Skip to comments.All Roads Lead from Israel (Interview with Ronda Chervin)
Posted on 06/29/2005 12:00:05 PM PDT by NYer
Ronda Chervin prefers the term Hebrew Catholic to Jewish convert.
Author or editor of several books, including A Widows Walk: Encouragement, Comfort, and Wisdom from the Widow-Saints and Feminine, Free, & Faithful, Chervin grew up an atheist in Manhattan before meeting Dietrich von Hildebrand and his circle at Fordham University. Her late husband, Martin, was also a convert and author of Children of the Breath: A Dialogue in the Desert.
Chervin spoke at a December 2004 conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Remnant of Israel (remnantofisrael.net), headed by Mark Drogin, and David Moss Association of Hebrew Catholics (hebrewcatholic.org), two Catholic organizations that, among other things, help Jewish converts to the Catholic faith maintain their Jewish ethnic identity.
Chervin, a former professor, now lives near Hardy, Ark., with a group of people associated with Second Exodus (secondexodus.com), which evangelizes Jews. She spoke with Register correspondent Joseph DAgostino about her conversion experience and her effort to achieve the status of consecrated widow.
What was your background as a child?
I was born in 1937 and brought up in Manhattan, and my family was atheistic but with a Jewish background. We were brought up to think that all religious people were stupid, weak, or both, and religion was just some kind of security blanket that stupid people clung onto.
Was that the prevailing opinion in the neighborhood you lived in?
No, it was a Jewish neighborhood. It was a mixture of Jewish and Catholic, but the Catholics were mostly of the type in West Side Story; they were like gang kids. I didnt even know I was Jewish. I found this out because some Catholic kids, some Catholic gang boys, surrounded me and my sister, to beat us up. They said, Are you Jewish? We said, No. And they said, Are you Protestant? and we said, No. And they said, What are you? We said, atheists. And they didnt know what it meant, so they let us go. So when we got home, our parents informed us that, after all, we were Jewish and didnt even know it.
The boys went around beating up girls, too?
Beating up anybody who didnt look like them. So I had a very odd idea of the Catholic Church. In any case, I was looking for the meaning of life, and I started studying philosophy hoping to find it there, but the philosophy taught in the schools I went to was so skeptical that I couldnt get any sense of truth out of it. And I was looking for love, and I couldnt find love. I was ready to give up by the time I was 20. I was ready to give up, and then, by Gods grace, I happened to see a television program with Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand talking about philosophy. And they seemed to believe in truth and goodness and beauty, everything I was dying to find.
How old were you when you graduated from college?
I was 20. I went to City College for two years and then the University of Rochester for two years. And then I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. I wrote [the von HIldebrands] a long letter describing how I couldnt find truth, and did they have it? And so they were delighted to see me, and I was so thrilled by the depth I saw in them that I transferred to Fordham University and started studying with Dietrich von Hildebrand.
He could refute in a few sentences skepticism and relativism and these kinds of awful philosophies that lead nowhere. He and the circle around him I was amazed [to find that] these people who were so intelligent actually were Catholics. I couldnt figure that out because Catholics were supposed to be stupid and weak, and these were the most wonderful people I ever met. And then God intervened with many miracles. A famous tapestry by Raphael, the face of Christ came alive while I was looking at it.
Where was this?
This was in the Vatican Museum. I went on a Catholic art tour with Balduin Schwarz, who was a disciple of von Hildebrand. And it was during this tour that these miracles happened. I didnt like art at all. I went just because I loved these people so much. Then I got really interested in studying apologetics and reading people like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton and Cardinal Newman.
Now, you might ask me, what about the Jewish side? Even though I wasnt religious, I had heard of the Inquisition. I had heard somehow that the Church was the enemy of the Jewish people, and so I had to overcome that by reading about the whole historical background of that period, and getting to see that the Church was the completion of Judaism. The different horrors of history didnt have essentially to do with the Jewish religion, or the Catholic religion, but were caused by historical circumstances.
Have you read [William Thomas] Walsh? His stuff helped me the most because he put it into a historical context. If you want to make an analogy, no one feels theyre going to give up the Bill of Rights and being an American citizen because there were people who tortured people in Iraqi prisons.
Youve got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham. So refute for me in a few sentences skepticism.
Skepticism would be the idea that the human mind is incapable of finding truth. All we have are opinions. The basic refutation of skepticism which is not von Hildebrands; its Augustines is basically that if you take the sentence, You cannot know truth, is it true or not true? If its not true, then there is truth, and if it is true, one statement is true, so skepticism is false. Basically, the point is, to say that the human mind is fallible and makes mistakes does not mean there is no truth. It just means that you have to check things carefully.
I suppose someone could say, I dont know if there is any truth or not.
Yes, but then they belie that every moment of the day because they act every moment as if even the weather report is probably true. The way I do it in my philosophy classes is, I say, Suppose you do all the work for the class and I give you an F. You would say thats terribly unjust. Would you like me to say, Well, thats just your opinion. How do you know its true that its unjust? They immediately give up, because experience belies the idea at every point that there is no truth, even though there are always possibilities of error. Because someone doesnt do mathematics well, you dont say 2 plus 2 doesnt equal 4.
Go on with your story.
I became a Catholic by age 21.
Who are your godparents?
