Being Catholic Made Me a Better Jew

by Bill Brenner on September 5, 2013

People are always shocked to hear I used to be Jewish but became Catholic. They want to know how the hell that happened. Here’s my story — an important part of which is how my conversion actually gave me a better appreciation for my Jewish roots.

Mood music:

Truth be told, I didn’t appreciate being Jewish when I was a kid. Our family observed the Jewish holidays on a secular level that had little to do with spirituality. Each December, we put up a Christmas tree (my father jokingly called it a Hanukkah bush) because most other people did so. That was a secular, cultural act as well.

In recent years, my father has grown in his faith, probably because of the three strokes that left him sitting in a rehab center in Swampscott, Mass. It’s a Jewish rehab with a room for services, and those Friday and Saturday services became the big thing he looked forward to all week. I’m glad to see his deepening faith, because it was always hard to tell where he stood during my younger years. He has always believed in God, but other than the high holidays and some of the obligations of childhood, God usually didn’t have much to do with our upbringing.

On the high Jewish holidays, we did attend service at an old temple in Lynn, Mass.

When my brother Michael had his Bar Mitzvah in 1979, it was a big, huge deal. The reception was bigger than most wedding receptions I’ve been to. I was 9 and he was 13, which is typically the age when a kid undergoes the right of passage. But I was 13 when Michael died, so having a Bar Mitzvah was the last thing on earth my angry, rebellious younger self wanted.

My father eventually made me do the Bar Mitzvah when I was 16. It was done in the old Lynn temple. The rabbi pointed at a few sentences that were Hebrew but written out so I could say them.

“Just recite these when I tell you to,” he said.

“What do they mean?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it. Just read it at the part of the ceremony when I tell you to,” he said.

The rabbi was cutting me a lot of slack. He knew I was embarrassed to be doing this so late and wanted to make it as painless for me as possible. I appreciated that immensely. But by the time I entered adulthood, the Jewish faith had failed to permeate my soul.

Fast forward to 1993.

Erin and I start dating, and on the day she takes me home to meet her family, pork chops are on the menu. My future father-in-law takes Erin aside, and, somewhat panicked, asks: “Wait a minute. Isn’t he Jewish? He can’t eat pork shops.”

I ate the pork chops, and, about a month later, attended a Mass at what is now my home church. Something about it interested me, because I frequently came back.

I spent the next decade in the religious wilderness. I went to the occasional Mass, but usually when Erin went, I stayed behind.

Meanwhile, between 1994 and 2003, my great-grandmothergrandfather and both grandmothers died, and their funerals soured me on the Jewish faith more than ever. There was no family rabbi, so we hired one for each funeral service. They’d come and ask about the newly deceased, and during the funeral would talk about everything they had been told about the person.

I thought it was all a bunch of bullshit, not seeing at the time that the problem wasn’t the faith, but how my family observed it, which was not much.

I started going to church regularly when Sean was born, and sometime between 2001 and 2005, something struck a chord and made me decide to become a Catholic. Erin never forced it on me or made it a condition of our getting married, though we did agree to bring the children up Catholic.

I slowly inched toward my Faith over time, and my battle with OCD marked a turning point. Somewhere in the summer of 2001, I started to feel the need to explore my faith and see where it would lead. By 2005, I was going through the Right of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). In 2006, I was Baptized a Catholic.

Part of my OCD therapy involved relentless self criticism and loathing. Self-hatred is not too strong a description. I was so convinced that I was flawed beyond repair that I simply plowed along with my self-destructive behavior. I couldn’t get out of my own way.

Catholic conversion entered the picture because, as I was peeling back layer after layer in the struggle to find myself, I found that I simply couldn’t get there without help from a higher power. In 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, a central theme is that you need to put all your trust in a higher power.

Through the struggles, my beliefs have come into sharper focus. And something unexpected happened: I came to appreciate my Jewish roots in ways I never could as a kid.

One of the reasons is that my conversion involved a deep dive into The Old Testament, the first five books of which — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy — comprise the Torah. The struggles of the Jewish people is something I appreciate and identify with more than ever. Without the education I had on the road to Catholicism, I’m not sure if that appreciation would have materialized.

I’ve learned that some of the central virtues of Christianity are rooted in Jewish teachings, particularly justice, truth, peace, love, kindness and compassion. I try to live by those virtues every day, though I admittedly come up short some days.

