In the main storage room at the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, volunteer Carole LeFaivre-Rochester walked past shelves filled with black-bound tomes — every issue of the Jewish Exponent since its first publication nearly 120 years ago. She walked past countless records gathered and saved from local hospitals and businesses, then stopped and reached into a box to retrieve a faded sheet of paper encased in a clear protective sheet. It was a Civil War document appointing Jacob Frankel as the first Jewish chaplain in U.S. history, signed by President Abraham Lincoln. And it had been found in a closet at Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom in the 1980s.
Just like this treasured document, the spry, 70-year-old followed a winding path of her own to the archives. Born in Baltimore, she grew up Protestant, but decided on her own to become a Catholic at age 10, after her parents enrolled her in Catholic school (in their estimation, it was the best educational facility in the area). She became a Dominican Sister in 1955 at the St. Catherine de' Ricci convent in Elkins Park, and worked in religious education in New York, Michigan and Florida. She also worked with Cuban refugees in the 1960s at the Centro Hispano Catolico in Miami.
After studying the works of liberal theologian Hans Küng — a critic of the modern church — she left the convent in 1968, and attended Temple University's graduate program in religious studies. There, she studied with Rabbi Robert Gordis of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was struck by certain new insights that changed her way of thinking about certain fundamental religious concepts.
"Judaism was the root of the monotheistic religions," she said. "If Jesus taught the Torah, I'm going to learn the Torah."
Abraham Joshua Heschel's Man Is Not Alone also had a profound effect on her thinking, as did the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, specifically the "Nostra Aetate" statement that renounced the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, and which appealed for understanding and respect between Christians and Jews.
In 1989, after two decades of study and contemplation, she underwent conversion at Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J.
To those who would call her a "Jew by choice," she says she doesn't completely agree with that particular terminology.
"I like to refine that by saying I didn't have much of a choice."
After she began her graduate studies in religion, she felt she'd been placed on a path that had a distinct destination.
LeFaivre-Rochester began to volunteer at the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center four years ago; she described it as one of her most important activities, which include sitting on the board of the Society Hill Civic Association and the planning committee of the Society Hill Interfaith Group.
"I value, at this point in my life, Jewish history very much," she said.
For two days a week in the mornings, LeFaivre-Rochester works at the archives. She jokes that retirement just hasn't taken hold of her.
"If you're going to do something, you might as well do something you're really engaged in," she said.
She still attends the Conservative Society Hill Synagogue in Center City, where she met her husband, Michael Rochester, and joined his family, which includes three adult children: Benjamin, Andy and Marne.
Back in the cool, dry air of that main archives storage area, boxes and boxes of history pack the shelves, with more coming in all the time.
LeFaivre-Rochester doesn't mind one bit.
"I'd rather run out of space," she says with conviction, than not have a place where Jewish history is welcomed.