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Visiting Auschwitz: The Unexpected Aftermath

April 11, 2006

In 1990 I had occasion to travel to Poland on business, and while there I was taken on a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp. As we visited the gas chamber, I felt a presence surrounding me of what I can only suppose were the ghostly remains of the souls of those who were killed there. This feeling, and my awareness of the existence of these souls on earth, completely changed my previous conviction that there was no level of existence beyond the here and now--no soul, no afterlife, no God.

At that time my daughter was 3-years-old. My wife was a non-practicing Jew and I was an agnostic, raised until my teen years as a Christian. Our family was a "typical" interfaith family (if there is such a thing). We shared each other's religious holidays with our respective families, but in entirely nonreligious ways.

 

In many ways my journey to a Jewish identity and my daughter's development into an enthusiastic Jewish young woman have been in parallel. She would have as much of an influence on me as I would have on her, perhaps more so.

Shortly after my trip to Poland, a friend invited my wife and daughter to attend Friday night services at a local synagogue. They went without me because I had a job working the night shift. Even at the young age of 3, my daughter was captivated by the service and the rabbi's sermon.

A few years later, we attended a bat mitzvah of a work friend's daughter. At the end of a very long service, with a newborn little sister keeping us busy, my daughter piped up and said, "I want to have a bat mitzvah, too! Can I?" So we soon joined the synagogue and enrolled her in Hebrew school. Although we were well into the school year, she quickly caught up with her class and became the star pupil. She bubbled with enthusiasm for everything Jewish.

The devotion to Judaism that she demonstrated appeared, to me, to be divine in origin, as she certainly didn't get it from her parents. It seemed like a miracle happened before our eyes, in our house. My teenage supposition of the non-existence of God, already fractured by my trip to Poland, was shattered.

I began to attend services at what I now call "our synagogue." My life's focus began to include a spiritual and religious dimension for the first time, and I met new people and made new friendships that seemed to have a deeper basis than the friendships I had in the workplace.

For the next few years, as my involvement in our synagogue increased, and my daughter continued with her Hebrew school studies, our family life began to reflect a more Jewish home. We begin to observe Shabbat at home by lighting candles and breaking bread with the prayers and songs that my daughter learned. Our December holiday celebrations no longer included a tree or decorations in the house, and the lights I put up on the outside of the house were no longer colored, only white. At Passover, we prepared the seder ourselves and I helped to lead the service. In fact, one year my wife was away and the girls and I did our best to prepare and serve a Passover meal for ourselves; it was sloppy and incomplete, but the warmth and togetherness of the effort brought us closer.

When my daughter's bat mitzvah was just a bit more than a year away. I began to feel that not being able to participate in her bat mitzvah because I was not Jewish seemed inappropriate. This was not because I did not want to be left out, but because I felt as if I belonged there as a Jew. So I began the process of conversion. Our rabbi recognized that we had been living in a Jewish home for some years and that I was already very familiar with Jewish holidays and customs, so he arranged for a fast-track training under his personal guidance, and I completed my conversion well before my daughter's bat mitzvah.

Until this writing, I had never really considered how my growth as a Jewish convert influenced my older daughter, and I never asked her. But the impact has been a two-way street. Her enthusiasm for Judaism sparked my interest and growth as a Jew. And my growth as a Jew increased her spirituality. Where I saw her tremendous association with everything Jewish as a miracle, I think she may have the same impression of my being drawn to Judaism.

In the years since her bat mitzvah, I have grown more involved in the synagogue, as has she. She continues to tutor bar and bat mitzvah students, reads Torah and leads our USY chapter. As she prepares for college, she is looking into becoming a rabbi herself. I cannot think of a more appropriate career for her, and I could not be more proud.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Alex Romano

Alex Romano lives and works in the Los Angeles area and is the social action chair at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Calif. He lives with his wife of 24 years and his two daughters.

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