People always ask how my parents felt about my becoming a Catholic. My mother didn’t seem to mind, but then she married an Irish Catholic more than 30 years ago. My father didn’t seem to mind. His view of God has always been broader than the Jewish teachings he grew up with and tried to pass on to us kids. One day the subject of religious denominations came up and he said, in his typically unfiltered manner, “Won’t people be shocked after they drop dead to discover it (the different denominations) all comes from the same place.”

Some people want to debate me on my beliefs, but I don’t give in. I’m fully comfortable with my faith and don’t need to explain it to anyone.

For the most part, though, people show the proper respect. My friends are all over the place when it comes to religion. I count atheists, Protestants, Mormons and Wiccans among my closest friends.

Sometimes, it leads to some enlightening discussions. One of my closest friends did the exact opposite of me and converted to the Jewish faith. We’ve talked at length about the differences and similarities between our faith and have found much in common.

Jewish and Catholic guilt, for example, are pretty much based on the same things.

One time at lunch, I asked my friend the question that was burning in my head:

“So, for an adult who becomes a Jew, you have to get circumsized, right?” I asked.

“Well,” he said between bites of his sandwich, “They just sort of poke it.”

Catholics and Jews share a sense of humor, too.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan Shimel September 6, 2011 at 3:04 am

Bill, you know I respect and cherish our friendship. I also respect your faith, as I respect other faiths besides my own. But there is so much more to be becoming Jewish then circumcision. I am not sure that is even the issue. What about, why Jewish? What exactly did it for them? I think you realize also that the issue was how your family practiced religion, rather than religion itself. When you were looking for a higher authority the fact that the kids were being raised Catholic and Erin is Catholic just make it easier? Did you consider other faiths? Just curious.

billbrenner1970 September 6, 2011 at 8:15 am

Alan: Of course I realize there’s more to becoming Jewish than circumcision. It’s actually a far more rigorous path than the path to Catholicism. I definitely DID NOT change my religious beliefs out of a dislike or disrespect of Jewish faith and culture. My views on the role of Jesus simply evolved and I had to follow where my shifting beliefs was taking me. And because of my secular upbringing, my roots in the Jewish faith were never strong enough to keep me there. As for my friend, he married a Jewish woman and as he immersed himself in her faith he started to believe himself. Theirs is an awesome story. Someday, I’m going to get him to write a guest post on it.

Joe September 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

Good piece.

paul September 6, 2011 at 11:18 am

Hey Bill -I did this but in reverse: converting from Catholicism to Judaism in my late 20s, a few years after I married.
Like you, I have a convert’s zeal for my chosen faith and, in 2010, completed my bar mitzvah with a group of 12 other adults, some well past their 70s. Its sad to read about your own b’nai mitzvah experience which was totally devoid of meaning. Frankly, if your heart and soul weren’t in it, your parents really shouldn’t have insisted. You can always do it later, if you want. And the result of forcing you was pretty predictable: the ceremony became devoid of meaning and just drove you further from the faith.

But I think you get that – the key line above is: “I thought it was all a bunch of bullshit, not seeing at the time that the problem wasn’t the faith, but how my family observed it, which was not much.”

The moral? First: I think America is an _amazing_ place for making religion – so often a subject of war and bloodshed and persecution in the world – totally a matter of choice and desire and belief. We both found faiths that suited us better than those we were born to. Rather than suffer along, we were able to simply step into a new belief system that really resonated with our souls. In the process, were weren’t stoned or excommunicated or ostracized by our community. That’s just awesome.

The other moral is that its really up to parents (and, yeah, your church/shul) to make educate their children – not just make them go to church or shul or do a bar mitzvah, but really show them why its beautiful and important and incredibly meaningful. One reason I really wanted to do an adult bar mitzvah was that I wanted to really be able to be a part of my daughters’ b’nai mitzvah celebrations when the time came – bang out an aliyah and not just stand there on the sidelines looking clueless. Anyway…my 2c.

Eric Path September 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I was forwarded your post by my good friend who is catholic, while I am a Jew. Keep in mind as a Jew which is more than a religion ie.. 12 tribes… There is a bloodline ie..Cohen for etc… If your Ashkenazi or Sephardic you may not practice the religion of your birth but you will always be a Jew via tribal history.
Ie.. Am American Indian can convert to a religion there still a Indian.

I apply the litmus test to anti semitism… In the eyes of a Jew hater you are a Jew… In hitlers Germany even if you converted you would be a dead man..

Via the Nuremberg laws…many converts were slaughtered due to blood.. You are a Jew who practices the religion of catholicism…But you will always be a Jew.

