Interfaith Families Project of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area

The Interfaith Families Project of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area (IFFP) is a unique community of families and individuals dedicated to celebrating and learning about both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Many of IFFP’s members are families parented by individuals of different faiths (one parent Christian, the other Jewish) and/or are themselves the product of such an interfaith family. At IFFP, unlike many other interfaith efforts, interfaith engagement does not have to begin with promoting friendship and tolerance; as author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family and active IFFP community member Susan Katz Miller and IFFP Program Coordinator Miranda Hovemeyer explain. Interfaith families start with “relationships of mutual respect” as a foundation rather than see them as a goal.[1] As Hovemeyer put it, IFFP seeks to “delve into and embrace” what some may see as a “scary side” of (or potential for) interfaith encounter: intimate relationships, marriage, and raising children. In doing so, IFFP seeks to provide a support network and educational community for interfaith families who seek to honor both their Jewish and Christian heritages.[2]

The leadership of the Interfaith Families Project is unique among other interfaith family groups in that there is both a reverend and a rabbi on staff. The Reverend Julia Jarvis, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and Rabbi Rain Zohav, a rabbi within the Jewish Renewal Movement work collaboratively to guide the community through issues that arise for interfaith families, including religious ceremonies, holidays, and family counseling. Hovemeyer explains: “Having both clergy members present to exemplify Judaism and Christianity fully and equally… is a cornerstone of our organization.”

IFFP’s flagship program is the Interfaith Sunday School which is taught by two educators, one Jewish, the other Christian.[3] The goals of the Interfaith Sunday School are to educate children about “both faith traditions of their parents and teach them to be critical thinkers” as well as to “give children a sense of the meaning religion can bring to their lives and to provide them with a foundation for their life long spiritual journeys.”[4] The Interfaith Sunday School curriculum begins at a pre-K level and continues through eighth grade. In addition to learning about connections between the two faiths, students begin learning Hebrew as early as the pre-K level so that those who wish to do so can eventually undertake a bar/bat mitzvah.

During sixth grade, students explore various Christian denominations and Jewish movements and attend services at different congregations. Then, in eighth grade, this formal education culminates in a coming-of-age ceremony, which marks the students’ becoming adult members of the IFFP community. The ceremony itself is preceded by community service projects and is officiated by both a minister and a rabbi who draw from their respective traditions. Students are invited to address the community as part of the ritual; some choose to talk about their service project, others to make a statement of belief. Miller cautions parents about putting pressure on kids to make a statement of belief or to “decide” their faith at this age, because

we don’t see it as a singular decision. We see it as a lifelong process that all of us are in this spiritually flexible and fluid context informed by our complex religious heritages and we will make those decisions again and again throughout our lifetimes, as all people do, even if they come from a mono-faith background.[5]

Both Hovemeyer and Miller note that IFFP’s biggest challenge is not one of growth—in fact, their membership is on the rise. Rather, the challenge comes in communicating their mission to those “outside the bubble” of their community. For instance, the two women note that they encounter many who are skeptical that two traditions can be honored without “watering down” both and some question whether such attempts are creating an entirely new tradition.[6] The organization, however, makes it clear that “IFFP members neither reject our religious backgrounds nor seek a new religion that is a mixture of Christian and Jewish belief.” They “believe it is possible–and desirable–to honor our distinct religious traditions and to share those traditions with spouses, partners and children.”[7] The Interfaith Sunday School’s emphasis on learning the histories of both traditions and its dual-faith teaching model are key ways IFFP sees it is living out this commitment.

Additionally, Hovemeyer and Miller say they often have to “advocate for inclusion” when it comes to being invited into broader interfaith conversations and they also readily address concerns that IFFP’s efforts may draw families away from other communities. They credit a 2013 Pew Forum study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” as helping to shift the conversation about interfaith families from the fringe to the mainstream.[8] The study found that rates of intermarriage among Jews have risen in recent decades and that 25 percent of respondents who identified as Jewish and were married to a non-Jewish spouse were raising their children “partly Jewish by religion.”[9] Further, Hovemeyer and Miller explain that many IFFP members are families who are not necessarily “joiners” of either synagogues or churches and the fact remains that these families will continue to be interfaith even without a supportive community. IFFP seeks to offer families like these a “valuable community where they can feel at home and interfaith education which their kids are not going to get at public school.”[10]

The Family School in Chicago and the Interfaith Community in the New York area, as well as smaller groups elsewhere, share the philosophy of giving interfaith children an interfaith education.[11] Hovemeyer and Miller hope that in the years to come additional groups like IFFP will take root in other places. Hovemeyer reports that she receives phone calls from individuals across the country asking for help in creating such intentional interfaith communities. Miller keeps a list of resources for interfaith families on her website which includes different groups in various locations serving different combinations of interfaith families. In 2015 she launched the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, a Facebook group to help the current interfaith family groups to share ideas, and to help interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion to find each other and form new groups.[12] They both feel IFFP can provide a template to support potential new communities in other places, including communities that go beyond Jewish-Christian and serve, for instance, the growing number of Jewish-Hindu or Christian-Muslim families.[13] For now, however, the Interfaith Families Project, which began in 1995 with four “founding moms,” stands as a vibrant community of over 300 adults and children in the Washington metropolitan area.[14]


[1] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014. ↩︎

[2] According to Hovemeyer and Miller, similar but independent groups exist in Chicago and New York City. In Chicago, the organization caters specifically to Jewish and Catholic families. See footnote 11 below. ↩︎

[3] This model—two educators, one from each faith—is something the Washington, D.C. interfaith family group has in common with the groups in Chicago and New York City. In Washington, D.C. and Chicago, many of the teachers are parents from the community; in New York, seminarians are invited to teach the classes. ↩︎

[4] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014; “Interfaith Sunday School.” Interfaith Families Project. http://iffp.net/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&pageId=474. ↩︎

[5] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014. ↩︎

[6] Ibid. ↩︎

[7] Interfaith Families Project. “History.” http://iffp.net/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=475. Accessed November 2014. ↩︎

[8] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014. ↩︎

[9] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. October 1, 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/. Susan Katz Miller penned a New York Times op-ed, “Being Partly Jewish,” in response to these survey results. The piece is accessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/opinion/being-partly-jewish.html?_r=0.↩︎

[10] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014. ↩︎

[11] See: The Family School (http://the-family-school.org/curriculum.shtml) and Interfaith Community (http://www.interfaithcommunity.org). ↩︎

[12] “Resources.” Susan Katz Miller. www.susankatzmiller.com/resources.  “The Network of Interfaith Family Groups: How to Create New Communities.” https://onbeingboth.wordpress.com/network-of-interfaith-family-groups-how-to-create-new-communities/.” ↩︎

[13] Miranda Hovemeyer and Susan Katz Miller. Interview with author. July 2014. ↩︎

[14] “History.” Interfaith Families Project of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area. http://iffp.net/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=475. ↩︎