path) can give a stronger connection to God.”

One sixteen-year-old from Washington disputed the implication that her only options were Judaism or Christianity. She wrote, “I’d like to explore even more religions than just Jewish and Christian before I decide what I want to openly identify as.” Another Washingtonian, seventeen, wrote, “I cannot be severed from either of these religions, nor be limited to Judaism and Christianity. Each lesson I learn, regardless of its origins, will find a niche in my natural landscape of beliefs to be considered.”

David Brescia-Weiler: “People Have Complex Stories”

As a sophomore at Brown University, David Brescia-Weiler, twenty, feels comfortable in his interfaith skin. His mother, Jill Weiler, is a Reform Jew. His father, Steve Brescia, is Catholic. From the age of six, David attended IFFP. He went through the dual-faith education program, participated in a group Coming of Age ceremony in eighth grade, and joined the interfaith Teen Group.

David says he feels no pressure to choose one religion. “My parents have always been super-supportive of each other’s faith, which has made it easier for me to accept both,” explains David.
“When we go to church at Christmas and Easter my mom always comes too. Religiously, if I said I’m agnostic or I wanted to convert to Islam, they’d be supportive no matter what I said. Because their religions are important to them, it’s important to them that I understand their faiths. But I think they understand it as something I can find for myself.”

David describes how others sometimes assign him a religious label based on their own beliefs, or project their own confusion onto him. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re a Jew,’” he explains.
“And I would say ‘I’m a Jew. But I’m also a Christian.’ People ask me if I’m half. And I say ‘No, because I don’t think you can be half a religion.’ I say I’m both. I don’t think I can say I was ever confused about what I was, because I always just kind of understood that I was both.”
At college, he has met other interfaith children but none with his dual-faith education. “Most of them have one religion that’s dominant, or they did nothing,” David notes. “I’m lucky in that I wasn’t forced to choose, and I didn’t do one just because one parent was more adamant. Through IFFP and through my parents, I learned to marry the two religions, so to speak, because they do share the basics: Love your neighbor, be generous. That’s the way I made everything work out.”

In terms of theology, David, like many of those with an interfaith education, sounds either like a Jewish kid who is educated about the historical Jesus, or a very liberal Christian. “I don’t know if I see Jesus as the son of God,” he explains. “I see him as a role model. I don’t see him as a deity but as a person, a great person. Part of why he has been made into a godlike figure is that what he represents isn’t really attainable by a normal human.”

David has gravitated to Jewish friends in college. He joined a fraternity with a large Jewish membership, plays on an intramural basketball team called the Hebrew Heroes, and has a best friend who is the son of a rabbi. “I think he accepts that I’m also a Jew but that I choose to embody that in my own way,” says David. He has learned to advocate for himself and fill in gaps in his religious knowledge when needed. Last semester, he chose to take a tough upper-level seminar with the title “Radical Jewish Thinkers,” taught by an Israeli professor. There were only two other students in the class. One had spent time in Israel, the other was the rabbi’s son. “So I was a little bit the odd man out,” admits David. “Sometimes the professor would throw out names in Hebrew and I wouldn’t know if it was a person or a place or a magazine and I would be, like, ‘Slow down and tell me what that is.’” But, he says, “I hung in there—I did all right.”

David remains a strong advocate for interfaith education. “At this point, I am very content with what I believe,” he says. “When I have kids, depending on my spouse’s beliefs, we’ll have to work something out, but I would ideally like to raise my children with both religions in their lives.”

Michaela Gawley: “I Can See Myself Going in Any Direction”

In a way, Michaela Gawley, sixteen, is responsible for the flourishing IFC chapter on Long Island. “Michaela, when she was very little, was interested in questions of death and God,” says her father, Steve, who was raised Catholic. “So that pushed us to do something sooner rather than later.”

The Gawleys joined the IFC in Manhattan when Michaela was six years old. A few years later, Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, launched the Long Island chapter when they moved to the suburbs, and she continues to lead it a decade later. Since completing the IFC religious education program, Michaela continues to attend on Sundays, assisting in the classroom with younger children. “I like having a connection with the rabbi and the reverend: it’s personal, and that makes it more enriching,” she says.

Michaela accepts her role as an interfaith ambassador. In elementary school, she says, a friend told her, “You can’t be interfaith. That’s dumb. That’s not real.” So she took it upon herself to educate her friend. And by the end of eighth grade, when Michaela took part in the IFC commencement ceremony, her doubting friend was there to witness it.

At other times, she refuses to invest time in defending her interfaith identity. “If I know I’m never going to see these people again, and I know it’s over these people’s heads, I just say ‘I’m Jewish’ or ‘I’m Christian.’ I’m not going to sit there explaining it,” she sighs. Michaela fiercely defends her right to a fluid religious identity. “It’s like asking a bisexual person, ‘Aren’t you confused?’” she declares, indignant. And she also bristles when others try to label her based on Jewish laws of matrilineality. “You know what I say? My mom is Jewish, Judaism passes through her. My dad is Christian, Christianity passes through him. So you figure that one out.”

Michaela feels confident that religion will always be a part of her life. “I can see myself going in any direction—being Episcopalian, being Jewish. I could see myself exploring other religions,” she says. “I’m not comfortable with anything extreme. But in my own weird way, I get really touched when I’m in a religious setting. I believe in God: it’s like a comfort.”

Leaning Jewish
Beyond the desire to retain a fluid identity and perhaps a heightened desire to study religion, is it possible to discern any trends in the choices these interfaith children are making? In the survey of parents with interfaith children of all ages, which had many more respondents, some 20 percent of parents reported that they had a child who had chosen a Jewish identity, versus only 5 percent with a child with a Christian identity. (The vast majority reported children having some form of interfaith identity.) The age at which the child chose a religion ranged from four through college age.

Many of the clergy members who have worked most closely with interfaith communities believe they are seeing more Judaism than Christianity manifested in the young adults who have passed through their programs. Reverend Julia Jarvis of IFFP says that about half of the program’s graduates get involved with Hillel in college—far more than participate in Christian activities—and the survey seemed to confirm this. More than half the college students had attended Jewish High Holy Day services on campus, and less than half had attended any Christian services on campus—though this may reflect the fact that the Jewish High Holy Days fall during the school year, while Christmas and Easter usually fall on school vacations.

But Reverend Jarvis believes the stronger connection to Judaism is a real effect. “They do say they’re both, but my sense is they have more leanings towards the Jewish traditions,” she notes. “I think actually we’ve made Judaism very attractive, because we’re not trying to force these kids to stay Jewish—because it’s a choice.” Both Reverend Jarvis and Reverend Ellen Jennings agree that the simplicity of Jewish theology may be easier for interfaith children than the complexity of the Trinity, which many Jews see as counter to monotheism. Or, as my mother recently said to me, “The concept of the Trinity is a puzzle, even for us Christians.”

Excerpted from "Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family" by Susan Katz Miller. Copyright 2013. Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

By Susan Katz Miller

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