Local leaders who chose Judaism to share insights

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Three Bay Area women who hold leadership positions in the Jewish community will speak about being Jews by choice at a free panel discussion in Tiburon on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

Rabbi Susan Leider of Congregation Kol Shofar, J. editor Sue Fishkoff and Peg Sandel, head of the Marin campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School, will share the stage to discuss their journeys to Judaism and how being a Jew by choice influences their work. The discussion will be moderated by San Francisco State Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger.

Leider, who was raised Catholic, became rabbi at the Conservative congregation in 2012. People in the Jewish community still often don’t expect their leaders to be Jews by choice, Leider said.

“They look to us to be leaders and experts, and it surprises people that our journeys have been what they are. There are a lot of different paths.”

Leider said she has rarely faced discrimination in the Jewish world since her conversion in 1989, and noted that being a Jew by choice can create positive opportunities for engagement in her work as a rabbi.

“When I’m sitting with someone who’s saying, ‘Rabbi, I don’t know a word of Hebrew, I don’t know anything of Jewish prayer,’ I think it’s a unique kind of tool being able to remind people that when I was 22 years old, I didn’t know what an aleph or a bet was,” Leider said.

Jews by choice are part of a diversifying Jewish landscape, Fishkoff said. Her father is Jewish, and she underwent an Orthodox conversion at age 19 with her grandparents’ rabbi. But she still spends Christmas at her mother’s home, with her sisters and their families. It’s all part of the mix, she said.

“Particularly in the Bay Area, where intermarriage is more the norm than marriage within the Jewish community, people like myself who are children of intermarriage act as an authentic liaison,” Fishkoff said. “We who chose Judaism are an integral and growing part of the Jewish community.”

“Jews by Choice, Jews by Chance: Leadership in Bay Area Jewish Life” will begin at 7 p.m. at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. For information, call the synagogue at (415) 388-1818. ­­


Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.