Matthew Bussy is the program director for Philadelphia Jewish Film and Media. He started working for the nonprofit organization when it was still just the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival — and part of the Gershman Y — in 2016.
Yet when he took the job, he was not actually Jewish. The Temple University graduate and film major just needed a job.
And what started as a practical decision ended up changing his life. Six years later, Bussy, 31, is very much Jewish after converting in 2020.
His immersion in the Jewish film festival and other Jewish movie events, like screenings at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, gave him an appreciation for Jewish culture and history. When he started reading more about Judaism, he told his father, Gregory Bussy, who informed him that, by the way, his grandfather and great-grandfather were Jewish themselves.
“It was like a lightbulb going off in my head,” Bussy said. “I remember this feeling of joy kind of overcame me.”
It hasn’t left, either.
Bussy attends Jewish events in the city, honors the Sabbath by lighting the candles and saying the blessings and celebrates the Jewish holidays. He calls dating “impossible” right now, but when he does settle down with someone, he wants to raise a Jewish family. He even gets the jokes and understands what it means to make Aliyah.
“I had no idea what aliyah was before,” Bussy said.
The 31-year-old grew up in Media and graduated from Penncrest High School. His childhood home was sort of Unitarian Universalist, though his mom was not religious. When Bussy was 8, though, he started whining about going to church on Sunday mornings, so the family stopped.
As his childhood continued, Bussy celebrated Easter and Christmas every year with his parents, but he said “it was never really religious.”
“It was like, ‘Oh, this is an American thing — we have to do this; it’s tradition,’” he recalled. “But we didn’t say prayers or anything.”
The program director’s next encounter with religion came in his mid-20s when he got the job with the film festival. At first, his connection with Judaism felt like just that. But around the time he turned 27, it got deeper.
Bussy’s friends were getting into relationships and leaving the city. Suddenly, he was alone with little to do on weekends. He drank and tried to deny what was happening. But eventually, he “hit a wall,” he said.
“I don’t like where my life is going,” the millennial added. “What can I do?”
Bussy began reading about Judaism and about “what the Talmud teaches us,” he said. The lonely young adult appreciated the emphasis on community and family, so he started attending services at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.
It was around this same time that he told his dad about what he was doing. Just as Bussy was becoming Jewish, he learned that he already was.
His paternal great-grandfather, Bernard Bussy, left Europe because he was tired of pogroms and antisemitism. But then the elder Bussy settled in a Pennsylvania town where “it was taboo if you were Jewish,” Matt said.
Bernard stopped practicing, had a son, Robert Kenneth, and never raised him Jewish. Yet despite that, Robert Kenneth understood his roots.
“My dad told me all these stories about how my grandfather was really into Judaism,” Matt Bussy said. “He went to Israel a year after it was declared a state.”
In 2019, Robert Kenneth’s grandson made it back to their Holy Land on a trip for young professionals through The Chevra, a community center in Philadelphia. Matt saw the culture, the history and the food, and he felt something.
“Judaism was stopped in my family lineage,” Bussy said. “I said, ‘I want to bring it back and celebrate it.’”
The younger Bussy started his conversion process in 2020 before the pandemic through Rabbi Eli Freedman at Rodeph Shalom. Even after COVID broke out, he continued with his introduction to Judaism class and his one-on-one meetings with Freedman.
The rabbi, 42, is in his 12th year at Rodeph Shalom and regularly works with converts as part of his job. He said Bussy showed a unique amount of enthusiasm.
“He had a broad range of knowledge and was already really connected to the Jewish community,” Freedman added.
Bussy recalled that there was a moment during his conversion, after COVID broke out, when he doubted whether he should continue. But then he would attend a Zoom service and see congregants coming together, singing and even dancing.
“People who are Jewish are not giving up. They’re still celebrating,” he said. JE