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home : features : people of faith

11/10/2011 10:00:00 AM
FINDING FAITH
Jewish teen has interfaith family
Ben's bar mitzvah (Mitch D. Weiss photo)
Ben's bar mitzvah (Mitch D. Weiss photo)
BY ANGELA CAVE
STAFF WRITER

The Jewish roots of Catholicism are taken seriously in Benjamin Davis' interfaith home.

While his mother, Lisa McGarvey-Davis, is a catechist at Sacred Heart parish in Castleton, 17-year-old Benjamin aspires to connect with his Jewish faith by traveling to Israel.

Benjamin's bar mitzvah came at age 15 - two years later than usual - after years of discernment and studying Hebrew.

"It's the time when you become a man," Benjamin said of the ceremony. "When I was 13, I wasn't at that point. [By 15], my life was more important to me than it had been. I was comfortable with who I was. [The bar mitzvah] meant that I felt a part of something."

Benjamin attended his mother's Catholic parish and his father's Jewish synagogue as a child. He and his brother were four and six, respectively, when asked which faith they wished to follow. They chose to emulate their father, Barry. His younger sisters chose their mother's Catholic faith.

Benjamin started Hebrew school in 2000, but paused the process to focus on school. His mother started teaching her boys and other children about the Old Testament and Jewish holidays in her home.

"We were celebrating all of the holidays anyway," she remarked.

When it came time to prepare for a bar mitzvah, Benjamin's interest waned. "I looked at it more as something that was taking up my Sunday morning," he remembered.

He considered converting to Christianity, but then he attended a friend's bar mitzvah: "It just seemed like a really great experience. A lot of it is focused on how you should treat one another. I thought it was good morals to be following."

In eighth grade, Benjamin began teaching himself the Hebrew alphabet. He met with the rabbi at Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy weekly for half a year and his parents joined him for an eight-week family preparation program.

Mrs. McGarvey-Davis commended Rabbi Debora Gordon of the reform congregation for allowing her family to pursue Judaism, since it's traditional in the Jewish faith for children to follow the faith of their mother.

"We were not her normal family type," Mrs. McGarvey-Davis said of the rabbi.

In fact, she said, the rabbi inspires her work as a catechist: Mrs. McGarvey-Davis encounters many families who are struggling with bringing their children up in the faith, and "I always want to be the person to welcome and encourage them."

Benjamin and his mother agreed that the benefits of an interfaith family outweigh the challenges.

"I've actually really enjoyed the whole experience," Benjamin said, "because I've been able to celebrate all the holidays and get a wide variety of different points of view.

"My friends would say I'm so lucky because I get double the presents [by celebrating Christmas and Chanukah], but that's not really how it works," he continued. "I had the choice to choose if I wanted to be Jewish or not. A lot of people don't have that."

To Benjamin, the biggest difference between Christianity and Judaism is the emphasis on Jesus. He still attends Mass occasionally to hear his mother and sister sing.

"It's a very different atmosphere" than going to temple, he said. "There's a lot of emphasis on prayer and worship. When I go to temple, it's much more about current issues and what can be done to help" with issues like the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Mrs. McGarvey-Davis said her interfaith marriage has made her Catholic faith stronger "because I had to actually choose then to practice my faith."

The similarities between the two faiths have enriched her experience at Mass: Catholic congregants stand in reverence when the Gospel is proclaimed; Jewish congregants stand when the ark is opened to remove the Torah scrolls. Catholic congregants use consecrated wine and bread for communion; Jewish congregants consume blessed grape juice and challah bread after services.

"Jesus was Jewish and he was raised as a Jewish boy, so what I'm doing is raising a Jewish boy," she said. "I think it has really enriched our life."

Benjamin is proud of his ability to read Hebrew: "I think it's just part of being Jewish." He picked Menachem - which means "to comfort" - as his Hebrew name and will add it to his legal name when he turns 18.

Benjamin recently started a job as an activity aide at a Jewish Community Center and plans to study film in college. He looks forward to eventually making a pilgrimage to Israel, "to be in a place where you're no longer considered a minority."

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