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Can You Be a Jew and a Catholic Priest at the Same Time?

It’s not a riddle, but a sincere question and one that has already been put to the test by Israel’s Supreme Court.

It was back in 1962 when the famous case of “Brother Daniel,” born Oswald Rufeisen who, although born a Polish Jew in the city of Krakow, had become a Carmelite monk and, consequently, was denied citizenship under the Law of Return.

Having been hailed a hero of the Jewish resistance movement, he personally rescued hundreds of fellow Jews from the Gestapo, both facilitating them in their escape to the forests where they were able to join the partisans.  It was during that time that he found a clever way to save even more Jewish lives by infiltrating the Nazi party, offering himself up as an interpreter.  His perfect command of both the Polish and German languages, as well as his uncanny physical traits of a typical Aryan, allowed him to accomplish the most daring feats as he wore the uniform of an SS member.

Through that work, he was able to warn members of the Jewish community of impending plans to kill them.  Providing them with weapons, he was instrumental in helping them to survive many attacks.  It wasn’t until after the demise of the Warsaw Ghetto that he was arrested, when someone discovered what he’d done, but he somehow miraculously managed to escape from the police station.

Undoubtedly, the fact that he hid in a convent not far from the authorities, for more than a year, was likely the catalyst which led him to eventually convert to Roman Catholicism, albeit considering himself a Jew who proudly stayed connected to the Jewish community.

Once he left the convent, in late 1943, he rejoined the partisans and continued to devote himself to saving Jewish lives.  Ironically, at the war’s end, he was accused of having been a Nazi sympathizer, but was ultimately exonerated by the testimony of those whom he saved, leaving his reputation and good name intact.

Following the war, he joined a Polish monastery, changing his name to Brother Daniel, but his heart was very much in Israel as he so poignantly expressed that his newfound faith made him feel like a Zionist who longed for his own country.

After repeated requests to be transferred to a monastery in Israel, on the basis of his Jewish heritage, he was finally permitted to leave and seek the citizenship and connection to his people that he so greatly desired.

But once arriving in 1959, the question of “Who is a Jew” had already taken center stage, making it the controversial issue of its time.

From the moment he arrived, however, Rufeisen introduced himself as a “Jew of the Catholic religion.”  In fact, his request to the State of Israel was to accept him as Jewish, thereby conferring citizenship upon him.

Although his case was debated at length, in the end, his application was rejected despite all four deciding justices who agreed that he did remain a Jew despite his choice of taking on another religion. Interestingly enough, one Justice (Berinson) seemed to indicate that in the course of time, “Law may follow life. “

It would seem that the course of time has caught up with Israel.

Undoubtedly, Rufeisen’s story is unusual.  The vast majority of Jews, who have since come to believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah do not change their religion and become part of an organized church but rather seek to incorporate that faith within the context of a more Jewish lifestyle.  That includes keeping Shabbat and attending a Messianic synagogue where Jewish traditions and holidays are observed as well as a strong connection with their people and the land of their forefathers.

In the case of most Jews today, however, it’s not unusual to discover that they are not observant or affiliated with any synagogue.  In fact, it’s fair to say that they don’t even attend High Holiday services.

Secular Israelis, for example, who make up a whopping 70% of the population are also unaffiliated, but they do gather on Friday nights with family for a Shabbat dinner, circumcise their sons, celebrate their children’s bar/bat mitzvah, and generally marry them under a chuppa (traditional Jewish canopy) by an orthodox rabbi, the only legal way one can be married in Israel.  Short of that, their connection to today’s Orthodox expression of Judaism is just not there.

As mentioned, in the Diaspora, the above observances are even less, so if religion is not the thing which connects them to their heritage and birthright, why would the adoption of another religion then erase one’s ethnicity and bloodline?

Why should one’s personal religious choice be the singular deciding factor which determines who is a Jew?  Yet it is and has been since the birth of the nation of Israel.

Today, when antisemitism is one of the greatest threats facing the world, Israel remains the only country whose Law of Return states that “every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel shall be entitled to do so.”

The global Jewish population of 2022 is a far cry from the Jewish population of 1962 when Jewish law did not have to confront the secular majority of Jews who, over the course of the last 50 years have, in great numbers, rejected Rabbinic Orthodox Judaism as being the only expression of Judaism that they are willing to accept or in which they choose to be an active participant.

Are they still Jewish? If you asked them, they would, undeniably, say yes! But if they are rejected, due to their religion or lack of it, what will happen when it’s time for them to make their way to the only refuge they thought they could count on due to their birthright and ethnicity?

If they are not accepted, because religion continues to be the only acid test of their ethnicity, then Israel will have to take a long, hard look at its policy of being willing to erase the birthright of those born to Jewish parents.  They will be the ones who failed to protect their “lantzmen” from persecution and possibly even death if, indeed, we are on the precipice of yet another Holocaust.

This time, it won’t be foreign governments who turn away boatloads of Jews but rather our own Jewish nation.

May we never be guilty of such an unconscionable and heartless act!

You may not agree with Brother Daniel’s choice to become part of the Catholic religion, but he, by no means, denounced his birth as a Jew.  He, rather, chose to make Israel his home, because of his Zionistic feelings which intrinsically bound him to his people.

It’s time that the application of the Law of Return is revisited, because if  it remains as it did 50 years ago, our numbers are in jeopardy of being seriously depleted due to our own failure to recognize the personal life choices which many of our people have made.

Although Brother Daniel failed to become a citizen of Eretz Israel, four justices did recognize that you can be a Jew and a Catholic priest at the same time – just not as an Israeli citizen in 1962!

About the Author
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.
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