Preschool teacher inspired to convert

When Debbie Togliotti responded to a help-wanted ad for preschool teachers, she didn’t realize she was applying for a job at a Hebrew day school — or that 21 years later she would be converting to Judaism.

“I thought the person on the phone said ‘Hickory Day School,’ not ‘Hebrew Day School,'” Togliotti said. “I don’t think I would have applied if I had known it was a Jewish school.”

Togliotti got the job at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, where she worked for two years. And while she wasn’t the only non-Jewish teacher, she felt out of her element.

Teaching at a Jewish school meant she had to become well-versed in Judaism — and quickly. As she worked to infuse her lesson plans with Jewish values and themes, her interest in the religion increased. “I became determined to really learn about Judaism, because I just didn’t feel right teaching it on a purely superficial level.”

She turned to her fellow teachers, the students’ families and, more recently, Jewish Everyday Moments in Pre-School for guidance. JEMS is sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education and hosts seminars and retreats in an effort to enrich Jewish and non-Jewish teachers’ knowledge of Judaism and teach them ways of applying it in the classroom.

“About half of the Jewish day school teachers in the Bay Area aren’t Jewish,” said Ellen Brosbe, director of JEMS.

But not all of them convert.

Togliotti left her job at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School and started teaching at T’enna Preschool at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. By then it was already becoming more than just a job.

“As I started to incorporate the holidays and teachings into the classroom they began to seep into my personal life,” she said. Togliotti has now been at T’enna for 19 years.

As a gardener she’s drawn to Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, and the building of the sukkah for Sukkot. Her love of nature is what first piqued her interest in Judaism on a personal level. But as she explored and learned more she realized that many Jewish values coincided with her own. “I just felt so comfortable with the religion.”

Though she was raised Catholic and attended church as a child, she was non-practicing as an adult. “I just didn’t believe in it,” Togliotti said.

“I find meaning simply doing things that come naturally to me. The tzedakah and the mitzvot just make sense.”

Aware of the pervasive effect Judaism was having on her professional and personal life, she began to seriously consider converting.

“It has taken many years to get to this place of feeling ready and wanting to adopt a religion that holds values true to my heart.”

She decided to take the leap last year when she thought, “If I don’t convert now, then when?”

She contacted Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City and began studying with him last February. Though she has celebrated several Jewish holidays with students’ families and her

co-workers, she celebrated her first Chanukah in her own home last year.

Togliotti’s goal is to convert before her 50th birthday this May.

“My students say to me, ‘you’re learning to be Jewish,'” she said.