Joe Berkofsky, a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers education, Jewish identity issues, philanthropy and the religious movements. He has been a reporter for the technology network TechTV in San Francisco, daily newspapers in the greater Boston area, and a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Report, The San Jose Mercury News, B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly and other publications. He was also an editor at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and at other weekly newspapers.
Circle Complete for Jewish Convert
This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.
NEW YORK, Nov. 24 (JTA)--Andi Rosenthal celebrated Christmas last year with her Catholic family, but something was different.
For the first time, she was joining them as a Jew.
"I was aware this was not my holiday anymore," says Rosenthal, who chose to convert to Judaism. "Amidst all the wild unwrapping of presents, the Christmas morning breakfast, I felt like an outsider and insider at the same time."
Despite her family name, Rosenthal grew up in a typical middle-class, Catholic suburban home in Westchester County, N.Y.
Her father was Jewish, but Andi, her older sister Laura, and both her parents lived as Catholics. She attended Christian parochial school and Sunday school, and her family went to church and celebrated the Christian holidays.
But the year she turned 13 and was confirmed, Rosenthal attended a friend's Bar Mitzvah, and something struck a chord deep within her.
"There was something in the language and something in the synagogue that resonated in me," says Rosenthal, now 33.
She decided to investigate her Jewish heritage, and as a University of Delaware freshman began taking Jewish studies courses. She learned about the Holocaust and Jewish history.
"Having the name Rosenthal, I felt such a sense of injustice that our family's connection to Judaism had been lost."
As her Jewish identity grew, Rosenthal began to call herself "half-Jewish."
Her mother was not so happy about the change, as she wrote in a recent grand-prize winning entry in the essay contest "We're Interfaith Families... Connecting With Jewish Life," by Interfaithfamily.com, a network for interfaith families seeking Jewish connections.
"She would often shake her head and say, 'You're Catholic. You were baptized and confirmed. End of story,'" she wrote in the essay.
A decade later, in 1999, Rosenthal began working in the communications and marketing department at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City. The job crystallized the years she'd spent studying Jewish history.
In August 2001, Rosenthal embarked on the process to convert to Judaism.
A month later, on Sept. 11, she was working in the museum a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes hit the towers. She saw people falling from the towers before fleeing her office.
"The whole point of my job was bearing witness to the Holocaust," she says, but "this was the worst thing I had ever seen."
After much internal struggle and questioning of God, she says she realized that "the responsibility to bear witness has ramifications for all generations."
Two months before her conversion in 2002, her father told her a long-hidden secret. His mother, who had died at the age of 43 of cancer, had converted to Judaism from Catholicism in order to marry her grandfather. When Rosenthal's grandmother was on her deathbed, a hospice nun told her she was suffering as penance for having become a Jew.
Rosenthal's father was so upset and angry that he did not talk about his family's mixed religious roots until his daughter neared her own conversion.
She was shocked, of course, but also happy to hear of her grandmother's provenance. `
"I felt in some way I could make up for, or erase, or bring to a different place the life she had that ended in such doubt," she says.
For her final Christmas as a Catholic two years ago, Rosenthal went out and bought a 9-foot tree, the "biggest Christmas tree you've ever seen."
She'd long celebrated a tradition of friends bringing ornaments, and that year many of them brought Stars of David and menorahs.
Rosenthal converted on the first anniversary of Sept. 11.
When she celebrated Christmas with her family for the first time as a Jew last year, she says she felt at peace despite her conflicting identities.
"My heart is Jewish, and knowing my heart is Jewish makes my head OK."