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Conversion StoriesJewish

From Bar Mitzvah to RCIA

Phillip Seeberg
January 12, 2023 No Comments

I was born in 1960 and moved to the far-southwest side of Chicago when I was three. My parents are both Jewish, so of course, I was raised Jewish. There were about 40 houses on our big block, three of which had Jewish families. The rest were mostly Irish and Polish. I think that they were Catholic, but I really didn’t know the difference between Catholic and Protestant back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything about Christianity, period. I knew that Christians believed in Jesus but didn’t really know what that meant or anything about the New Testament.

My Jewish Upbringing

While I was raised in a Reformed Jewish household, I went to a Conservative synagogue. That basically means that we didn’t keep kosher, didn’t keep the Sabbath, and my parents didn’t know Hebrew or attend services (which were mostly in Hebrew).

I went to Hebrew School on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 4th through 7th grade, and while studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I also attended religious services Friday nights and Saturday mornings for two of those years. I remember walking to the synagogue after school in the afternoon. One day a week, the Catholics in my class went to CCD classes at St. Bede church, across the street from Beth Jacob synagogue. The rest of the time I walked by myself.

I had my Bar Mitzvah on May 19, 1973, the first one in my family in over 20 years. I led almost the entire Saturday morning service.

In December of 1973, our synagogue merged with another. This meant that, instead of walking six blocks, I needed to go over three miles. I stopped going to the services shortly after that, because it was a hassle arranging for rides.

High School

Like many teenagers, I was insecure. I tried hard to fit in with friends and others that I met in high school. Not emphasizing my different religion was part of that. As I went through high school, I started doing things others were doing, just to fit in.

I wanted to be accepted and included in activities along with the other kids. When I got my driver’s license and my parents got a new Chevrolet Impala, their old Chevelle was given to me. That helped me get included in our nightly activities, because in our junior year, none of the other guys had a car. We would go to the roller rink, to movies, play cards, and attend White Sox baseball games.

Although religion did not at that time play a big part in my life, I did have a conscience that gave me trouble every once in a while. This caused me to wonder about the way I was living my life, and I thought that some change was needed. In my senior year, I drank with friends almost every week, and during the summer afterward, almost every night.

I craved acceptance, however at the end of the night I would go home and feel terribly alone. I wanted something else, something more out of life, but just drifted from one party to another. Attempts to do something else only resulted in trouble. Things came to a head late one Saturday night in the summer of 1978. A friend and I drove around shooting out house windows with a sling shot, thinking it was fun. We did it again the next day in the afternoon. I’ve never been good with directions, and I managed to drive down the same street twice. A woman whose house we had hit the night before was outside jotting down my license plate when I passed by that second time. It took a week, but the police showed up at my house and took me in for questioning and a lineup. I was ID’d and in the lockup most of the night. I lied to the police and to my parents, telling them that I had nothing to do with the incident. I went home even more depressed.

My parents believed me and were supportive. That just made me feel worse. I did not deserve their support. I was very happy to go to college that fall, because I could not stand to look my mother in the eye and lie. I kept hoping for a way to turn my life around. After a few months of college, while on a weekend at home, I couldn’t take the deception any more. My parents had hired a lawyer to defend me, but I couldn’t take the guilt any longer and finally told my parents the truth. They quickly arranged to settle out of court, but my relationship with my parents was damaged for a while.

Conversion

Back at school, I was again asking myself if there was something more to life than this. Since there were people who preached on the University of Illinois campus quad every day, I was constantly reminded of God. I could not put questions about God out of my mind. Hearing the preachers, I realized that my knowledge of the Bible was minimal. They talked about fulfilled prophecies, but I didn’t know anything about prophecies. I tried to convince myself of their authenticity and the inevitability of them coming true.

As a child, I was told that the Jews don’t believe in Jesus being the Messiah, but was never told why. I developed a curiosity about Christianity. Since more than half of the country’s population was what I considered Christian, I figured that I should find out what it was that turned them to Jesus in the first place.

I listened to the preaching and was amused by the crowd that was constantly heckling them. Although I didn’t believe in what they were saying, I stayed out there, listening, because it kept me from spending money to play video games in the Illini Union.

