"Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life" is Andi Rosenthal's monthly column about "the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage."
When I am asked to speak about my family's reaction to my conversion to Judaism, I frequently joke that my parents might not have been aware of what they were doing, but in spite of my Catholic religious training, they somehow managed to raise a Jewish child.
I'm only half-kidding when I say that. In all honesty, it was the values that my parents instilled within me that had as much to do with my conversion as a belief in Judaism's religious doctrine. And even though I chose to follow my father's religious tradition, both my parents' lives have been models upon which I have based my own values, spiritually, personally, and professionally.
Like both of my parents, I have turned out to be something of a professional do-gooder. And my career path has taken me through several aspects of the Jewish world. For more than five years, I worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, an institution concerned with issues of memory, education, and justice. I then spent a year working for a Jewish social justice organization, and now my career has led me to work for yet another Jewish communal organization, which focuses on community, education, and culture.
Given my background, it did not surprise me at all that I ended up where I am. From the time that I was very young, my parents were very clear about their own values, the exchange of ideas in our home, and what they wanted my sister and me to learn from them. This was not so much in how they spoke to us or in what they said; it was, instead, in the way they lived and the deeds of kindness that characterized their personal and professional interactions.
Neither of my parents came from families in which anyone was college educated. After I was born, when both my mother and father were in their thirties, they made getting a college education a priority. My earliest memories of my family life are mostly of books--books cluttering the dining room table after dinner, when my parents would study while my sister did homework and I paged through fairy tales. Long after I went to sleep, the lights would burn throughout the house, and I could hear my parents' voices debating a point made by one of their professors. And during finals, the electric buzz and click of our old Smith-Corona typewriter would echo through the house as both my mom and dad worked feverishly on final papers and exams.
My father ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude and then went on to get a Master's degree in Criminal Justice. My mother graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 4.0 in three majors--criminal justice, sociology, and education. And they did all this while working and raising two children.
But it was more than their commitment to education and parenting that inspired me. The career paths that they chose were also important to my decision to convert to Judaism.
Both of my parents chose jobs in which they actively helped others. My mother was a teacher in a middle school in the Bronx. She left the house every morning at 6:30 am and spent long days teaching children, many of whom did not have steady income, stable families or the ability to advocate for themselves. After school, she frequently tutored students who did not have a good command of the English language. And after she retired from teaching, she then took a job in the town where I grew up, in the Office for Senior Services, where she now spends her days helping the elderly in our town get the care and services that they need as they grow older.
My father was a homicide detective in Manhattan during the 1970s and 80s. He spent twenty-twoyears in the NYPD and saw things that he was never really able to talk about with me. Even though he had a very healthy perspective on the day-to-day stresses of solving brutal crimes, he never lost his sensitivity and sympathy for those who had to live with the legacy of murder or rape or some other terrible violation in their lives.
I once asked him why he chose such an emotionally challenging line of work. He told me that it had everything to do with losing his own parents at an early age. Because he felt as if he had endured the terrible injustice of their sicknesses and deaths--both while he was still a teenager--he felt that he had to try to bring some sort of justice into the world for others who had their lives cut short.
The irony, of course, is that neither of my parents was motivated by any sense of religious obligation. And in all of the years of my going to parochial school, attending church, and fulfilling all of the obligations of my Catholic upbringing, I have no memory whatsoever of any discussion of justice, social or otherwise.
So how did my own ideas about justice and doing good get transformed into the core reason for my conversion? I'm not sure, but I think it had everything to do with the way my parents' lives and values matched so perfectly with everything I found in my journey towards becoming Jewish.
Justice is a concept I think about a great deal. The first Torah aliyah I ever chanted was that famous passage--Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof --justice, justice shall you pursue. Standing on the bimah, it was impossible for me to chant those two words, "justice, justice" without thinking of my parents.
Each in their own way, my parents taught me what it means to seek justice. Whether it was motivated by their desire to change the world, assuage past hurts, or simply to bring light to a place of darkness, my mother and father set me on the path to a life in which their practice of tikkun olam--healing the world--was made real in their child's choices.
In a home where Torah was not present, my parents, nonetheless, became my first teachers of Torah. And the quiet and secret beauty of their example, I think, is that even though their choices were not rooted in religion, the rightness of their lives and the goodness of their leadership--perhaps not so surprisingly--led their child on a path of faith and holiness, just the same.