Ross Mattio discovered Judaism in a rather unconventional and unexpected setting.
While working as a caretaker for an Ashkenazi Jewish man with special needs, Mattio witnessed the man’s family observe Jewish holidays and, sadly, attend shiva calls.
“I learned how to help him keep the kitchen kosher with the simple meals that he and I prepared together,” he recalled. “We lit candles together on Chanukah. … It was a really moving experience being witness to their family’s Jewish experience.”
He resonated more and more with the family’s traditions, which led to more and more enamored questions and borrowed books.
Decades later, Mattio is the first recipient of the Al-Qirqisani Fund’s fellowship award, which subsidizes 50 percent of tuition and fees for people who converted to Judaism to pursue a degree in Jewish studies.
The fund is a bequest from Samuel Klausner, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, named after Jacob Al-Qirqisani, a Karaite Jewish scholar from the 10th century who wrote about comparative religion.
Klausner, 94, created the fund in 2016 — alongside an education committee of local educators and Jewish lay leaders — because he saw the need for it. He wanted to deal with the problem of people who convert to Judaism “and that becomes the end of the story.”
“They don’t appear in synagogues or anything,” explained the congregant of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. “We thought we would deal with that sector that’s college-educated and provide subsidies for them to take Jewish studies at the college level.”
The problem Klausner is trying to tackle is “the disappearance of congregants,” hoping to deepen growth in Jewish communities by offering an opportunity to further enhance their Jewish education.
Klausner sent mailers out to graduates of the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy — which is sponsored by the Philadelphia region of the Rabbinical Assembly — from where Mattio completed his conversion process in August 2016.
The bequest Klausner provided is for $110,000, which he hopes can sponsor three to four fellows a year for the next seven to 10 years. The nonprofit organization is open to people who converted to Judaism from all different denominations.
The subsidy is also open for students across the country at the university of their choosing, as long as it has a dedicated Jewish studies program. Eligible applicants range from people who recently converted to those who converted up to 20 years ago.
One in six Jews were new to Judaism as of 2014, as reported by a Pew Research Center study on the U.S. religious landscape. Seventeen percent of Jews surveyed said they were raised in another religion.
American Jews retain about 75 percent of those raised Jewish and who remain practicing in some form.
Mattio, 42, is a part-time student at Temple University, where he is taking Hebrew this semester. The fund subsidizes up to four courses in Jewish studies, two of which must be Hebrew.
He plans to take Hebrew for twice as long, since it is a requirement for the Jewish studies track for his bachelor’s, and he also wants to really comprehend the language.
In the past, Mattio was on a vocal music track at Northern Arizona University in the ’90s, but ceased his studies to help raise his four children.
He felt compelled to take the next step in his Jewish education, and the timing of the scholarship worked in his favor.
His conversion took about a year from start to finish, but his relationship with Judaism stems back much further.
Mattio grew up Christian and then Catholic, though he declined ever going through with confirmation. In high school, he discovered the Unitarian Universalist movement, but something was still missing; it was not “the right container for the God that I believe in,” he explained.
When he found Judaism, he was reaffirmed — “the match was spot on.”
After witnessing the family’s traditions as a caretaker, he also started dating the woman who would become his wife — although at the time of their first date, he had no idea she was in rabbinical college.
“I was really well on my way to being deeply drawn to Judaism, and because she was also just as excited about it, we had so much to talk about,” he said of his wife, Rabbi Leiah Moser, who is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “As I fell in love with Judaism more, I fell in love with my now wife. It just blossomed.”
The conversion courses at the Goodblatt Academy covered a wide range of topics, where students experience and deeply discuss all things Jewish — the holidays, Shabbat, mitzvot, culture and history. Mattio also had the opportunity to listen to a local Holocaust survivor share his story, and learn traditional Israeli dance from a professional.
“It was a lot of fun,” the Mount Airy resident said. “There were a lot of offerings available, and they were directing us in the way of local resources as well.”
Mattio most strongly identifies with the Reconstructionist movement, but his beliefs bleed into more Conservative traditions, too.
He wears tzitzit each day, so many often ask if he’s Orthodox. But his answer is a deeply personal one tied to a physical reminder: “[Tzitzit] remind me of the kind of Jew that I want to be,” he explained. “I feel also very held when I can consciously remember that I am held, or I believe that I am held by God.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0737