On Ash Wednesday, 1979, the Gideon people, who leave Bibles in hotel rooms, were passing out New Testaments on campus. I took one. As a Jew, I had never read the New Testament and would have been embarrassed to buy one. My darker side thought that I might use it to taunt the preachers. But for a while, I didn’t even read it.

That year, we had a friendly group of kids in our dorm. I learned how to play backgammon and sometimes would just walk into a room looking for someone to play against. One time, I walked in and found myself in the middle of a Bible study. I quickly excused myself, but later, I went back and asked Bob, the Bible study leader, what part of the New Testament he recommended I should read. He suggested that I read the Gospel of John. I did that, getting some powerful meaning from it, including the following:

“Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45–47)

I decided to learn more about the Old Testament, because it appeared that the New Testament wouldn’t make sense without it. But when I went back to school that August, I hadn’t thought about God all summer. I saw the preachers again, and I heckled them on my first day back. Having just moved into the engineering dorm, I started to joke about the preachers to my new roommate, and he didn’t find my jokes funny; he was a born-again Christian. That first day together was a bit of a challenge, but I quickly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on his side of the room. I continued to listen to the quad preachers, but with an ear for the truth.

While one of the preachers would be giving a message of hell’s fires and eternal damnation, another would sit under a tree waiting her turn. I found it very easy to talk to her. She was able to tie the two testaments of the Bible together, showing me where everything about Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament. She gave me a calling card that had a saying that I thought very profound: “If we meet and you forget me, you have lost nothing. If you meet Jesus and forget him, you have lost everything.”

I still was not sure about the validity of Christianity, so I began to pray to God every day to show me the true path. Wanting to be a good Jew and understand what the Scriptures said, I was praying to the God of the Old Testament. I asked the question that many Jews in the first century must have asked: “Is this Jesus the Messiah who was prophesied?”

Before long, I believed in Jesus being the fulfillment of the prophecies. In a further attempt to find the truth, I went to a Bible study led by one of the campus preachers on August 28, 1979. During our prayers, I felt something like an electric shock and couldn’t move. I didn’t know what it was then, but I now believe that it was the Holy Spirit. After that experience, I decided that I should be born again. The next night I sat down in the middle of the quad and prayed for forgiveness and for guidance for about 40 minutes. Such a feeling of contentment and peace came over me that I consider that the night of my conversion. Jesus had come to me, and I had accepted Him. The next evening, I was baptized in a backyard swimming pool.

I joined Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. This was a student social and religious study group that met on Friday nights. This worked out well because I no longer wanted to be part of the Friday night bar scene. There were also other weekly small group meetings where we had Bible study and group prayer. Since my roommate, Jeff, and I were both in the group, our small group met in our dorm room.

The original Christians were Jews who had to determine how much of the Jewish religion was to remain in the practice of their new faith. My first question along those lines (because I had not renounced Judaism per se) was whether I should go to the Rosh Hashanah services that were being held on campus. This is the Jewish New Year, and it, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which follows shortly after, are a time for praying for forgiveness of sins. After some thought and prayer, I determined that I believed that my sins were forgiven by Jesus on the cross, and I didn’t need to go to these services. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I concluded, had been superseded.

I went with my family to San Diego for the Bar Mitzvah of a cousin. This was before my parents knew that I was a Christian. They found my Gideon Bible in my pocket, and I told them that I was just reading it. Was that like Peter denying Jesus? Maybe. There was a Christian preacher outside the synagogue. I remember he was preaching to the Jews, and I wanted to give him some support, but I thought that it might have been a little disrespectful for him to be there, and I was afraid. Did I deny Jesus again?

One night, I got a phone call from a high school friend at about 2:00 in the morning. I was awakened from a sound sleep, and he was obviously drunk. At that time in my life, I had stopped drinking, and I especially didn’t like getting awakened by those who did. I think that he just wanted some small talk, but I hit him with a long sermon about drunkenness being a sin, and that the wages of sin are death.

My action must really have worried him. Then, a day or two later, I got a phone call from my parents. I didn’t know if they were calling because they found out that I was a Christian, or to tell me my 81-year-old grandfather had died. It turned out that I had been outed as a Christian, and my parents were in shock; they threatened to pull me out of school. But after the initial phone call, we discussed the situation in a calm, if uncomfortable, manner.

