I am the oldest of five girls. We were raised Catholic and were all very active in the church growing up. I sang in the kids’ choir, founded the teen choir, and served as a church cantor for 7 years. My mom serves in a music director role for our church and other congregations, and my whole family has held leadership roles in the church. So, spending time at church and singing church music were a big part of growing up. When I went to college at Hofstra, I started to get involved in Judaism. I hung out with Jewish friends and attended Shabbat dinners. I went to the Tuesday night parsha study called “Jewcy Sushi” where you learned about the week’s Torah portion and ate sushi. At first, I continued to stay involved with the Catholic student group and went to Mass while attending Hillel events.
But there came a time, sometime after I had been attending Shabbat services and praying alongside my classmates, that I had to decide whether I wanted to be a full member of the Jewish community. After a lot of soul searching and praying, I realized that I believed in what I was learning—that I identified with the God I was praying to and that the Jewish values were my values. Discovering my place in the Jewish tradition felt like discovering a new and exciting part of myself that had somehow been there all along.
Of course, throughout all of this, I was trying to decide what to do after college. I loved learning, teaching, social action work, and music. I wanted to find a way to combine all of my passions and do something meaningful with them. When I learned about the cantorate, it seemed like the perfect fit. Now a year and a half later at Hebrew College, I’ve found the place that is letting me not only pursue these passions and grow in knowledge, but I am able to use what I am learning to give back to Jewish communities where I work.
When I converted to Judaism, at first, it was really hard on my family. Faith is really important to my parents; it shapes their whole lives. They passed down everything from the Catholic tradition to me and my sisters, hoping we’d continue it. So my conversion felt like a rejection of everything they thought was important. But they have come to see how happy I am being Jewish and to see all the good work I’m doing in the Jewish community. And while I’ve never had a seder with them or taken them to Shabbat services, they do little things to show that they care—at Hanukkah, my mom wanted to know the candle blessings and when I was home during Passover week, she took me matzah shopping.
Jeanne, the oldest of my younger sisters, is becoming a nun. There’s a lot of common ground between our worlds. When I was converting to Judaism, Jeanne and I talked a lot. We’re very close. She recently entered a community called the Poor Clares, a cloistered Catholic order in Virginia. Her days are spent in prayer, meditation, periods of silence, and working in the garden and maintaining the convent. She’s known for a long time that she wanted to become a nun. We all went to her entrance ceremony, which was beautiful. There was a parlor for visitors and a grate separating the visitors’ side from the rest of the community—our family stood on one side and the nuns on the other. Before Jeanne entered the community, we spent time with her on the visitors’ side saying goodbye and asking the nuns questions. Then we all went to a big door that only has a handle on the nuns’ side. Jeanne knocked on the door, read a petition, which the nuns accepted, and then she went through the door. The nuns hugged her and closed the door with the handle on their side. Jeanne changed into the order’s clothes and joined the nuns in prayer and song, which we watched from our side. Afterwards, we were able to talk to her through the grate—she was so happy and looked at home. We can write her letters and visit once a year. We miss her a lot but know this is what she’s wanted since she was 14. I know she’s glad I’m happy being Jewish. And I’m proud of her for following her dream.
(Jennifer Boyle is a second-year cantorial student in the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College’s COSEL program – Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership.)