Jews in the Family: A Conversation with Father Paul Schenck

Merry Christmas! A most blessed feast of the Nativity to all!

A few weeks ago I had briefly described a lecture by Father Paul Schenck hosted by the Institute of Catholic Culture. A convert from Judaism at sixteen, Father Schenck is an activist and a scholar, best known for his committed and courageous work for the cause of unborn life. He and his twin brother Robert, who followed him in baptism, have devoted their lives to several forms of pro-life ministry – from sidewalk prayer and counseling (which at one point landed him an extensive jail term) to Father Schenck’s current work as head of the National Pro-Life Action Center, an advocacy organization that focuses its efforts on the Supreme Court. Along with his wife and seven children, he has also traveled an inspired journey from evangelical Protestantism into the Episcopal church, where he was ordained to the priesthood, and into the Catholic Church, where his ordination was recently confirmed under new Pastoral Provision for married Anglican clergy.

I had an opportunity to speak with Father Schenck by phone earlier this month, and once again appreciated the clarity and insight of his thought on the subject of the Jewish identity of Christian converts like himself and of Christianity as a whole. Father Schenck’s spiritual journey has been marked by both an effort to honor his Jewish identity within the Church and a deep conviction that being Christian is a very Jewish thing to do.

In this regard, Father Schenck’s first name, Paul – chosen, ironically, by his Jewish father (his mother, originally and now again Roman Catholic, converted to Judaism upon marriage) – proved prophetic. Growing up, he was called Paul everywhere except in Hebrew school, where he went by his Hebrew name, Chaim. He thus developed the strong sense that, alongside his ordinary suburban American existence, he had a secret identity as a Jew. His Gentile classmates and friends, even adults, were often surprised to learn he was Jewish. As a child, this secret, and thus everything associated with Judaism, was exciting; the dual name, naturally, was part of the mystery. No less exciting, in a naughty sort of way, was the fact that his Christian friends worshipped a Jewish man as God.

Having become acquainted with the New Testament, he saw in Saint Paul “a larger-than-life personality as a Christian, who also had a mystical secret identity as a Jew.” Paul is known as the great Christian apostle, representing for many the movement of the early Church away from all things Jewish. Yet the more Paul Schenck learned about his namesake, the more he discovered that, true to his Pharisaic education, Paul was in fact a “rock-ribbed, kosher-eating, Palestinian Jew” who insisted on speaking Hebrew even in the most Hellenized synagogues.

This was certainly no secret to his the apostles and his fellow believers – for all we know, Paul’s Hebrew was probably better than theirs. But did contemporary Christians know it? Among Gentile Christians, Paul’s strongly Jewish identity seemed to the Hebrew school student to be much like his own – a well-kept secret. Naturally, Paul also had a “secret” Hebrew name, Saul.

Early in his Christian journey, he remembers reading the Gospel of Matthew and thinking that, far from being the anti-Semitic screed his Hebrew school teachers had led him to expect, it was a very Jewish book. Some time thereafter, a Catholic family gave him a small book of biographies of Jewish converts. “I had that modern book to tell me that Jews do this, and the ancient gospel of Matthew to tell me that one can truly be a Jewish believer in Jesus. It wasn’t fake,” Father Schenck says. The secret of Paul – that ordinary, and even extraordinary, Christians can also be ordinary, and even extraordinary, Jews – was exciting, but not dangerous or abnormal.

Having always valued the Jewish learning he received as a child, he continued his Jewish education in college, through online courses, and now in his graduate studies. Even as he shared fully in the life of Gentile Christian communities in both work and worship, Father Schenck never ceased to be aware that it was his special privilege to share the secret of Saint Paul – and, indeed, of Christ Himself, and with Him of the entire Church.

The privilege is also a special task. “Over the years I’ve met people who said to me that they discovered late in life that a family member – perhaps their grandfather or even their mother – was Jewish. These people learned that being Jewish is in their family, part of their identity. I see the role of Jewish Christians in the Church as revealing that there are Jews in our Church family. It is to reveal and to revive the Jewish identity of the Gospel, of the Church, of the Faith. In that respect, their presence is a remedy for anti-Semitism that has lingered in the Church,” Father Schenck said.

Serendipitously, Father Schenck’s wife happens to be a living testament to the effectiveness of this kind of Jewish ministry within Christianity. Though she is not of Jewish background, Rebecca Schenck’s mother was raised in a Southern Baptist church in a small town in North Carolina that happens to have been founded in the early twentieth centuries by a pair of Jewish missionaries from New York. The founders worked to educate the congregation about their Jewish identity as Christians. Father Schenck’s mother-in-law passed on to her daughter “the same kind of knowledge and consciousness with which I am raising my children,” he said.

