Dear Alma Mater

By Paula Rosenberg

November 4, 2009


Fall is here, and for many people that means college homecomings and high school reunions. Reminiscing about school years brings back all kinds of memories. We look back at first loves, first heartbreaks and cramming all night for finals with a certain degree of nostalgia and, dare I say, even romanticism. But is it OK to look fondly back on growing up in Catholic school after converting to Judaism?

I was raised in an interfaith household in the suburbs of Cleveland. My father was Jewish and my mother Catholic. Although my family celebrated the holidays and customs of both faiths at home, my younger sister and I were baptized in our mother’s faith. Starting with kindergarten, we attended parochial school. That was the first time I realized that not every kid grew up knowing about Judaism. In fact, I was the only kid in my class who did. It never bothered me at the time, but now I realize how much I must have stuck out during phys-ed class. We had to wear bright gold T-shirts with our last names written on the backs. In a sea of O’Malleys and DiNapolis, the chubby girl with “Rosenberg” plastered across her broad shoulder blades was certainly an unusual sight at St. Bernadette’s.

I do remember often having to correct teachers and members of our parish when they spelled my last name. “It’s E-R-G, not U-R-G,” I would say. “But that would make your last name Jewish,” replied old ladies who had been around pre-Vatican II. “It is Jewish,” I would reply. I would get reactions varying from confusion to pity for a poor half-breed to shock.

In some instances, my background became an educational tool for my classmates. In kindergarten, my mother was asked to host a seder for our class during Holy Week–because, after all, Jesus was celebrating Passover during the story we would hear in church that week. In high school theology class, I was asked to teach the class about Yom Kippur when we were studying morality and atoning for our sins.

My friends were curious about my father’s religion and about growing up in a home with two faiths. My dad had passed away when I was in middle school. Schoolmates not only showed up with their parents for his memorial service but begged me to take them on a tour of the synagogue because they had never been in one before.

Despite having a surname of a different faith than the majority of my friends, my secondary school years at St. Joseph Academy were filled with the same experiences as everyone else. I had budding romances, heartbreaks and found the sudden two octave changes in the alma mater song we were forced to sing at assemblies as awkward and hilarious as everyone else. The wool skirts we had to wear were as itchy to me as any of the other girls. If I never have to wear a glen plaid print again, it will be too soon. By that point in my life, I was starting to question if I really believed in all the dogma we were taught, but I wouldn’t trade my years at that all-female institution for anything.

I ended up going to a Catholic liberal arts college. I was still having some doubts about my faith, but I did love participating in social justice events and retreats thrown by our campus ministry. The Christian element wasn’t what attracted me as much as the opportunity to volunteer in causes I believed in and getting in touch with my spiritual side through nature, silent meditation and sharing openly and honestly with others. I met some of the people I consider my dearest friends and second family through these experiences.

Ironically, my Christian schooling played as instrumental a part in my decision to convert as growing up with a Jewish father did. I couldn’t get past some church teachings that I didn’t agree with but loved the idea of social justice. I resolved that I could just volunteer and do good deeds without religious affiliation. It was around that time that I was reading about Judaism, not with the intent to convert, but just as a way of learning more about my father’s ideology and background. I stumbled upon the concept of tikkun olam, and it resonated with me. After poring over the core believes of the faith and realizing they aligned with my own, I chose to be a chosen person.

I converted over a year ago. Many Christians who convert have a hard time giving up their former holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. I had the luxury of experiencing the High Holidays, Hanukkah and Pesach, so I had childhood memories attached to those celebrations. What I had the hardest time with was how to fondly reminisce about my school days, even though many of those memories were attached to my former faith.

I didn’t know what was OK and what was stepping over the boundaries of the appropriate. Was it OK to wear my old Aquinas College sweatshirt out in public, since St. Thomas was certainly not a Jew? Should I still contribute money to my high school alumni fund even though they required students to take theology courses in a religion to which I no longer subscribed? Looking back, did heartfelt conversations with friends during retreats now mean less because they had been accompanied by singing traditional church songs?

I have realized that I can’t erase the past. I never had the experience of attending Camp Shalom in the summer or having a bat bitzvah at 13 or going on a Birthright Israel trip. What I did have was a wonderful childhood and adolescence, and a Christian education just happened to be a part of that. Diminishing that would lessen the relationship I have with friends from those periods. I would never want to do that. I have incredible friends who supported my decision to leave their church, and while it is awkward for them to see me not participate in the religious aspect of Christian weddings and memorial services we attend, for the most part those relationships have remained as strong as they ever were. I can be proud to sing the praises of my alma maters because they helped shape me into the person I have become. Although I may be the only member of my shul to root for a college team named The Saints.


About Paula Rosenberg

Paula Rosenberg works in community management and is a freelance writer. She lives in New York City with her pet rabbit, Milo.