Eric Path September 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

My good friend forwarded me your post who is catholic while I’m Jewish.

Keep in mind I apply the litmus test of anti semitism to your story, you are not a catholic. You are a Jew via bloodlines either Ashkenazi or Sephardic who has chosen to practice the religion of Catholicism. You are a Jew and would be a dead man in hitlers Germany even if you converted. As well as your children even if raised catholic. Please don’t confuse the religion with the fact that Jews are defendants from the 12 tribes + the 13th ( Ethiopian Jews ) and you may chose to leave the religion but the Blood will never change.

To a anti Semite your a dirty Jew no matter what religion you practice… Don’t forget it.

See below.

The Nuremberg Laws classified people with four German grandparents as “German or kindred blood”, while people were classified as Jews if they descended from three or four Jewish grandparents. A person with one or two Jewish grandparents was a Mischling, a crossbreed, of “mixed blood”.[1] These laws deprived Jews of German citizenship and prohibited marriage between Jews and other Germans.[

Sharon July 15, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Enjoyed your article. I was brought up Jewish, and I do not care for the religion at all. It is a bunch of “garbage” as far as I am concerned. I do attend Catholic mass and I am more relaxed than what I ever have been. My aunt is an orthodox Jew, and she cannot understand why I do not care for the faith. Maybe a lot had to with my political involvement and when my mother passed away, The rabbi was only interested in getting hs share of the money and nothing else. No compassion for my father. I congradulate you.

Noreen April 29, 2013 at 8:29 am

Hi I enjoyed your article. My Great Great Grandfather was Jewish but married an Irish Catholic in 1884. They had one daughter (my Great Grandmother) , and sadly neither his name (Fishman) or his Jewish faith was carried on.

Jackie September 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm

It’s interesting that faith, for you, has been an antidote for self-loathing. For me, leaving religion was like leaving a prison of relentless introspection and constant negative self-analysis.

Ariela Pereira November 5, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Great article! Catholicism is the perfect continuation of Judaism. I take it a step further and don’t see why you can’t be both Catholic and Jewish? I am! It’s like having the best of two worlds…all the great Jewish Holidays plus Shabbat…and the beauty of Catholicsm also. After all…some of the most popular saints were Jewish…like St. Francis of Assissi and St. Teresa of Avila…and of course the Messiah, Himself! But it is also true that…once a Jew…always a Jew! A person can never stop being Jewish since it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with bloodline. St. Edith Stein was killed in
Auchewitz in a full Catholic Carmelite habit because she had Jewish blood!!

Marci July 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm

I really enjoyed reading your story. I was brought up a Jew. I had a bat mitzvah, etc. I never felt at home in the Jewish faith. I love the traditions, family stories, but its not the same. My husband is Catholic. Around the time of my father’s death, the synagogue wasn’t there for me. It was always a money issue. The Catholic Church welcomed me with open arms and I never looked back. I’ve had a hard time over the years fully embracing my new Catholic faith outwardly as family and friends don’t (won’t) understand. I feel my kids have suffered from that. As I get older, each year, I see how Catholicism is so closely related to Judaism. It’s a natural transition. One that I want to embrace more and more. Thank you for telling your story. It has been so helpful to me.

Sharon April 4, 2015 at 6:44 pm

I have never cared for the practices of the Jewish religion. I married a non-jew, and we were very happy with our married. My husband died 3 years ago from cancer(2011). I enjoy the Catholic faith, as I feel that I am not pressured to believe in something if I do not want to. I go to mass when I feel like it. From the Jewish standpoint, I got tired of being told I was always wrong. My parents could never understanding my feelings. I am more in tune with my feelings , since I am by myself. It has given me a different outlook.

Dan March 7, 2017 at 11:28 pm

I am a Catholic who married a Jew. Jews for life is what I hear, you’re born into it, bred into into it, made into it. My wife feels like it’s a “cult”. We are raising our kids Catholic and I’m proud of it. . . I don’t dislike Jews but find it to be a disgrace to “have” to be part of it. Pick your religion, don’t let it pick you. Joke

Chana September 24, 2017 at 3:42 pm

I was raised an Orthodox Jew but chose to convert to the traditional wing of the Catholic Church in 1978 when I was 18. Judaism just never did anything for me, and trust me, I searched deep within Judaism for a place where I could feel comfortable, even Jewish mysticism.

I craved a contemplative relationship with God, whereas Judaism was more of a “this world”-ly religion which did nothing for me.

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