"I explained Yom Kippur during a Sunday night Packers-Saints game"
A Midwesterner converts. A plea for men. And a call to support a local event space.
Sarah Albrent, who works in sales, moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic. And after wanting to join Judaism for more than a decade, she signed up for a conversion course. Then she went home to explain it to her parents.
I grew up in a devout Protestant family in Northeast Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay. I didn’t know anyone who was Jewish and I knew almost nothing about the religion. I learned about Chanukah from a Rugrats episode.
Then in a high school religion class, a synagogue president came to speak to us. It was like a lightbulb went off. Here is a religion that is practical, focuses on action, and serves as a guide on how to live. I connected instantly and deeply. I stayed interested in Judaism for more than a decade before I saw an article about an Introduction to Judaism course, which I didn’t even know was a possibility.
In March of 2020, I enrolled in Judaism by Choice, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg in Los Angeles. He recommended a conservative synagogue two miles from my apartment. With everything closed, I went on a lot of walks in my new city, and I walked by the synagogue quite a bit because it really wasn’t far. I watched every service streaming on YouTube.
To say that the class was the highlight of my week would be an understatement. I relished learning more about the holidays, about Jewish history, about Jewish law . . . for instance, I learned the Conservative Movement holds that all domestic hard cheeses are kosher. As a proud daughter of America’s Dairyland, hearing that pleased me greatly. I learned that hunting, which is ubiquitous in Wisconsin, is very un-Jewish. That might explain why growing up I didn’t know any Jews.
I learned about Israel and made a point to tell my class that Golda Meir grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (I’m obligated to say ‘they’re from Wisconsin’ anytime someone famous from my home state is mentioned).
Speaking of Wisconsin, you may be wondering how my devoutly Protestant family took all this.
Initially I didn’t tell my parents about my intention to convert to Judaism. I figured they’d be bummed enough at me moving to the West Coast that I didn’t want to also crush them by saying, oh and by the way, I plan on abandoning your religion too. When it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon, I decided to drive back to Wisconsin to visit. Since the class had pivoted to Zoom I could keep up even when traveling . . . but it meant I had to say something to them. Did I mention that my mother is a retired church secretary, my father is a current church president, and my sister is a church secretary? I’m not sure black sheep is a strong enough expression to describe me.
Don’t worry, this story doesn’t turn dark. Quite the contrary. My family could not possibly be more loving and supportive. Although my mom doesn’t quite understand why I’d willingly choose a religion with more rules, especially regarding pork consumption . . . ‘but you LOVE bratwurst!’ may have been something she said to me shortly after hearing my intentions.
However, she also said, ‘I’d be disappointed if you believed nothing, but if you believe something different from me, that’s okay,’ and then added, ‘I hope you find a nice community.’
I asked my dad if he was concerned that his daughter converting to Judaism would reflect poorly on him as church president, he said, ‘no, not concerned at all.’ Then without missing a beat added, ‘you already did that when you moved to California.’
To be clear he was kidding, he’s a funny guy like that. The next dinner my mom even asked if I wanted to say a different prayer. I told her that was an incredibly sweet gesture, but since I wasn’t Jewish yet, not necessary. Although a few days later I did show off my improving Hebrew prayer skills and bless the bread (at least I think I did… not that my parents would know if I messed up).
I credit my parents for showing me how positive religion can be. I grew up attending a wonderful church, and I know how important a community like that can be to a person. In an age when many proclaim that they’re ‘spiritual but not religious,’ I’m proud to say that I’m a religious person. Others may think that’s weak-minded or superstitious, but I know I’m a better person with a religious grounding, and I owe that to my parents.
I mentioned Shabbat candlesticks I had purchased, and my mom insisted that I take the candlesticks she received as a wedding gift. ‘Dad and I want you to have them’ was her exact text. Now I have two sets. My sister has taken it upon herself to find me a kiddush cup . . . she drilled me on the specs, I told her it just had to be a nice cup. I have been using a Lambeau Field souvenir cup (honestly it is the nicest cup I have) so anything she got me would be an upgrade. She even sent me a Chanukah care package in December, complete with a dreidel, Chanukah cookies, and a Yahrzeit candle. For those that don’t know, a Yahrzeit candle is a memorial candle lit on the anniversary of someone’s death . . . When I called her and told her she exclaimed, ‘It was by the other Jewish items . . . on Chanukah, I thought you lit candles?!’
