Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW, is a family therapist and parent coach who specializes in working with multiracial families, as well as the founder of U Power Change and the Multiracial Parenting Network. She’s also the mom of an interracial, dual-faith family – she’s Jewish and her husband is Muslim, and they’re raising their two young kids with both Judaism and Islam.
We are excited to have had the opportunity to talk with Rorri about the joys and challenges of navigating a multi-faith family life as well as her new video series “Life Interrupted.” Rorri created “Life Interrupted” to support parents who are interested in her work during these uniquely challenging times of the coronavirus. You can watch it live on the Multiracial Parenting Network on Wednesdays at 8pm EDT and Sundays at 9:30am and on their You Tube Channel.
Our Director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship, Rabbi Robyn Frisch spoke with Rorri Geller-Mohamed to hear about her family’s reality as a Jewish Muslim family.
Your kids are 2 & 4, growing up in an multiracial, dual-faith family. Does the reality of what that looks like now differ from what you imagined it would be like before you had kids?
No and yes. Before we had kids I imagined them growing up in an environment that would support our family identity as a multiracial, multicultural and multifaith family and would give the kids the opportunity to celebrate and be proud of all of their identities while growing up connected to family and community.
In reality, that’s what we have created. We frequently spend time with both of our extended families which allows our kids to experience both Judaism and Islam as well as Jewish American and Guyanese culture. They also see their family from different backgrounds coming together for fun events like birthdays and barbecues. In regards to religion, they are just as comfortable saying Shabbat prayers as they are standing and kneeling when they do their Islamic prayers. They get excited about celebrating Ramadan and Eid with family just like they do the Jewish holidays. They know the Arabic alphabet and are learning the Hebrew alphabet. They are comfortable and familiar with praying in both a synagogue and a mosque.
In some ways it’s different from what I expected. I imagined I would be doing more in regards to intentionally preparing and teaching more about culture and religion. With two young kids, I’ve recognized the importance of going with the flow as a parent with the constant need for attention. There is little time or energy left for the in-depth preparations for holidays or lessons that I imagined would happen. Decorations for holidays are often minimal, planning is often last minute for activities to help them learn about the holidays, and foods that are special or culturally traditional don’t often get made in our immediate household (although the kids do get to experience them when visiting extended family). Obviously, they are still young and as they get older that can change.
How does your work around anti-racism and being a mother of biracial children intersect with your family’s religious lives and choices?
I prioritize raising my kids with the values of racial equity and social justice, which includes doing whatever I can to bring them up in an environment where they can be proud of who they are and their background. As a white Jew who grew up in a multiracial family and being a therapist who has worked with multi-identity youth and families, I have experience working with the depression, anxiety, substance use, at-risk choices and other emotional pain that comes from not prioritizing identity, belonging, racial equity and social justice specifically in multi-identity families. So naturally, this plays a big part in how we as a family learn and pray together.
Traditionally, most Jewish American synagogues and organizations have not prioritized inclusion of Jews of color or multiracial families nor have they acknowledged or incorporated teaching about systemic racial injustice in the U.S. Unfortunately, this also means that there are many white Jews who may unintentionally be causing harm to people they care about and supporting systemic racism. I intentionally seek out Jewish spaces for our family to learn and pray that are racially diverse, having conversations about race and racism or at least interested in starting them, and have the desire to support multi-identity families. I want my kids to not only see other multifaith kids and multiracial kids like them in Jewish spaces but also know and see that their religions value equity and justice.
What has the biggest joy (and biggest challenge) been for you raising your kids in an interfaith home?
I love watching my kids embrace all of the holidays and the ways my kids combine different aspects of their religions. This year, Passover and Ramadan were really close together so we were often reading and talking about both holidays around the same time. My 4-year-old son was proudly showing my mom (his Jewish grandma) the Passover seder plate he colored and telling her how he made it for Ramadan all while receiving her praise over video chat. It’s silly moments and mix-ups like these, that I look forward to as both my children find ways of integrating both religions into their lives. It’s beautiful watching how happy our kids are and seeing them grow up with all of our family.
The biggest challenge of raising kids in a multifaith home has been finding religious institutions that align with the values we want to raise our kids with and that offer religious education and programs that instill those values while offering a truly inclusive and welcoming community for us to participate in as a family.
If you had to give parents in interfaith families one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be intentional in teaching and guiding your child to know who they are and be proud. This can be done through supporting their identity and guiding them to have a sense of belonging while giving them the skills to navigate and challenge both individuals and institutions that don’t understand or create space for them. Be aware that your child’s identity will be both unique and connected to your own, and can be nurtured through spending time with extended family, both parents participating in religious and cultural events and continuing to learn about each others beliefs and backgrounds. [You can] connect with other multifaith families, and participate in religious institutions that value multi-identity family participation.
“Life Interrupted” is your new advice show for parents trying survive in this unprecedented time while still trying to live and pass on their values. Was there a particular challenge that your family was facing that sparked the idea for this show?
It wasn’t necessarily a particular challenge that sparked it, instead it was more about re-evaluating how I was spending my time and making an impact. I was put in a position to suddenly reflect on this when my kids were no longer in preschool and instead home with me all day due to the pandemic. I wanted to find a way to use my professional training as a therapist to support parents and families while also working to promote equity and inclusion. I wanted to provide a space where parents could get the emotional support they need while also meeting their kids’ emotional and developmental needs.
But it’s also about helping parents take a step back to imagine a different future for our kids where they can grow up in a safe, inclusive and equitable world. Each episode includes resources to help families learn about and work for equity and social justice. Thus, “Life Interrupted” was born. I literally came up with the name because I was trying to think of something to call it and my kids kept interrupting me.
Have any faith-based ideas or rituals particularly helped you and your family manage during this time?
Shabbat was actually something that I found really helpful. Before Covid, Shabbat was something we would do sometimes on Friday nights. Once Covid hit, it helped me to feel more grounded by knowing it’s consistent among all of this uncertainty and something positive amongst all the negatives. It’s a time that we could look forward to each week as a family and a time for us to pray together. There were opportunities to participate in virtual tot-Shabbat programs which were a really convenient way to help the kids become engaged. We also set up a video chat to light the candles together with my family in New York which made it feel like we were closer together.
Ramadan has been really different this year because we can’t gather with family for iftars as we would have before Covid. But it has pushed us to find other ways to connect and be together as an extended family. Our extended Muslim family meets twice a week virtually, once to just check in and chat and the other day we have a family program where we learn together, reflect, pray and have fun playing online games together. It’s been nice to have the regularity and connection of that. With everything going on with Covid, it’s also been nice to have Ramadan to remind us to find gratitude even when times are difficult, allow space and time for reflection, and look for more opportunities to grow personally and spiritually.