When I told them that Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament, they replied that that was coming from the Christian Old Testament, not the Jewish one. They knew that Catholics and Protestants have differences in their Bibles, and they thought that those prophecies weren’t in the Jewish Bible. And even if they were, they took the stand that the Bible wasn’t to be taken literally. My parents sent me a Jewish Bible. I read it and discovered that they really were substantially the same.

Conflict Between the Believers

Shortly thereafter, I became aware of an ongoing dispute between the different Christian groups that I had become involved with. I had originally wanted to join with as many Christian groups as I could, so it hurt to see them fighting against each other.

In retrospect, I feel that some of the problems that I faced were the same types of problems that the early church had. I can understand why there are so many different Christian denominations today. It is easy for internal struggles to explode into major rifts.

I often look back at that time, thinking of the parable of the sower and the seeds. I was the seed that fell in rocky ground, spranging up quickly but failing to grow roots (Luke 8:6, 13).

I began to have real doubts about Christ and the groups that I was in. Christians were supposed to be loving, and the war of words I was seeing seemed to go against everything that I had learned about the Christian religion. My belief in Christ’s fulfillment of many of the Old Testament prophecies kept me from falling back into my Jewish background, because I believed that the prophecies had to have their fulfillment. However, the pressure of trying to find my religious identity, combined with my school workload, caused me to fall away for a time from all religious affiliation. The “born again” groups that I was a part of did not allow for any degree of falling away. So when I would skip a meeting or hang around with a different crowd, I was made to feel terrible.

When the spring semester of 1980 began, I started hanging around with a mixed group from nearby dorms. After a couple of months, we started pairing up. My future wife, Lisa, was in that group. She was Catholic.

Sleepwalking Through the 1980s

For the next two years, I attended St. John’s Catholic Church on campus with Lisa. After I became a Christian, I felt that I could pray to God in any church. I didn’t agree with (or even know) Catholic beliefs in some areas but realized that specific dogma didn’t come up at every Mass.

Looking for a church was like Goldilocks trying to find a good bowl of porridge. I joined the First Congregational Church of Des Plaines, which was affiliated with the United Church of Christ. I was looking for a church that Lisa and I could be comfortable attending together. I didn’t want to join the Catholic Church, partly because my strong-willed future father-in-law was a very old-fashioned Catholic, and my male ego didn’t want me to appear to give in to him.

I have always felt closest to God when I sing. I would feel His presence in me. When I had attended the United Church of Christ, the hymns just didn’t cut it for me. Their service seemed more like a social event.

There were a lot of discussions the new church about whether the national church body should allow the ordination of homosexuals. I thought that the Bible clearly condemned this practice. If the church were to give in to public pressure on this, what other teaching would it consider changing?

I never really liked it when preachers mixed politics or financial planning with religion. The one time that I took Lisa to an Evangelical Church after we were married, the preacher started talking about how to invest your money. We were both going to night school for our MBAs at the time and weren’t going to church for financial advice. That sermon was such a turn-off that we walked out.

Lisa and I attended a Catholic church near where we lived in Arlington Heights. I reached the point where I didn’t agree with the condemning attitude of some Evangelical churches and was worried about the changing of doctrine in the other Protestant churches. I felt like I was in a faith version of Goldilocks and the Three Churches, and the Catholic Church was the one that was proving to be “just right.”

Joining the Catholic Church

I agreed with Pope John Paul II on most moral issues, and I felt that it was very important for Lisa and me to worship together. Lisa’s father was Catholic, but her mother is Methodist. As a result, Lisa never went to church with her mother. It’s because of how that affected Lisa that I decided early on to go to a Catholic Church in order to worship with her. The Catholic Church in Arlington Heights was so populous that, to accommodate the crowds, they held some Masses in the church gym. I enjoyed the simple surroundings in that gym. Because of my Jewish background and that faith’s prohibition against idols, I’ve always felt more comfortable worshipping in an unadorned environment.

