What Catholic School Taught Me About My Jewish Identity

I still remember the shock on my grandparents’ faces when I announced my voluntarily decision to attend all-girls Roman Catholic prep school. No one expected a liberal, Jewish girl, who had attended public school for nine years, to learn the Our Father by her own free will. But when I decided to attend Saint Mary’s Academy, I didn’t think twice about the newly infused religious aspect of my education. Instead, I focused on how cool it would be to take the bus to downtown Portland, grab a vanilla bean Frappuccino, and take Intro to Dance instead of Physical Education.

Growing up in Oregon, I was accustomed to being the only Jewish student in my class. In first grade, my mom visited my class to teach my peers how to play dreidel so I wouldn’t feel left out when my classmates shared their excitement for Christmas. I figured Catholic school wouldn’t be that different; I didn’t even have to wear a uniform.

On the first day of freshman year, I quickly realized that Judaism was going to be a part of my identity in a way it never had been before. In a class called Christology, I joked to my new classmates that I knew nothing about “Book Two.” Most of them had been attending parochial school since kindergarten and were accustomed to the role of religion in academia. Suddenly, I worried that religion would be presented as a fact rather than a discussion. In class I nodded along and pretended to be familiar with Bible passages and stories in the same way that I would lip-sync the words to Lamb of God when I attended the school’s monthly mass.

I was relieved the next semester when we switched to our unit on the “Old Testament,” as I finally felt like I had some credibility. Our teacher looked to me to pronounce words like Shema and I proudly shared the very important fact that challah shouldn’t be called “challah bread” just as you wouldn’t call a baguette “baguette bread.” In that class, I began taking ownership of my Jewish identity. When I was young, my family “synagogue shopped,” switching our congregation every year. By the time I started prepping for my bat mitzvah, we had joined one of the larger congregations in the city. Although I had attended Hebrew school with my peers since I was 12, I still didn’t feel that I was a part of the close bond they shared. So needless to say, my parents were delighted when I made the decision to join our synagogue’s confirmation class. Turns out being immersed in the religious and cultural traditions of another faith led me to further value my own Jewish upbringing.

My Jewish friends and family members continued to question what I got out of Catholic school. The way I saw it, there were two major benefits: one being that I had a ready-made punch line for when my grandparents asked me why I wasn’t seeing any “nice Jewish boys,” and two, I was learning how to engage in an interfaith dialogue — something I had never experienced before.

Generally, Portland is home to a hipster population that finds solace in artisan coffee and Sunday morning hikes rather than church. Since religion is not the cornerstone of our community, it’s evoked primarily in a cultural context. My friends from Catholic school got to experience a glimpse of Jewish rituals when they would come over for Shabbat dinner and the occasional night of competitive dreidel in December. Meanwhile, I would help them decorate their Christmas trees, stare in awe at their exquisite holiday décor, and then tease my parents about how we needed a towering inflatable menorah for our front yard.

When I entered high school, I was worried that Catholicism would be presented as an absolute truth. Instead, Catholic school offered an opportunity for everyone to safely share their diverse opinions. Surprisingly, my real problem with prep school was the overbearing emphasis on college-preparedness. Compared to the rigorous academics and competitiveness of my peers, religion classes became an opportunity for relaxed discussion and debate.

In religion classes, I learned how to respectfully engage in a dialogue about my own belief system without feeling like I was defending my point of view (with the exception of a heated argument about boiled versus baked bagels after the bagel shop by our school was bought out by a national bagel chain). Nonetheless, I found parallels between the Catholic faith and my own Reformed Jewish upbringing — especially in regard to social justice. Having been educated in an overtly progressive city, it was interesting to discuss climate change, LGBTQIA+ rights, and birth control through a religious framework rather than a political one. When I went on to study politics and journalism in college, I often thought back to how effective religion was as a tool for discussing politicized issues — like when we studied the play “The Laramie Project” as a platform for discussing sexuality and religion. Of course it’s important to keep in mind that my school was in the middle of the Portland bubble where a majority of students shared the same politics — I’m sure it would have been very different if I was in a more conservative place.

While I was never subjected to discrimination, I was routinely told that I was the first Jewish person many people in my classes had met. It was surprising that so many of my peers had never met a Jew when we all lived in a relatively large city. While I occasionally felt othered in school, I never felt personally attacked, mainly because my peers truly knew nothing about my religion. I was thankful that our “Old Testament” unit covered the varying sects of Judaism and an introduction to Jewish traditions. As in most cases, any ignorant comments stemmed from a lack of education.

While I will never look back at high school as the best years of my life (honestly, thank God), those four years were deeply transformative for me. Perhaps it was the all-girls education, being one of the only Jews, or the fact that I never had to take PE, but attending all-girls Catholic prep school helped me to grow into my own. Sharing my beliefs and experiences gave me a sense of confidence I had lacked in middle school and led me to take ownership of my own Jewish identity. By my senior year, my few Jewish peers and I had established the ironic Saint Mary’s Jewish Student Union that unofficially met once a week at Starbucks. Talking with these peers reemphasized how important it had become for me to be part of the Jewish community — and, of course, to have friends who understand the difference between a baked and boiled bagel.

Talia Berniker

Talia Berniker is a copywriter living in Brooklyn, NY. When she isn’t writing ads, she studies improv at Upright Citizens Brigade, attends as many indie concerts as possible, and loves rooting for all things Oregon Ducks.

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