From Samantha Tetro of Samantha's Lil Bit of Heaven Ministries, Rabbi...

From Samantha Tetro of Samantha's Lil Bit of Heaven Ministries, Rabbi Kayley Romick of Catholic Health Services of Long Island, and Sister Laura M. Arvin of Amityville. Credit: Judy Donnenfeld; Kayley Romick; Laura M. Arvin

While growing up or seeking our way as adults, stories about our ancestors can help inform choices in our personal, working and spiritual lives. This week’s clergy discuss forebears whose words, beliefs and life stories have influenced and continue to guide their spiritual journeys.

Sister Laura M. Arvin

Dominican Sister of Amityville

When I was around 10 years old (or possibly younger) my grandfather was visiting from Florida. I loved him dearly, and we had a special relationship even though we only saw each other once a year.

Grandpa, my dad's father, was Jewish; my mom was Catholic, so I was raised Catholic. But my parents also celebrated what they called the “major” Jewish holidays with a special dinner and lots of company. One day, Grandpa and I were walking near the Lutheran church on the main avenue in our neighborhood in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. He asked if I wanted to go inside.

I said, “Grandpa, we can’t go in there. That’s not my church. It’s for the Lutherans.”

He replied, “But isn’t it the same God?”

I never forgot how big God was for Grandpa — or for me. My parents always taught me that God loved each of us uniquely and equally. My relationship with God has always been all-encompassing as a result of my family. This experience of a God with wide-open arms helps me, as I have the privilege of accompanying others as director of Mount Saint Mary House of Prayer, a Watchung, New Jersey, sacred space offering spirituality programs to adults of any faith.

Rabbi Kayley Romick

Chaplain resident at Catholic Health Services of Long Island, St. Francis Hospital, Roslyn

Growing up, I relished hearing stories of my great-zayde (great-grandfather) Rachmiel. He immigrated to South Africa in his early 20s because of increasing anti-Semitism in his native Poland. He and his father opened a blacksmith shop, and sent for the rest of their family with the money they saved.

With his robust Jewish background, he studied Torah daily and served in his synagogue as the gabbai, a lay-leader who assists the rabbi with religious services. Rachmiel was an active member of a Jewish philanthropy group, as well as an avid klezmer musician. No Passover seder was complete without him dancing on the table with his two brothers! His lively approach to Jewish life added much to a community largely composed of Lithuanian Jews, known for their austere religious observance.

Hearing about great-zayde Rachmiel’s passion inspired me to build my own Jewish life of knowledge and spirit. Recently, I was surprised to learn that he worked on the Sabbath despite his traditional upbringing — something he was likely judged for in his community. I hope his story can remind us that a religious lifestyle isn’t always what we expect. True dedication, in some cases, goes beyond rules and regulations.

Samantha Tetro

Founder, Samantha’s Li’l Bit of Heaven Ministries, East Northport

Growing up in the Bronx, my mother abhorred what was happening with the Holocaust. She chose to enlist and served as a staff sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and was one tough cookie!

Decades later, however, she would face a serious economic crisis, and this “cookie” was about to crumble. Stress and worry became her greatest companions. Until, one night as she lay in bed, Jesus appeared to be physically present in her room. She thought she was dreaming. She kept closing her eyes, and whenever she opened them, he was still there.

Stunned, she asked Jesus, “What are you doing here, don’t you know I’m Jewish?” He smiled, and she was filled with peace. Her life changed in an instant.

Years later she shared that unforgettable testimony with me. Amazingly, she was unaware that I was on my own quest to find out, “Who is our Messiah?” Her story inspired me to look beyond what I knew and look instead in the Bible, where truth was revealed: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) Because of her story, my mother and I both experienced “Close Encounters of the God kind.”

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