Lisa and I built a home in Downers Grove and moved there in January 1987, where we joined Divine Savior Catholic parish. That was a great time. I felt so close to the Lord that, in 1988, I decided to join RCIA to become Catholic. About half of the classes were led by the pastor, Father Bob, who taught us the beliefs of the Church; and the other classes were led by a lay woman, who gave us a fair amount of church history.

On March 25, 1989, at the Easter Vigil service with the rest of the RCIA group, I said my profession of faith.

I was pleased that Father Bob had agreed to recognize the baptism that I had received in the swimming pool as an official baptism. He said that, since I was baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it was good.

One of the things that I had problems with in the Catholic Church was calling a priest Father. I had read in Matthew 23:9 (“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”) and felt that I should call no one Father except our Father in Heaven. I’ve since gotten over this, but it took years. Amazingly, while I had read the book of Matthew a number of times, I never seemed to read Matthew 23:10, “nor are you to be called ‘teacher’ for you have one teacher, the Christ.” It took reading (in 2011!) a book by David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, to gain more perspective on the passage. No one seems to have a problem calling others “teacher.” Isn’t the mention of “father” along the same lines?

When our kids were young, I was busy with Indian Guides, Baseball, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, among other things. I didn’t have a lot of time for or interest in church activities.

I tend to go from one extreme to the other. One of the things that Lisa brings to my life is a bit of balance, keeping me from getting too far from the center. While I don’t always appreciate the brake that it puts on some of my religious expression, it does keep me from going too far the other way as well.

20th Reunion and Beyond

In 1998, we had just moved into a new house (and parish) in Naperville. Our two kids had taken most of our time over the previous eight years, and outside of Sunday Mass, I hadn’t been involved in many church activities since we had our second child.

That year I had my 20th high school reunion. As 1998 rolled into 1999, I started looking forward to my 20th anniversary as a Christian, and my 10th as a Catholic. This milestone got me to thinking of the spiritual road that I was on and how I needed to fill the spiritual void that had crept into my life.

I went to parish retreats in 1999 and 2000 and met some of the faith-filled leaders of our Church. I feel that while going to Mass is like keeping our car filled with gas, an occasional retreat is like the oil change that our car needs to keep going.

In 2005, I did the First Reading at Mass — in Hebrew! They had a diversity Mass for Pentecost, and I downloaded the Hebrew from the Internet. Acts 2:1–11 is a long reading. I practiced for most of the week and did a fine job, made all the more meaningful because I never knew what the words meant when I used to chant the prayers for our Friday night synagogue Sabbath services.

I went to a talk by Scott Hahn at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in 2011. I had recently read his book of conversion from Presbyterian. He explains so well the Catholic beliefs that Protestants find difficult. He talked about parallels between the Old and New Testaments and spoke of the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried around and venerated. He then talked of the Virgin Mary being the Ark of the New Covenant; I had never thought of her in that way and, through this reading, developed an appreciation for her that I hadn’t really had before. He also spoke of the book of Revelation in a brand new way that opened my eyes to what the book of Revelation is all about. Not futuristic, but Eucharistic.

In the Catholic Church, infants are baptized, and children go through confirmation while still living in their parents’ house and under their influence. I told a priest once that it was a shame that there doesn’t seem to be a Church sacrament for cradle Catholics coming to faith as adults, while Protestants had their “born again” encounter linked to a prayer to be saved. The priest surprised me by saying that the Church does indeed have a sacrament for those people: it is Reconciliation (Confession). The Church also has Holy Communion for the faithful to “come to Jesus.” Through these and similar encounters, I have discovered that there are many opportunities for studying the faith and making retreats. There is more than enough for an adult to draw closer to and grow stronger in Christ. We have a lifetime to prepare for eternity with God. As Catholics, we know that we can become holy as He is holy (compare Leviticus 19:2 and Matthew 5:48). There is grace enough for even that profound change, provided we continue to walk in friendship with Him.


Phillip Seeberg

Phillip Seeberg has attended St. Raphael Catholic Church in Naperville, Illinois since 1998. Over the years, he has been a chairman of the Adult Faith Formation Commission, a Bible Study Small Group leader, an RCIA sponsor, catechist, lector, and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.


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