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My Daughter, the Catholic Rabbi

This is the second spring that two robins became parents in a tight little nest woven on the lintel above our front door. Last year, when the nest came down, all that was left were shards of baby-blue eggs. I stood for a long time, wondering if it is sacrilegious to throw out the remains, wondering if the fledglings survived. This spring, I got in on the show earlier, noticing a robust male robin swooping in low to avoid the porch, with mouthfuls of food and construction material. The female crouched in the nest, spreading her warm bottom over her eggs.

Just recently, I looked up to see no sign of the parents, but instead the straining, throaty heads of three newly born birds with their beaks open. It was the beginning of an alarmingly short process that would take them from a protected nest to the uncertain skies, where they would have to learn to survive.

It may seem too much of a worn parable, but I am in the same situation, perched on the precipice of a big change. In one month, the last child in our tiny brood will leave and likely never live in this house again. Natalie will go to Israel for the first leg of a long journey, emotionally, spiritually and educationally. She is becoming a rabbi.

After a short return home following college so that she could redirect and refuel, this daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father worked hard to achieve lift-off — and she did. After a dozen years of fits, starts, commitments, passion and hope, she became part of the class assembled by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the spring of 2015. It was a joyous day for us all.

It’s not so unusual these days for a young woman to join the Reform rabbinate. But she chose this way independently when she got herself ready for a bat mitzvah at the age of 15. She never went to Hebrew school, spent little time at synagogue other than the High Holidays, and knew only the most superficial things about Judaism that were transmitted mostly through the Jewish cooking I enjoyed doing on holidays and on a random Sabbath. She was a Catholic on Christmas and Easter, and a Jew for the High Holidays.

It’s hard to say how this could have happened, especially when I, her mother, had 16 years of Catholic education and, in high school, very much thought the life of a nun was one to pursue. Yes, a nun. The nuns who stood in front of me in high school were doing the things I valued even then — teaching young girls Latin and chemistry, pursuing lives that centered on the acquisition of knowledge and living independently as women. I liked that idea of community, self-sufficiency and service.

Of course, I married a Jew as soon as I finished up my Jesuit college education, a symbol of my generation’s interfaith urges that displeased many parents to no end. I continued to be a Catholic, nominal at times, but I never forgot the nuns who helped form me and who lived in this, a community of common goals. Similarly, the Jesuits I knew lived in a community that seemed like an intellectually yeasty environment with a good wine cellar to boot.

Only as I listened carefully to what drove my daughter to make this commitment did I hear her say several times the word “community.” Looking for a community. Wasn’t that what she found and became part of through grit, focus and passion? Wasn’t this the very thing that I so admired and wanted to be a part of at points in my own life? Did it matter on what spiritual side of the fence she found it?

Not to me.

Maybe because she is a child of an interfaith marriage, in which we decided to expose our daughters to “both,” she felt compelled to gravitate toward the option that seemed the best way to belong to something good. Though it might seem to be a dereliction of duty to many confirmed Catholics, and odd to some Jews, I felt the best outcome would be that one day she and her sister would choose what to believe and decide to affiliate.

This may have been wildly off base and just a way to rationalize the fallout of keeping two faiths throughout a 37-year marriage, but it seems she has chosen her community and that she will, one day, have a leadership role in that community. Maybe because her mom and dad respected each other’s religion so much, she felt a safe space — as she would say — to choose.

In a few weeks it will be time to take a ladder, crawl up to that over-the-door sweet spot and take down the nest. The little ones, strengthened by the warmth of their upbringing, will have left to discover the world on their own.

Cindy Skrzycki, senior lecturer in the English department of the University of Pittsburgh, was a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post for nearly two decades.

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