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  • Writer's pictureJessica Lenza

How this Catholic Girl Became a Rabbi

I was 7 years old when I decided I wanted to be Jewish. 


That’s right. This rabbi began her life as a Catholic.


The epiphany happened right after I played Jesus in my Catholic church’s Last Supper play and right before my first Holy Communion, but it had been brewing in me for a while. It started with questions. I would pester my teachers at Sunday school asking them to delve into the very nature of God, but for some reason they didn’t think it necessary (or perhaps weren’t equipped) to engage in the finer points of theology with a child. But I was serious and wouldn’t be so easily dismissed.  


So when I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with my priest in my first Holy Confession, I knew this was my chance to get some answers. I confronted him with the most provocative thing I could think of: “Jesus isn’t the son of God,” I defiantly told him. Much to my disappointment, Father Ed, whom I always mistakenly called Mr. Ed, wasn’t interested in pursuing the conversation. He dismissed me from the room with the instruction to recite several Hail Marys. 


My statement to Father Ed had been a test, and he failed miserably in my eyes. Maybe he didn’t think he needed to take me seriously because I was so young. Or maybe he hated that I confused him with a talking horse. Who knows? I decided right there and then that I was done with Catholicism and I wanted to be Jewish.


Being raised Catholic, I only sort of knew what it meant to be Jewish. My father’s mother, Evelyn, had been Jewish. She died before I was born, so I only knew her through the stories my mother told me about herthat she was kind and classy and smart and elegant, but you didn’t want to cross her. So, naturally, I wanted to be just like her. 


Because of my grandmother, I had some Jewish family, and around the same time as my first and last Holy Confession, I attended a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah. Yes, the party was epic, with plenty of blow-up guitars and plastic fedoras in hideous neon colors. But that wasn’t what impressed me. 


There was something almost magical about the service for me. I was fascinated with the ancient scroll written in a secret language. The silver accessories adorning the scroll were polished to a shine that seemed to have its own source of illumination. Or, as Taylor Swift might put it - Best believe that scroll was bejeweled, when it walked around the room, it made the whole place shimmer. I was deeply moved by the music. Even though I had never heard these songs before, there was something strangely familiar and inspiring about the music. I have a vivid memory of dancing in the lobby of the synagogue to one of the prayer melodies from the service and thinking that this was where I belonged. 


Following my conversation with Father Ed, I didn’t recite Hail Marys as he had instructed. Instead, I marched home and told my mom that I wanted to be Jewish. She was not pleased to hear this declaration. After all, we were preparing for a big celebration for my first Holy Communion and, as she reminded me, Jewish people don’t receive communion. I told her I didn’t care. I wanted to speak to a rabbi. My mom told me that wasn’t going to happen. I was simply too young. If she took me to a rabbi, she said, he would laugh at me. “Fine,” I told her. “I’ll just wait until I’m 18 and then I’ll go to the rabbi on my own.” 


A very unhappy me at my communion.


But I didn’t have to wait that long. A couple of years later my parents divorced and, luckily, my stepfather, Allen, came into my life. When I was 12 years old, he sat me down and told me that religion is an important part of a person’s life and he encouraged me to explore my spiritual options. He offered to take me anywhere I wanted to go: The church I had grown up in. A different one. A mosque. A Hindu temple. A Buddhist temple. A synagogue. Without hesitation, I told him I wanted to go to a synagogue. So we went to Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, and that’s where I met Rabbi Joel Soffin. 


I told Rabbi Soffin that I wanted to be Jewish. And you know what? He didn’t laugh at me. 


He listened to me. He asked me questions. We had a thoughtful, serious conversation. Yes, I was young. Yes, the situation was…unique. But Rabbi Soffin never made me feel like my strong inclination to pursue a Jewish life was anything other than utterly valid. By the end of our meeting, he had laid out a path toward conversion. If this was what I truly wanted, I would need to work for it.


And I really wanted it. I started studying once a week with a tutor. Volunteered for the religious school. Joined the post-B’nai Mitzvah class with kids my own age. Learned to read Hebrew in an adult education class. Became a member of the social action committee. Assumed a leadership position in the youth group.


When I was 15 years old, I officially converted to Judaism after three years of preparation. A month after my conversion, I became a Bat Mitzvah. (Coincidentally, this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, was my Bat Mitzvah portion.) A few months after that, I was confirmed with my peers at Temple Shalom. That summer I traveled to Israel for the first time and that fall I chanted Torah for our entire community during the High Holy Days. 


I think I broke some kind of world record for Jewish milestones in one year. 


A much happier me with Rabbi Soffin at my bat mitzvah.


I went on to pursue a career as a Jewish professional and now I’m a rabbi, working in a synagogue that I have long admired. A synagogue where Rabbi Joel Soffin is a member. The Rabbi has become the congregant. And so when I was asked to teach an Introduction to Judaism class hereasked to be a guide for other folks yearning to discover their own unique, beautiful, complicated Jewish journeyI was a little overwhelmed by the symbolism. 


Is there a blessing for this? Because there should be. 


When I speak to folks who are considering converting to Judaism, we inevitably explore what has attracted them to this journey. Frequently, I hear stories about how they like celebrating Jewish holidays or that they value the ability to question and wrestle with a religious tradition. But often, after we have built some trust, they admit to me that they just know it’s rightthat they “feel” Jewish. They tell this to me, almost expecting me to dismiss this inclination. Like it’s a figment of their imagination. But I know all too well how strong and real that sense of belonging can be.


It’s difficult to imagine how different my life would have been if Rabbi Soffin had laughed at me. Or dismissed me. Or disregarded my urgent desire to connect to Judaism. I’m so grateful that he didn’t. Instead, the seemingly simple act of him seeing and supporting me launched me on this gloriously unexpected odyssey. 


Your Jewish journey, whether you are considering conversion or have been Jewish your entire life, may not be obvious to you. Discovering it requires patience and persistence. It requires a guide and a community. If you are looking for an opportunity to explore this vast and beautiful tradition and aren’t sure how to get started, I invite you to speak with me.


I promise this rabbi will not laugh at you.


A version of this blog post was first published here.

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