“Educate the child according to his way: Even as he grows old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

My brother-in-law Dave and his sister Bernice grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1930s, when it was a place full of Jewish life. Their mother lit Shabbat candles, kept kosher and cared for her aged, religious grandfather. Bernice and her brother attended public school, followed by Hebrew school in the late afternoons. Their mother taught Bernice to play piano and sing opera, and she sent her for dance lessons: tap and ballet. Even though Bernice was a bit of a tomboy, she loved those things.

Despite all of this—a nurturing environment, and the modeling of Jewish observance and values—at the tender age of 16, a few friends from high school convinced Bernice to convert to Catholicism. She hid her conversion from her parents for two years until she graduated high school. Once Bernice revealed her monumental decision, her irate mother insisted that she leave home, and the family hid the news from her elderly grandfather for the rest of his life.

Under these circumstances, Bernice moved into Greenwich Village in 1952 and found a job acting in one of the many Yiddish theaters that flourished on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side. Her grandmother had sewed costumes for the Yiddish theater, and she felt at home there. Five years later, Bernice reconciled with her mother and moved back home to continue her education. She became a registered nurse and worked as a school nurse for the rest of her life.

Bernice met her husband, a former priest, when she was nearing 40. They married and had one child, who was born with some physical and cognitive disabilities. With her training as a nurse, she was able to care for him until he could move to a group home for adults with disabilities. To supplement her income, and because she loved music, she taught children to play piano and perform recitals.

Over the years, I had several pleasant interactions with Bernice, a good-hearted and kind person who never spoke badly of others. She was very appreciative that I invited her and her husband to my wedding. She sent me cards every year—for New Year’s, Chanukah, Pesach—and devoured the novels I wrote on Jewish topics. In our phone calls, I could perceive none of the rebelliousness that might have spurred her decisions as a teenager. I wondered how her memories of growing up in a very Judaism-oriented home differed from those of her brother, who had grown warmer and more receptive to Judaism as he matured.

Seven years ago, my husband and I celebrated my sister and brother-in-law’s 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Florida. Our itinerary included visiting Bernice, who was living with her husband near Jacksonville. When we planned the trip, I didn’t initially realize that it would fall out over Chanukah, so when the time came, I packed three menorahs: one for us, one for my sister, and one for Bernice, in the hopes that she would light one, too.

We arrived at Bernice’s family home on the third night of Chanukah. Bernice had already set up candles in the large metal chanukiah which she had taken from her parents’ house years ago. She lights it every year, she told us. My husband sat down at her piano to play “Hanerot Halalu,” “Maoz Tzur” and other Chanukah songs, which delighted her. She, in turn, played some Jewish melodies that she remembered from the Yiddish theater.

There was a mezuzah on the door of her house, a Magen David star in the bedroom, and she bought a kosher Empire chicken to serve on the kosher dishes she had taken from her mother’s house. Although outwardly she had left Jewish practice many years before, inwardly her childhood memories and the impressions of her youth had remained strong.

Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” teaches: “He who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper.” The initial imprints from her youth apparently remained with her throughout her lifetime. They had exerted themselves in bursts over the course of her life, and she didn’t resist.

In their later years, when Bernice’s husband insisted they should both be cremated, she demurred and purchased plots instead. This year, the travails of severe dementia led to her husband’s placement in a nearby nursing home. Only a few weeks later, at the age of 88, Bernice suffered a fall at home and was taken unconscious to the hospital.

I called the local Chabad rabbi in her area and asked him to visit her. He said the holy Shema prayer by her bedside days before she passed away. I was able to arrange with the rabbi that the chevra kadisha would prepare her body for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition, including the ritual washing of the body and the wrapping of it in tachrichim, white burial shrouds. Her brother and nieces contacted Chabad.org to arrange for Kaddish to be said for the elevation of her soul.

Bernice was born a Jewish child. She walked the path she chose, but the impressions her soul absorbed in the early years nudged her to express the wishes of her true Jewish heart.

May the memory of Basha bat Chaim Gedalia be for a blessing.