I explained Yom Kippur during a Sunday night Packers-Saints game. I told them that if I were Jewish, and there wasn’t a pandemic, that I wouldn’t be watching the game with them, I’d be at the synagogue for the Kol Nidre service. I’m pretty sure that’s when my family truly realized I was serious about this was when I said I might have to miss Packer games as a practicing Jew.
I drank from a giant cup of water during the first half, and said that once the sun went down I could no longer eat or drink anything until sundown the following day. I watched the Kol Nidre service on Youtube after the game. My parents called the following evening, concerned about how my fast was going, ‘the sun is down here, can you eat yet?’ No not yet, I have about two hours to go, I told them. After that my dad assumed every Jewish holiday involved fasting.
I’ve told a few friends and they’ve all been supportive and curious; I tell them to feel free to ask me all questions. One friend even texted me a ‘Shabbat Shalom’ one Friday afternoon . . . then immediately texted back, concerned that it might be disrespectful coming from a non-Jew. Of course not, I told her, quite the contrary, besides, didn’t she know I was still going to wish her a Merry Christmas and Happy Easter? One friend asked, ‘is that what people do when they move to LA, convert to Judaism?’ I said I wasn’t sure; I just knew it’s what I wanted to do.
Now that LA is finally starting to open up, I look forward to attending services in person, and learn more about what it’s like to actually DO Jewish things. I heard that during the pandemic conversions were going forward with virtual Beit Dins, but that didn’t interest me. I just felt to even start the process right now would be disingenuous since I’ve only ever done things solo and Judaism is very communal. I have no intention of living only as a virtual Jew, I want to experience what it’s like before I take the plunge… literally.
I lived over thirty years of my life as a non-Jew, so I can be patient a little while longer. Things are opening up now. June 15th. That’s the magic date.
Nellie here with a plea…for MEN. Males. I know there are XY chromosomes out there who have converted. Write about it for us! firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to our sponsors, every essayist gets an instant Venmo of $300. Think of all the beers you can buy for the bros with that or whatever it is men would do with money.
And if anyone feels like doing something good, please consider becoming a sponsor of Manny’s in San Francisco. Manny Yekutiel is a loving progressive leader who opened the dreamiest bookstore / coffeeshop / event-space. Yet since the very start, protestors have targetted his shop. They break his windows. They deface his building. They march outside with bullhorns to drown out his events. Why? Because he is a Jew whose family fled Afghanistan and found safety in Israel, and he refuses to call for the country to be disbanded. That’s it. That’s the crime.
Here is his essay about it in the Chronicle a couple years ago. The harassment waxes and wanes but never stopped, and it’s gotten worse again in recent months. An excerpt from that essay:
The building has been vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti, is the target of weekly protests, and the business has been ideologically extorted: tell us if you’re a Zionist so we can try to drive you out of business. Given the mission of Manny’s, we have invited these individuals into the space for dialogue, but their goal is to shut down discourse, not engage in it.
I’m a religious Jew and proud of it. My father escaped persecution in Afghanistan and journeyed, partly on foot, to Israel to reunite with family who had previously escaped oppression and found safety there. My little sister was almost blown up by a suicide bomber at a bus stop in Jerusalem. As a liberal American Jew, I have complicated feelings about Israel. I do not support everything that its government does (nor everything our American government does). Israel and the United States have provided my family with safety when other countries haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I support the ending of innocent life. My hope for the Israeli and Palestinian people is to soon live in peace with mutual recognition in sovereign and safe borders. This complex issue is a perfect example of the need for high-quality discourse.
What bonds ideological absolutists on the left and the right is precisely what inspired the building of this new space — the opportunity to reverse corrosive incivility and to have vibrant discussion about complicated subjects.