frances stands smiling in the sherith israel sanctuary with stained glass behind her
Frances Bertetta at her new spiritual home, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco (Photo/Rob Gloster)

This 98-year-old woman is converting to Judaism after lucky raffle win

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Frances Bertetta was in her late 20s when she attended a bar mitzvah and fell in love with Judaism. Seventy years later, she is converting from Catholicism and becoming a member at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Bertetta, 98, recently was approved for conversion by a beit din, or rabbinical court, and was immersed in a mikvah, or ritual bath, this week. Her official welcome to the congregation has been set for Friday, June 23.

She was first exposed to Judaism in a world religions class at UC Berkeley in 1941. But her conversion happened only after she won a raffle drawing three years ago at the JCC of San Francisco. Her prize: tickets to High Holy Day services at Sherith Israel.

The spark that initially attracted her to Judaism occurred in the late 1940s when she and her husband were invited to the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son. Having grown up in the Catholic Church, which she says was too formal and forbidding for her, she remembers the openness of the synagogue ceremony.

“I never forgot that little boy reciting his Hebrew,” she said in an interview at Sherith Israel. “The Catholic Church is very cold and you don’t question anything. We kids were scared to death of the priests and nuns. The rabbi was walking around and talking to everybody.”

Bertetta, a divorced mother of four children who now range in age from 57 to 71, always has been an avid reader and learner. As a child, she roller-skated to a community library. As an adult, she taught biology, English and math at Mills High School in Millbrae.

Her conversion process started with an introduction to Judaism class and has included Torah study, attending Shabbat services and writing essays about her journey to a new faith.

“Everything is interesting. I just love it all,” Bertetta said. “The more I learn, the more I love it. The hardest thing is learning Hebrew. Talking to the rabbis and the cantor and my mentor was really great. I love the discussions. With Jews there’s always discussion.”

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf of Sherith Israel said Bertetta always was enthusiastic about reading and researching Judaism.

“She read extra books and spent extra time with me and the cantor,” Graf said. “She is a very curious person whose mind is wide open. She’s a lifelong learner.”

Bertetta was christened Frances Marie Kawalkowski (her parents had wanted a boy and were set to name him Francis Jr.). She went through catechism and her family attended mass every Sunday morning.

She earned a two-year scholarship to UC Berkeley and started as a math major, then switched to history and took the course on world religions.

It’s very remarkable and immensely encouraging for somebody to have this kind of initiative and strength and energy at her age. What a model she is.

“That was my first encounter with anything Jewish,” she said. “The history of Judaism is really like the history of the world. I thought that the Jews are so brave, they have withstood so many horrible things that have happened to them, yet they have always come out of it, they have not been vengeful.”

She was married in a Catholic ceremony in 1942, but broke with the church when her children were bullied in parochial school after her divorce. In retirement, she often joined book clubs, and a friend suggested she try one at the JCCSF, where she also started going to lectures and senior lunches.

It was at one of those lunches that she won the raffle for the holiday services. She enjoyed them so much that she kept going back to Sherith Israel.

Her conversion mentor, 74-year-old Helen Luey, said Bertetta was drawn to Judaism because it offered an intellectual freedom that Catholicism did not.

“I think what I found really poignant, what seems to have drawn her to Judaism — and Reform Judaism in particular — is that it has these deep roots in history and tradition combined with encouraging diversity of opinion,” said Luey, who also volunteers at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

“It’s very remarkable and immensely encouraging for somebody to have this kind of initiative and strength and energy at her age. What a model she is.”

For her Hebrew name, Bertetta chose Sarah — the biblical matriarch who gave birth to Isaac in her 90s and lived to age 127.

“Sarah had a hard life and she had a child late in life, like I did. She had a tough marriage, and I’m sort of in sympathy with her,” Bertetta said. “And the age, too.”

The nonagenarian said she’s happy to be an inspiration for other seniors, saying far too many of them sit at home alone watching television instead of joining a community.

She’s already an inspiration to her rabbi, who said Bertetta is by far the oldest person she knows of who has converted to Judaism. Likewise, the mikvah guardian told Graf that she had never worked with anyone older than 70 or so.

“It’s quite unusual in one’s 80s or 90s to begin such an incredibly intense study and to transition to a new community. A new way of thinking about the world takes a lot of chutzpah,” Graf said. “This is somebody who has guts and courage and is really living her life in a very open way. I’m in awe of her spirit.

“It’s thrilling because it inspires me to hope to be a lifelong learner, and a person [like Frances] with [so] much curiosity and compassion at the age of 98.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.