Coming Back after Twenty-Five Years

By Robert Podel


I must admit to feeling strangely at services last Saturday (June 16th, 2001). Our synagogue had a Fathers’ Day service, and I was joined by my wife of twenty-six years, along with our twenty-five-year-old daughter and twenty-three-year-old son.

So what’s strange about that? Ordinarily nothing, but my wife is Roman Catholic, and both of my children were raised Catholic. And this time a year ago, I had not been in a synagogue for about thirty-five years.

I guess I need to back up a bit. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I grew up in a secular Jewish home. My father, the son of very Orthodox Jews, rebelled against his upbringing in part by marrying someone he knew his parents would not like. Our Jewish observance mostly consisted of Hanukkah candle lighting, High Holidays off from work or school, and a sort of Passover seder (ritual meal) each year. We attended synagogue for services only on the High Holidays. Forget Sabbath observance or keeping kosher: My mother would sometimes cook bacon and eggs for Saturday breakfast.

My parents very much wanted to have assimilated children. I guess they equated celebrating Christmas (non-religiously) with assimilation. One of my earliest recollections is waking up about 1 a.m. on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left for me. I had just turned four. We had everything except the tree–my father had to draw the line somewhere. I still have my Christmas stocking with “Bobby” embroidered on it.

Mostly because it was expected, I had the usual Hebrew school education and my Bar Mitzvah (when one assumes the responsibilities and privileges of an adult Jew) at thirteen. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I attended High Holiday services at the age of fourteen, it would be the last time I would be in a synagogue for more than twenty-five years.

As a teen, I dated Jewish girls almost exclusively, and I must admit I never gave any thought to interfaith relationships until I was out of college and started working. That’s where I met my wife Karen.

I knew there was something special about her almost from the first time we went out. It was just a lunch date, but something “clicked,” and we started dating regularly. It didn’t matter to me that she was Catholic, or to her that I was Jewish. We just really liked each other.

As our relationship began to get serious, I realized we would need to face the interfaith issue. In 1974, there was no outreach, no Internet available to check for resources, no InterfaithFamily.

Once we decided we wanted to get married, we faced the dilemma of the ceremony, and of course how we would raise our future children. Feeling rather nervous, I decided to call the rabbi at the synagogue where I had had my Bar Mitzvah, and where my family had been members since I was seven years old.

I told the person who answered the phone why I wanted to speak to the rabbi, mentioning the fact that my intended was not Jewish. She asked me one question: “Is she going to convert?” When I said “No,” I was coldly informed that “The rabbi does not do interfaith weddings,” and the call was quickly ended. While I did not expect the rabbi to suddenly decide to perform an interfaith wedding, I did expect that I (or we) would speak to him. That was my last contact with organized Judaism for a very long time.

Unlike my “secular” Judaism, my wife was not Catholic in name only. She had gone to parochial school from first grade through high school, attended Mass weekly, and her faith was an important part of her life. When she asked me to attend church with her one Sunday morning, I agreed to go. I must admit to feeling very uncomfortable, but I managed to get through it.

Since my rabbi would not marry us, our wedding choices came down to either a civil ceremony or a church service (Mass). Karen told me she imagined herself walking down the aisle of her church, so we decided to have the service at the church she had belonged to since she was a child.

There was just one small problem. No, not that I was Jewish. The problem was that Karen really wanted an evening wedding, and her parish did not have them. The Catholic church in a nearby town did, so we went to see the priest there. He was very nice, and after speaking with us he agreed we could have our ceremony in his church. He was also willing to work with me. Being Jewish, I would not agree to repeat vows in the name of Jesus, and I stated that neither the Jewish members of the wedding party nor I would genuflect or kneel. So we had chairs on the altar, my vows were “in the name of Moses and Israel,” and the Jewish members bowed. There were some members of my family who would not attend, but most did.

Although we discussed our future children’s religious upbringing before we married, we thought we would have some time to think about it before children became a reality. But as John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In our case, it meant a baby after less than a year of marriage.

How would we bring our daughter up religiously? I knew that Judaism “officially” was passed down from the mother, which meant that my daughter was not Jewish by birth. I was not familiar with the Reform Movement’s acceptance of patrilineal decent, but it would not have made any difference. I was a Jew, but I was barely Jewish. I had no contacts with Judaism, and the decision was both difficult and easy: our daughter would be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. I could not expect my wife to be responsible for helping to bring up a Jewish child when I, the Jewish one, did not know how to do that. So my daughter and her younger brother were raised Catholic and learned a little about Judaism. Our children attended church regularly with their mom, and I went with them occasionally. When my daughter was twelve, she was invited to be in one of the first groups of altar girls, later renamed altar servers. This was before the pope approved the practice, but the local priest and bishop allowed it. I tried to make it a point to attend when my daughter served, as well as for significant events.

After our kids graduated from high school, they stopped attending Mass regularly. Since my wife did not like to go by herself, she also stopped going regularly. This was in 1996.

So what were we all doing at shul (synagogue) for Father’s Day 2001?

In September of last year, my daughter was taking a philosophy of religion class at college. One of the requirements of the class was to attend a worship service outside the student’s tradition. My daughter called me and asked if I would go with her to a service. Of course, I agreed to go with her. I had heard of a Reform synagogue that was considered “accepting” of interfaith people, so that’s where we went. I must admit I was blown away! The singing and joy here were the complete opposite of the shul I had attended as a child. But what happened later is “the rest of the story.” When we came home following the service, she told my wife, “Mom, you have got to go to a service there.”

My wife and I went, and she seemed to enjoy the service. After, she completely surprised me by saying she wanted to go back again the next week.

Well, we started attending almost every week. We took an Introduction to Judaism class together, and have plans to take additional classes. My wife wants to learn to read Hebrew, and it’s coming back to me slowly. As we have learned more, we decided to increase our level of observance: we now celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath) weekly by lighting candles and saying the prayers, attending programs, and have now joined the synagogue. Karen has not decided that she will convert to Judaism, but in some ways considers herself to be “Jewish”.

When my son asked what I wanted for Father’s Day, I told him I would like him to attend one service with his mom and me, and he agreed. My daughter had attended a Mother’s Day service, and also agreed to go with us. So that’s the story.

One last thing.

The other day my son mentioned that even though he didn’t really understand what was going on in the service, he wants to go again. He liked seeing the Torah taken from the Ark and carried around, and he especially enjoyed the give-and-take discussion of the parsha, the weekly Torah portion that is read and discussed in synagogues each week.

For those who despair when a Jew marries a someone from another faith, I say, “No one can predict what will happen down the road.”


About Robert Podel

Robert Podel is a lead systems analyst and assistant vice president of a major financial institution. He and his wife Karen currently reside in Phoenix, Arizona, where they are members of Reform Congregation Temple Chai. They have two adult children and a doberman/shepard dog.