Balduin and Leni Schwarz. She was a Jew who became a Catholic and she also came from an atheist background.
You said at a recent conference that your parents were communists who became McCarthyites. Explain how that happened.
Like many people, they were totally disillusioned by the Communist Party once they were in it, especially that whole thing, the Hitler-Stalin Pact. A lot of people left the party at that point. They were horrified.
What was so wonderful about Prof. von Hildebrand and the other people you met at Fordham?
The first thing I noticed was that they had joy. See, skeptical philosophers arent very joyful. What would they have to be joyful about? So joy is connected to knowing that youre saved. If you think of the world on its own terms in a sort of existentialist fashion, like an atheistic existentialist, theres no point in living. People might decide to keep living just out of habit or something, but theres no purpose to it.
My sister, my mother and my husband, who had all been atheists, all became Catholics also. My husband would have become a Catholic just before we got married but Vatican II intervened, and he hated Vatican II. He loved the Latin Mass. He came from an Orthodox Jewish background, and he thought the Catholic Church was the direct descendant of Orthodox Judaism. But he had become an atheist when he was a teen-ager, like most Lower East Side kids. They all became socialists. As soon as the Church began to look less sacred to him, he lost interest in it. It took him another 15 years to became Catholic.
What effect did Vatican II have on you?
At first, I was just interested and didnt know what to make of it particularly. Then I became a charismatic, and I love charismatic renewal, and I think that was partly because of my Bohemian upbringing. We used to always sit on the floor in the house. I think of charismatic renewal as a Catholic form of Chasidism, you know, Chasidic Judaism where they dance, except women can do it, too.
Are you still very involved in charismatic renewal?
Not very involved. Im more involved in Marian prayer and adoration, but I still love it. I was the only one in Dietrich von Hildebrands circle who went in this direction.
Alice von Hildebrand likes the Tridentine Latin Mass.
Oh, absolutely. I live in a parish now that has the Fraternity of St. Peters Tridentine Mass four days a week. And I love the Gregorian chant.
How did you end up in Arkansas?
Because theres a man called Marty Barrack, who lives in this Catholic village, and hes a Jewish convert. He has a ministry called Second Exodus, and Im working with him and a little group of Jewish converts they dont like to call themselves Jewish converts; lets call us Hebrew Catholics who are working on the evangelization of the Jews.
Theres a little town where most of the people are Catholic?
Its not a town. Its a plot of land with Catholics living on it, but its not a community. I would say theres about 20 families and maybe 20 people who are older. Its northern Arkansas with lakes and hills and rivers.
How many children did you have?
Many miscarriages and three children who lived. Twin girls, from whom I have six grandchildren. And we had a son who committed suicide. He was manic-depressive, schizophrenic. The reason he gave was that becoming an adult made you evil. He thought it was impossible to be an adult and be good. He was 20.
What were you doing before you went to Arkansas?
After my husband died, I was looking into various ways of life. I was teaching at Our Lady of Corpus Christi in Texas, and I was trying to be a consecrated widow within that order. The Register did an article on consecrated widows, and they featured me. This was five years ago or something. People still write to me about that.
Then I left the college and lived in a hermit village for a while. That was called Catholic Solitudes. I lived there as a lay contemplative. Thats in Hebbronville, Texas. Then I left there to try this Arkansas thing, mainly because of this Jewish evangelism. I am looking into becoming a consecrated widow in Arkansas. Its very tentative. I went to see the bishop and he said he had to ponder it and look into canon law.
Are there consecrated widows today?
The Vatican has said that people can experiment with this lifestyle but its up to the local bishop. Archbishop Burke is dealing with this countrywide. Hes the point man on consecrated widows. The widows of priests in the Eastern rite can be consecrated widows. And theres a group in Paris of young consecrated widows, women with children, who have banded together to be consecrated widows.
What would you do if you became a consecrated widow?
I would do exactly what I am doing now. What it involves is deciding not to remarry, if that became a possibility. You decide for a consecrated life, and to have Jesus as your second bridegroom. Each widow would make a rule of life that the bishop approves. But most bishops have never heard of this. Whats happening is widows are going to bishops and saying I would like to do this, [so] how do I do it? They get referred to Archbishop Burke. I know theres a consecrated widow in Australia, but I dont know if there is an official consecrated widow in the United States.
Whats happening with the evangelization of Jews?
Were forming teams of speakers to go to conferences, like the Washington one. And were making a Catholic seder [Passover service], what a seder would be like in the light of Christ. So our little circle here is working on an actual service. If more and more Catholics prayed for Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and find the fullness of the truth that is the Catholic faith, rather than going to Jews for Jesus or Messianic Judaism there are large numbers of converts going to those movements, and thats a great pity. They feel like they can retain their Jewish identity there but not in the Catholic Church. What if you had more evidence of the presence of Hebrew Catholics within the Church, if we were more visible? So all these organizations are working toward that goal.
Remember Pontius Pilate in the Passion of the Christ
What is truth?
Thank you for that article.
Fascinating! Thanks for posting, NYer.
Marty has been a guest on EWTN's The Journey Home. He is also the author of a book entitled, Second Exodus and hosts his own web site .....
It's a great web site, filled with so much historical information. Well worth a visit.
Marty Barrack's conversion story is awesome!
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