Growing up as a boy in Scranton, Pa., John David Scalamonti had a clear vision of what his future would be. In 1955, at age 14, he entered the La Salette Fathers seminary in Hartford, Conn., and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1967.
But just five years later, that vision was radically altered.
Today, Scalamonti is a practicing Jew, who attends services at the Chabad congregation not far from his home in Old Bridge.
In 1993, he authored Ordained to be a Jew, a book about his life’s journey, which was published by Ktav. Scalamonti, also a former member of Aberdeen’s Temple Beth Ahm and Young Israel of Aberdeen/Congregation Bet Tefilah, frequently tells his story to Jewish groups. He appeared on Sept. 30 at the third annual Sukkot Brunch held by the sisterhood of Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell. Approximately 150 congregants and guests attended the event.
Scalamonti told that gathering that his first assignment as a priest took him to Ipswich, Mass., a town he liked very much and where he was ministering to “good people.”
It was in the confession booth, he said, where he first began to have doubts about what he had been taught in the seminary. The “mortal sins” to which parishioners confessed — particularly those connected with birth control — raised serious questions for the young priest.
During his three years in Massachusetts, and during a later assignment in Washington, DC, he underwent a crisis of faith, leading him in 1970 to request that he be released from his vows.
Despite his request’s being denied, he left the church and slipped to the point that he was, in his words, “almost an atheist.”
Scalamonti remembers wondering why faith, which he viewed as “a gift from God,” had been taken from him. Although he managed to function on a day-to-day basis, he said, he suffered feelings of great loss and despair.
Then he met Diane Max, a coworker at a restaurant in Silver Spring, Md. He admits to being instantly attracted, but having always been celibate — in fact he had never even been on a date — he didn’t know how to approach her.
Eventually, chemistry won out, and Scalamonti asked Max to dinner. On that first date, he told her about his background as a priest, and she told him she was from an Orthodox Jewish family.
Against all logic, they continued seeing each other, fell in love, and she brought him to Shabbat dinner at her parents’ Baltimore home. There, observing the blessings over the hallah and wine, and especially at the candle lighting, Scalamonti said, he felt his faith return. (He and Max married; they have four children, ages 28 to 37.)
He told NJJN that he felt the Shabbat rites had a strong connection to the Eucharist. “Suddenly, I saw that the Catholic mass could have had its origin in this simple, home-based ceremony of the Jewish people.”
At the Catholic seminary, he said, Judaism and other religions had been virtually absent from the curriculum. He began studying, and underwent an Orthodox conversion in 1972. He now considers himself a Conservative Jew.
Closing his speech to the Ahavat Olam sisterhood, Scalamonti said, “Judaism presented me with a bonus — teshuva — a return to God.” He urged his listeners to make a commitment to their religion, to its beautiful rituals, and to their faith.