Like other 18-year-olds around the country, Aaron Canter graduated high school this past June. But unlike most Jewish students, Canter attended a Mass in celebration of his impending graduation. From the sixth though 12th grades, the Northridge teen attended Chaminade College Preparatory, a Catholic school in West Hills.
"I have a Jewish friend who is extremely religious. When I told him I was going to a Catholic school, he was like, 'Are you insane? They're going to nail you to a cross and they'll be nuns hitting your knuckles with a ruler!'" said the recent graduate with a laugh. "It wasn't like that at all. The campus has a very nice energy and presence, no matter what your religion is."
Of the 50 Catholic high schools within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Department of Catholic Education (which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties), 17 percent of the students are not Catholic. Chaminade, Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks and La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks are among the Catholic schools with the highest Jewish populations. While not every Catholic school accepts non-Catholic students, many accommodate youths from a variety of backgrounds and some local Jewish families take them up on the offer.
The San Fernando Valley, more than any other area of Los Angeles, has the highest population of Jewish children in Catholic high schools.
"In the Valley, there are a number of very fine Catholic schools that have excellent reputations," said Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "Also, I think many parents have a perception that makes them unsure of [the Los Angeles Unified School District]."
As far as Canter's parents were concerned, private school was the sole option for their only child's middle and high school education. As former members of Stephen S. Wise Temple, the family considered Milken Community High School, but decided they wanted a more diverse environment. They worried that Harvard-Westlake School put too much pressure on students. Chaminade was the clear choice.
"When I went on campus at Chaminade, it just seemed like a place where I'd fit in," said Canter. Even though the school had a Jewish population back then -- currently the student body is 10 percent Jewish -- Canter's parents were wary.
"At the beginning, I was really nervous," Ann Canter admitted. "But what we found unique is that even though they're a Catholic school, they encourage kids from different religious backgrounds to share their religions."
While praying at the beginning of each class and attending mandatory religious studies class was a far cry from his religious school days at Stephen S. Wise, Canter looked at his middle and high school years as a learning experience. He has fond memories of his first class in Christianity, which included an overview of the Catholic prayers.
"I love to learn new things, so I thought of it as a history class," the teenager recalle. "I didn't mind saying the prayers. They were just words; I didn't have to believe them."
"We'd like [our non-Catholic students] to understand our religion," said Christine Hunter, principal of Chaminade's middle school in Chatsworth. "We don't ... want to convert them, but I would like them to know what my tradition is and I'd like to learn about other traditions." In addition to its Jewish population, the school has Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu students, as well as children belonging to other branches of Christianity.
As a theater lover, Canter was heavily involved in Chaminade's drama program and had a starring role in many of the school plays. His vocal skills earned him a permanent position in the chorus during Mass.
"That's one thing that really bothered my Jewish friends who didn't go to Chaminade," the teen said. "They'd say, 'How could you participate in [Mass]?' My reason is that I don't have to necessarily believe what I'm singing. I use my voice to help others believe." Canter, who never crossed himself or took Communion, shared his heritage by occasionally singing Jewish songs during Mass.
Through his years at Chaminade, Canter continued to attend synagogue with his parents during the High Holidays. The family currently belongs to Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. Ann and Frank Canter feel that their good relationship with their son helped keep his Jewish identity strong.
"If you don't have a good rapport with your child and don't relate to him, could he be influenced [at a Catholic school]? Maybe," Ann Canter said.
With his Catholic-based education behind him, Canter is gearing up for his new life as a theater major at CSUN. Still, the topic of religion hasn't left his thoughts.
"Even though I went to a Catholic school, I could never be Catholic," he said. "I like the fact that in Judaism that you get judged on what you do and not what you think."