As a little girl, Rachel Card decided she wanted to be a nun — until a teacher mentioned that she would need to believe in Jesus.
“That kind of killed that career opportunity for me,” she said.
Though her family is Catholic and she had profound spiritual feelings, for some reason Christianity never clicked for her. “I can’t remember a time when I willingly cracked open a New Testament, unless it was to stir the pot in my Catholic grammar school,” she wrote in an e-mail exchange earlier this month. “I was always heavily intrigued by Judaism and the Jewish people.”
Now 19, Card continues to stir the pot, but this time as an observant Jew. Following the discovery of a surprising family connection, and based on her own religious explorations, she is entering her second year in the Mechina program at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York City.
A self-described extrovert with a buoyant sense of humor, she described a religious journey unusual for most adolescents. Fascinated by the Old Testament, she was fortunate to have parents who encouraged open-minded inquiry and were completely supportive of her. Basically, she said, they encouraged her “to be a mensch.”
She was 16 when she discovered that her maternal grandmother was born Jewish, something the family had never discussed. According to Halacha, or Jewish law, that makes her Jewish as well.
When it came to practicing Judaism, however, she faced some practical questions. “History facts I could memorize. Places I could find on a map. But how was I supposed to know what to do when someone in your family heats up clam chowder in your coffee cup?”
Rachel’s solution? True to her generation, she Googled “Jewish apps.” YUTorah Mobile, featuring videos and tutorials by YU faculty, was one of her first hits.
“It was a treasure trove that fascinated me for hours,” she said. “From intro level to advanced stuff that made me stare at my phone like ET was trying to make contact through it, there was everything. I didn’t have a definitive thing that moved me from Catholicism, because I never felt as though I belonged, but finding YUTorah Mobile let me know ‘I have arrived’ at where I was supposed to be: Judaism.”
Stern’s Mechina track is for young women, like Card, who are new to Hebrew language and textual study.
She said her parents “lovingly think I’m a nut when I cease interaction with electronics for 25 hours once a week” for Shabbat. “I think it can all be summarized by what my mother once told me: ‘Be observant, not obnoxious.’ As long as I’m dedicated to shalom bayit (peace in the home), so are they. Which means I can’t give away all the pork in the house, but hey, you win some, you lose some.”
‘Confused about Jews’
Until Rachel enrolled at Stern, most of the Jews she knew were over 50. She had no close Jewish friends. She used to think of Judaism as “academic, an ancient truth.” Things have changed — a lot.
“Somehow, Judaism morphed,” she said. “Judaism is faces, smiles, laughter, music, food, and warmth. It’s the enthusiasm Mrs. [Shoshana] Schechter [the assistant professor of Bible and coordinator of Stern’s Basic Jewish Studies Program] has no matter what she’s discussing; it’s the shared lattes with friends motzei Shabbat; it’s singing and dancing in the street of NYC at any time of day or night because some apartment is blaring a Hebrew song someone knows.”
Not being a typical “Stern girl” hasn’t been a problem. “If anything, sometimes I feel like a bit of a rock star,” Rachel admitted. “But I think that just goes with the territory of having a completely different background and being an extrovert.”
But it hasn’t all been easy. “I’ve lost friends over it, I’m not going to lie, and sometimes the transition clashes in weird ways.”
Along the way, Rachel has had some “surreal” experiences. “Overall, though,” she said, “I have to admit people are mostly just confused about Jews, and in particular Orthodox Judaism. People generally want to be supportive; they just need someone to meet them halfway. And maybe throw them a Yiddish-to-English dictionary.”
This summer she went to Israel on the Birthright program, and next year she plans to spend a longer stretch there, with Mechina’s July in Jerusalem seminary program.
Her desire to serve God and humanity is still strong, but has shifted a bit. “I’ve subtracted the Jesus and added some gefilte fish,” Rachel said, “so I’m telling people I want to be a chaplain instead of a nun.”