HIGHLAND, N.Y.—Next week, like millions of Jews for more than 3,200 years, Judy Bratten and her family will celebrate the first night of Passover with a seder, the traditional supper with unleavened bread and other kosher foods that marks the passing of the angel of death over faithful Israelite households before their exodus from Egypt.
A few days later, like millions of Christians for about 2,000 years, Bratten and her family will celebrate Easter, the day the Church marks the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Brattens see no conflict. Judy Bratten, growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in New York, loved Hebrew school and the Jewish feasts her family observed. Upon becoming a Christian (and later, in 1985, a Roman Catholic), she wanted to pass on the traditions to her children. Her husband, David, a gentile who grew up Episcopalian, also participates in the annual seder.
The Brattens, who live in Hopedale, Ohio, belong to the Association of Hebrew Catholics, which aims to preserve the identity of Jews who become Catholics.
The association, based in Highland, N.Y., was founded in 1979 by Father Elias Friedman, now 83, a Jewish Carmelite monk living in Israel. Father Friedman, the author of Jewish Identity, hopes the Church will approve special registration of Jewish converts at baptism, which would continue with their descendants.
The idea is not separatism, according to association president David Moss, but preventing Catholics of Jewish origin from becoming alienated from their heritage.
“Personally, I think it's absolutely essential for the People of Israel to see a way to preserve themselves within the Church,” said Moss, 57.
Convert-making is not the association's purpose, but Moss allows that forming an expressly Israelite wing of the Church may make it a more welcoming home for Jews interested in Jesus' claim to be the Jewish Messiah. As it stands, though, the Church looks like foreign territory.
Speaking of Jews, Moss said: “If the people are an elect people, and they know it — and the Church knows it and teaches it — then you can't expect them to respond to a message that destroys them as a people. … They look at the Church as an … institution for gentiles, not for them.”
For Judy Bratten, the annual seder is a way to continue and pass on her Jewish traditions while using its symbolism to reflect on the family's faith in Christ. She has developed her own introduction to the ritual:
“This evening we gather together to celebrate the feast of Passover. All over the world Jewish families are sitting around tables with the same symbolic food, the same cups of wine and the same exciting story of God liberating his people.
“Two thousand years ago, Jesus sat with his disciples around a table and celebrated the Passover in a special way. We call that special Passover Supper the Last Supper.
“As we go through this ceremony, listen for things that remind you of Jesus.”
‘I've had times when I've felt really like a stranger in a strange land,’ he related. ‘I had to pick what was most important, which was Christ.’
The Brattens emphasize to their son Jonathan, 13, how similar the symbolism of the two traditions is. The Passover candles, for instance, Judy Bratten identifies with Jesus as the light of the world (John 8:12). Several times during the seder the leader purifies his hands by washing them, which Bratten links to the priest's washing his hands before the consecration during Mass.
“I've always thought that God in his wisdom established these rituals as multisensory experiences to help people remember their meaning,” she said.
Judy Bratten has two older daughters. Rebecca, 25, a graduate student at the University of Dallas, and Joanna, 23, a graduate student at St. Andrews University in Scotland, became Catholics with their mother in 1985, and are still attached to their Jewish traditions.
“So they both tend to continue the Passovers,” Bratten said of her daughters. “They tend to look for other Hebrew Catholics because it's something special they can share. It makes them feel like they're part of the family.”
But finding Hebrew Catholics can be tough. Father Arthur Klyber, a Jewish Redemptorist priest (age 99) who collected a sort of rough census of Jewish converts to Catholicism from the 1930s to the 1980s, once estimated that about 1,000 Jews per year join the Church in the United States. Yet that's hardly a drop in the seder wineglass when compared to the 60 million Catholics in this country.
Phil and Marilyn Prever's four oldest daughters, for instance, all married gentiles. “It was too much to hope for that they would find Jewish-Catholic husbands,” Phil said. “We were happy that they found Catholic husbands, and good men.”
The Prevers, who live in Claremont, N.H., were brought up as secular Jews but became Catholics in the late 1970s. They hold a seder with their four younger children every Holy Saturday before Easter Vigil Mass, on the theory that such a joyous occasion belongs after Lent ends. The meal, which Phil called “one of the high points of the year,” includes the traditional matzo, bitter herb, green vegetable and roasted shank bone of a lamb.
The Prevers also interpret Passover symbolism in a Christian way: To Phil, for instance, the Passover marks God's liberating of his people the way Jesus died to liberate man from his sins.
Like the Brattens, the Prevers spent several years as Protestants. Among their fellow evangelical Protestants, Phil Prever recalls, he and his wife were something like stars. Evangelicals, with their emphasis on Scripture, paid a lot of attention to Jews and prophecies about the end times, such as those found in St. Paul's letter to the Romans.
“And when we became Catholics,” Phil recalled, “we found out that people didn't really care that much.”
Since he joined in 1979, he has found the Catholic Church welcoming but not always familiar, in both senses of the word. “I've had times when I've felt really like a stranger in a strange land,” he related. “I had to pick what was most important, which was Christ.”
Moss, the president of the Hebrew Catholic group, said that since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has emphasized dialogue with Jews outside the Church, not within it. A leading figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, Dr. Eugene Fisher, said the Association of Hebrew Catholics does not have much to do with that dialogue.
“It would only affect dialogue if that group saw as its goal the idea of proselytizing,” said Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “That would be a problem. … They keep saying they don't, and I believe them.”
Official recognition of a Hebrew Catholic community is a matter for the Vatican, Fisher noted.
In 1988, Fisher said, the U.S. Bishops released a document called God's Mercy Endures Forever that instructs Catholics not to incorporate New Testament readings into Passover seders. “There is a liturgical integrity to the Jewish Passover seder that the Church has every interest in respecting,” he said. But he said he sees no difficulty with a family using Passover symbolism as a Christian educational tool.
Education alone, however, does not instill emotional attachment. Phil Prever already sees his half-gentile grandchildren as less interested in the Jewish traditions than his children. He hopes the Association of Hebrew Catholics succeeds in securing some special status for Israelite Catholics so that choosing Jesus doesn't mean choosing assimilation.
But just what special status would mean isn't clear. Moss envisions voluntary ways of maintaining connections with Jewish identity, such as celebrating Jewish feasts that are compatible with Catholicism. Some have even suggested a separate rite for Hebrew Catholics, such as the one Byzantine Catholics have, though Moss said it would have to grow organically from the community under the guidance of the Church.
Before approaching the Vatican, Moss said the association needs to identify its constituency. It publishes a newsletter, The Hebrew Catholic, about six times a year, which it mails to between 800 and 900 subscribers around the world. Moss is also preparing to make his small Catholic publishing house, The Miriam Press, a subset of the association.
He can be reached at Association of Hebrew Catholics, P.O. Box 798, Highland, N.Y. 12528; or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.