The story starts long ago. When I was growing up, my father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic. They attended services at a local synagogue before I was born up until the Rabbi’s sermon about how intermarriage was the greatest threat to Jewish survival. That was the last time my parents stepped foot in a synagogue until I was in grade school and was curious about Judaism.
Since Judaism starts in the home, that’s where we were Jewish. From as far back as I can remember, we were welcomed at our Jewish relatives’ tables for Jewish holidays. I wanted to learn more. We started having weekly Shabbat dinners as a family. The only synagogue at that time that would take our family (my mom was still Catholic and my parents wanted to allow us to choose our religion) was Temple Israel. However, the Rabbi at that time wouldn’t allow us to attend Hebrew school or Sunday school — fortunately, this policy has since changed. So, we went to Sunday school at the Basilica of St. Mary’s and eventually all 3 of us attended Benilde-St. Margaret’s School — and we all chose to be Jewish in our adulthood.
As an adult, I converted at Temple Israel. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, and I had a beautiful Jewish-style wedding with a Jewish judge. My grandmother’s best friend, Fannie Schanfield (z”l) told me that as an adult Jew, I was obligated to heal the world. I joined Hadassah, entered their young leadership training program, learned a lot, and made wonderful friends who helped me get more involved in the Jewish community. Jacob and I had kids and sent them to a Jewish preschool, where Ari and Eli continued their Jewish education but craved structure. Problems ensued and I began to question their educational journey.
What I knew is that Catholic school offers no-nonsense structure. I read that if we have expectations clearly defined, kids will work to meet them. My parents felt like it had been important for us to learn the basics of the Christian bible to gather a full understanding of some literary works and the founding of this country. I consulted my grandmother’s other best friend, Ingrid Maslow (z”l), who was a hidden child in a convent during the war. She told me that being raised by nuns did not make her Catholic; it made her strong and grateful. She said that my kids were smart enough to know that they’re Jews and that they could benefit from a solid Catholic education. She also told me that they would be ambassadors in the Catholic schools and could share their Jewish perspectives on things. She was right. There were a couple of other considerations in our decision:
First, the religious service experience. I’ve attended many Catholic masses and many Jewish services over the years. The one thing that has always bothered me is that you could hear a pin drop in a church full of children. Not one whisper. However, in a Jewish service, kids are walking around and talking and laughing — and so are the adults. Why?
Second, Antisemitism. It’s big, scary, and lurking. As parents, how do we protect our children from it? Well, my kids had to face it head-on at too young of an age one January during the evacuation of a Jewish building. They asked me questions like, “Why do people hate us when they don’t even know us?” And “What did I do to make them mad?” You know, questions that we might also be asking as adults. Questions that have no rational answer.
The boys started at Good Shepherd, a small Catholic school in Golden Valley, where they were welcomed with warmth and kindness. I didn’t expect the sigh of relief that I had when I dropped them off. It was the first time they were going to school in a building without a Jewish name. They were … hidden? It was a strange feeling.
The uniforms were great and they didn’t even want to earn out-of-uniform passes. The kids’ academic performance and confidence soared. I got involved in the school as I always had done before. We brought apples and honey and taught the classes about Rosh Hashanah. Ari and Eli shared Jewish perspectives during religion class and they meditated respectfully during mass.
Our school transition wasn’t without challenges. It took a while to get used to seeing Jesus on the cross. We had lunch with Father Marquard who kindly and patiently answered all of the boys’ pressing questions. After that meeting, all was well. Then in January, the kids started a month-long unit on the Holocaust and the teachers asked for my help. The school spends a month every year studying the Holocaust. They wanted new content. As Jews, we don’t dive into Holocaust education that young, and the JCRC didn’t have the tools I was looking for at the time. I applied for a grant and was able to obtain some PJ Library books for the school. Ingrid visited the school and spoke to the 4th-6th graders about her childhood experience in the convent as a hidden child. Friends from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation joined me at that event to film it. Wow. What a powerful experience for all. I feel honored that our family was able to help Good Shepherd with its Holocaust education efforts.
BSM was the next educational stop for my boys, who love math and science. We chatted with a Jewish BSM math teacher about what it would be like for the boys. They were sold on the idea. The school has two religion tracks. One focuses on all major aspects of Jesus’s life; the other is a discussion seminar on big topics and applying biblical ethics to situations today. My kids are in the seminar track.
Ari had a zoom Bar Mitzvah in our living room and shared it with his school friends and teachers. Eli contributes regularly in his BSM religion class. His teacher is grateful for his perspective and the kids are respectful and curious. The school swim team loved when we shared donuts and explained more about Hanukkah. BSM has a great and long working relationship with Beth El Synagogue, which is a nice connection for us. That relationship spans from parking and security to education and service.
My boys are not confused about our religious practice. They love their friends and school and cherish their identities. They are proud Jewish ambassadors. It’s almost as though being at BSM has helped them feel more Jewish and discover what makes them have a Jewish identity.
Given the opportunity, I would do it all over again, but sooner. Would you?
Juliana, this is brilliant!! I wish I had realized what you did and taken both my kids out of the Day School long before 6th grade. You are an amazing and smart parent. Grateful to know you!!
So glad you found what your kids and family needed! With one of my daughters at Heilicher Jewish Day School until 8th grade and the other thriving in public school (after getting a solid start at the Day School), it’s clear that every kid needs something different. It’s wonderful that you’re giving your kiddos a strong sense of their Jewish identity that they can take with them wherever they are
Every family chooses what is right for them. But I did wonder that non denominational private schools were not in consideration. They weren’t even mentioned, it was a straight shot from Jewish school to Catholic school. Let alone public school!
From my experience, I concur that being Jewish at a Catholic school reinforces one’s feeling of being Jewish in a positive way. I went to a Catholic boys high school taught by the Christian Brothers that for historical reasons was one-quarter non-Catholic. About one-quarter of the non-Catholics were Jews. The Brothers were scrupulously respectful of the religions of the non-Catholics but there was, unless I imagined it, a subtle expectation that Jews would excel. In those days before Vatican II, I also might have gotten a taste, however small, of what it was like to be a Jew in Medieval Europe. To this day, I can recite the Hail Mary in Latin.