Fourteen years ago, Catherine and Bruce Penso’s oldest daughter, Leah, was ready to become a bat mitzvah. But before her big day, Leah told her parents that she wanted to go to the mikveh and formally convert.
Catherine and her younger daughter, Rebecca, decided to join Leah in the ritual.
Catherine, a native of San Francisco who now lives in Westchester, holds a master’s in social work and volunteers with a variety of charities as well as for her synagogue. She grew up Catholic, but started questioning those beliefs when she was in college. Then she met her Jewish husband-to-be.
“Because the foundations of Catholicism are built on Judaism, it wasn’t hard for me to incorporate the aspects of the religion into my life,” she said. “It would have been a lot harder for Bruce to accept Catholicism. I’ve never felt that strong relationship with Jesus Christ that some Catholics and Christians do. It was a gradual moving away from Catholicism and moving toward Judaism.”
Before Catherine married Bruce, she took an Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), as well as a Jewish holiday workshop class when she was a newlywed. The couple both decided to raise their children within the Jewish religion. Prior to the conversion, Catherine and Bruce were already members of Temple Akiba and committed to raising their children — Leah, then 12, Rebecca, 5, and Daniel, 10 — in a Jewish home. All of the kids had attended nursery and religious school at Akiba.
“The conversion was a formalization of what I’d been living, but it seemed finalized,” Catherine said. “It was very special to do it with my daughters, and it made it that much more meaningful.”
Because Catherine had taken courses and was already living a Jewish life, all that remained for conversion was to step into the mikveh and to meet with the beit din (Jewish court of law). She converted through the Conservative movement.
Bruce had never pressured her to convert, but Catherine remembers that his sister had, at one point, brought up the fact that his daughters wouldn’t be considered Jewish by some people.
“She had actually suggested [to convert] to my daughter, because in the future if she met someone who was more religious, [he or she] might not recognize her Judaism,” Catherine said.
“At first I was kind of insulted because they were raised Jewish, but Judaism is through the mother, so there was a sense of formalizing it and having it recognized by other Jews and other sects.”
Although Catherine’s parents died before the conversion, Catherine said they had been very accepting. Her mother, she said, had a hard time with the fact that the babies weren’t going to be baptized, but her father said he was just happy that she had religion in her life.
In the 14 years since her conversion, Catherine has become increasingly involved at Akiba, and spends upward of 25 hours per week devoted to volunteering. She chairs the mitzvah day committee, planning how the congregation devotes a special day to tikkun olam (repairing the world). The Jewish principle of giving back and being the best person one can be resonates with her: “I just try to be mindful of being a good person with the work that I do,” she said. “I try to live my life as an example to my children. I try to be kind to people and speak well of people.”
Catherine and Bruce’s children also continue to lead Jewish lives as well. Leah is the most active: She teaches religious school, and next summer she plans to run the synagogue’s youth group and direct its resident camp.
Being a member of Akiba for the past 30 years has reinforced the Penso family’s — and Catherine’s — love of Judaism.
“There’s a real community,” she said. “I never feel alone. A lot of that has to do with the temple I belong to. It really feels like a home away from home. I’ve made some wonderful friends. I just know that Judaism is something I believe in. It’s something I want to be a part of.”