What Father Schenck does not see as a role for Jewish converts is to set themselves up as a specialized subset of Christians – worshipping separately, dressing differently, etc. “Some forms of Messianic Judaism border on error,” he said, “by establishing a separate, distinct identity among Christians – as if there are two types of Christians, Gentile and Jew. That contradicts the Revelation.” Rather, “the role of the Jew in the Church is to witness to the Jewish experience and identity of all Christians, by living in their midst as Jews and witnessing to every Christian’s Jewish heritage.”

To live as a Jew is, for Father Schenck, a matter not of “things” – foods, clothes, customs –but of the “continuity of generations” and of Jewish self-awareness.” Many of the “things” (though certainly not all) are adopted from rabbinical Judaism, as are most guidelines for determining who is a Jew. Father Schenck rejects this borrowing, insisting that the Jewish witness can be born regardless of whether a person is fully Jewish or has only a fraction of Jewish blood. “According to rabbinical Judaism, I am not even a Jew because my mother did not have an Orthodox conversion,” Father Schenck points out.  “But I recognize myself as a Jew, and my Jewish identity means that I am connected to the continuous presence of Jews, both in and outside the Church.” He has worked to raise his children with the same awareness – through sharing Jewish learning, pointing out Jewish-Christian connections, and celebrating Passover and other Jewish holidays in his home.

“Jews in the family” have been an inspiration to Father Schenck at every station of his Christian journey. In his twenties, he developed a close friendship and scholarly collaboration with Dr. Jacob Jocz, a third-generation Jewish convert, scholar, and Anglican priest, which lasted until Jocz’s death. Dr. Jocz, whom Father Schenck refers to as “my Angelic Doctor,” was for him another “living Jewish connection to the present experience of the Church.” Upon entering the Catholic Church Father Schenck became devoted to Jewish Catholic saints, such as St. Edith Stein and St. Theresa of Avila, who had Marrano heritage. The example of Cardinal Lustiger, then Archbishop of Paris, was important to him as well. At each transition – whether from Judaism to Christianity or from Protestantism to Catholicism – there was for Father Paul “a consistent Jewish presence in the Church” that helped him remain connected to his own Jewish identity.

Indeed, it was on during a visit to Jerusalem in 2001 that Father Schenck “became Catholic in my heart, not just my head.”  He had grown increasingly convicted of the truth of the Catholic faith, but feared that entering the Church would force him to repudiate his Jewish identity – in part because of the Catholic role in Jewish persecution, and largely due to his perception of Catholic culture as monolithic, leaving no room for his culturally (though certainly not theologically) alternative Jewish understanding of Christianity.

His visit was on the occasion of Blessed Pope John Paul II. As he was leaving the airport, he saw a large banner that said, in Hebrew: “Welcome, Pope John Paul II!” Seeing this act of goodwill extended toward the Pope in the land of Israel, in the Hebrew language, was a powerful reassurance. Later, as Father Schenck was in line to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Pope was to serve Mass, he found himself standing behind an elderly Jewish couple with concentration camp tattoos on their arms. The couple may have been Holocaust survivors who had been helped by Pope Pius XII, eager to participate in Mass as a way of thanking their deceased benefactor; he did not find out. “I didn’t feel worthy to talk to them. But I saw them as living icons. This was absolutely necessary for me to see,” he said.

Indeed, he believes that Blessed John Paul II may have appreciated the Jewish reality of the Church, so important to himself, more than any other Catholic. “I see the pilgrimage he made to Israel as an expression of his mission to re-Jewify, so to speak, Jesus and the Church – to show that the Church was born not in Rome, but in Jerusalem,” he notes.

As we continue into the twelve days of Christmas, Father Schenck’s family will also celebrate Hanukkah. “We love Hanukkah because it’s such a great story,” he said. “My kids get tired of hearing this, but I love to point out that the only Bible Hanukkah is mentioned in is the Christian Bible (Orthodox and Catholic) – not the Tanakh.” He notes that, in John 10:4-6, Jesus is said to be on Solomon’s portico, marking the Feast of the Dedication – in other words, Hanukkah.

To celebrate the holiday, the Schenck family tells the Hanukkah story, lights the menorah, and eats latkes. Father Schenck usually preaches a sermon on the Maccabees, pointing out importance not only in the Torah, but also in the Apocalypse, at the outset of John’s vision.

“These symbols are integral to worship and understanding of who Christ is – for all of us,” Father Schenck says. This, precisely, is the message which Jews are called to share with the Church.

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About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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