“I want that wafer,” moaned Arik to his friend Maxi as they were sitting next to each other in the middle of communion.
Maxi sternly told his friend not to go for the wafer since it was not appropriate for them.
“But I’m hungry.”
“NO Arik!” With that final tone, the teenage boys continued to sit towards the rear of the chapel while all the other students at Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger Academy waited on line to accept the Blood of Christ.
Cardinal Lustiger was an esteemed Catholic High School in South Florida. It was known for its sports accomplishments as well as its excellent academic reputation. Many of its graduates attended the finest schools in the world, and eventually became prominent politicians, or scientists and even Olympic medalists.
The one sport the school never excelled in was ice hockey. The school hired a coach from the former Soviet Union, who was a Gold Medal Olympian, to bring them the State Championship.
Coach Rothman’s family experienced antisemitism firsthand while growing up in the Soviet Union. His reputation in hockey was world renown. By this time, he was a college coach, but with his son who already excelled in ice hockey and about to enter high school this was a dream come true. A real father-son bonding.
He knew that in order to win that elusive championship cup, his son needed a teammate who was a counterbalance to Arik’s personality. Arik was impulsive, kinda wild, tall for his age and handsome. Coach needed Arik’s teammate, Maxi, to attend Cardinal Lustiger for his son’s sake. Maxi was the same age as Arik but mature beyond his years. Cerebral, deliberate and anchored was the best way to describe Maxi. A perfect one-two punch in hockey with Arik being flamboyant on ice, and Maxi was the set-up guy, no matter the pressure.
Problem was, Maxi was planning to attend the local Jewish High School. Coach sat down with Maxi and his mother and stepfather and gave them an offer that only a kid like Maxi would seriously consider. He drew on Maxi’s love of hockey, his love for the coach’s family, his continuing friendship with Arik, and most of all, how Cardinal Lustiger excelled in academics which Maxi valued so greatly. The next day Maxi called Coach to accept the offer.
After three years in high school, and already one state champion in their belt, the boys, regarded highly as the campus jocks, still didn’t connect with the overall student body. There were around fifty Jewish students at Cardinal Lustiger. It was mandatory for them to attend religion classes, but not required to participate in communion.
Arik, Maxi and a couple of the Jewish students approached Maxi’s stepdad, Saul, and told him they wanted to form a Jewish Club at Cardinal Lustiger. Saul told them the rector would never permit it, after all it is a Catholic school and that must be respected. Saul drew the analogy that a Jewish High School would never have a Christian Club, it was not part of their mission statement.
Saul saw the boys frustrated. They wanted solutions. After hearing the boys out, Saul said, “why don’t you start a Jesus Club?” Saul continued by saying the early Christians practiced their religion like the Jews in Judea. In those times, it was impossible to distinguish a Christian home from a Jewish home. The boys were excited, but now their dilemma was pitching this idea to Rector Antoszki.
Saul chuckled and said just tell Rector Antoszki that you want to form the “J Club”, and the purpose of the club was to practice religion like the early Christians.
Rector Antoszki was first suspicious listening to the Jewish students. He felt they were up to something and was never pitched this type of proposal for a student club before. He asked the school’s guidance counselor, Father Joseph Szetemer to come in and hear the boys out.
Father Joseph could hardly contain his excitement of the boys’ proposal in deference to the stern rector. He asked the boys if the club was just limited to Jewish students. The boys looked at each other, not expecting this question, and Maxi quickly responded, “of course not, this is open to all.” Arik eagerly nodded in agreement after Maxi’s answer. Father Joseph gave the rector a slight nod, and the rector followed up by asking Father Joseph as to who should be assigned to be the staff advisor of this new club. Father Joseph offered his services. The boys were thrilled.
The Club succeeded beyond belief. Every Friday afternoon the group conducted a Shabbat (Sabbath) Eve meal with the lighting of the candles, the Kiddush and Motzei (blessings) over the wine and challah. They were singing traditional Shabbat songs. On Passover they conducted a Seder. All the ceremonies were replete with explanations on how Jews and the early Christians practiced in this manner during the time of Jesus.
The club gained popularity. Over 200 students, Jew and Non-Jew voluntarily participated in the weekly activities. It succeeded beyond the initial goals and dreams of the club. Many of the students said they bought back many of the traditions to their families and it gave them a new outlook on life and their religious practices!
The club carried on for the last two years of Maxi and Arik’s high school years. Maxi and Arik, in appreciation, invited Father Joseph to join their families for an Erev Shabbat (Friday night) dinner. Father Joseph went to Maxi’s house on that fateful Friday night before the boys’ graduation, on a hot June evening, towards the end of the school year.
Maxi asked Father Joseph that night why he agreed to help the students launch the J Club. Father Joseph said to Maxi that he grew up Jewish in Brooklyn. His entire family were just about wiped out in the Holocaust. He had an intense curiosity about the uncle he was named after, but his family refused to talk about him, as if he was invisible.
Father Joseph’s curiosity never waned. He found, through a Holocaust survivor, that his uncle came from a very poor family, raised Jewish and the Jewish kids in school always teased him. His family could not afford Yeshiva, so he attended Gymnasium (High School) and the priests admired his intellect.
Many years after high school, during the Nazi occupation, a Jewish woman asked his uncle, who was now a priest, for help. He recognized her, being they were from the same town, gave her documentation, and told her what to say and how to pose and conduct herself as a Christian.
“That woman’s life was saved by my uncle, Maxi, and his name was Father Joseph (Yosele) Szetemer. That beautiful woman is your stepfather’s mother, your grandmother.”
Note to Reader: This fictionalized story was woven from true events. Father Joseph (Yosele) Szetemer was a true character. He did save my mother’s life during the War. Today, whatever remnants of his family survived, they do not know of his heroism. They disowned him after his conversion.
Father Joseph (Yosele) Szetemer was murdered during the War, not as a Jew, but as a Catholic. My family owes their lives to him. May his memory continue to be blessed.