008: First Synagogue, First Kippah, and an Unfortunate Keychain

Kol Ami in West Hollywood

Last week was busy with my conversion class, client work & finding a suitable spot for it, and lots of extras related to the Judaism course. Namely, my first shabbat since my new journey began (Shabbat Under the Stars). A day and a half later I was back at campus for the required support group, which was hilarious, touching, and insightful; then the very next night had class again. That class topic: Shabbat. Perfect timing!

At this point I had learned quite a bit I was identifying with. Monday night classes are the highlight of my week! There was a world of knowledge I didn’t even realize existed, for instance the Talmud. It’s the Wikipedia of Judaism, and it’s ancient. I’m amazed it exists, amazed it survived, and fascinated at the culture of debate and discussion.

I’d already made a couple appointments to meet with Rabbis to choose one for my conversion. One was Rabbi Denise Eger at Kol Ami, the LGBTQ + Ally congregation in West Hollywood; the other was Rabbi Susan Goldberg at Nefesh in Silver Lake.

Rabbi Eger is esteemed, great to talk to, and a longtime activist. She came out in 1990 in an LA Times Article, has two books coming out, and is co-author of the official Reform movement gay and lesbian wedding liturgy. She officiated at the wedding of activists Robin Tyler and Diane Olson, on June 16, 2008, whose legal case went to the Supreme Court, and in 2009, she became the first female and the first openly gay President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. In 2015 she became president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America; she is the first openly gay person to hold that position.

Rabbi Eger wasn’t present at Shabbat service that Friday night so I met Rabbi Max Chaiken. He recognized my name and gave me a warm welcome. I knew absolutely no one; it was my first Friday night Shabbat service in an actual synagogue.

Before coming in I’d met a friend to get his house key; he was taking a last minute trip to Vegas and I was watching his dog. And by friend I mean, the first time we were meeting was outside the temple as he was leaving town. He gets out of his car, confirms I’m his dog walker, and proceeds to hand me a keychain of an assault rifle. I notice the Star of David tattoo on his arm, thankfully, but my God. I was walking into a synagogue for the first time in 20 years with this keychain, given current events? Great. I told him that, and that I’m converting, and he was nice and confirmed he’s Jewish and was on his merry way.

I was nervous about my first temple experience. So much so that I waited awhile before grabbing a kippah from the basket. Not sure it would stay on, I grabbed a hair pin and went to the bathroom to affix it. First time for everything!

The spaces and faces were welcoming, the service musical and educational, and I got a kick out of the siddur – the prayer book with Hebrew and the English transliteration – and being able to actually read some of the words. The transliteration (English approximation of the Hebrew pronunciation) helped me learn some new letters and words, too. I was mostly focused on that before getting invited to sit with a man in red closer to my age than anyone else. He was super helpful and gave me lots of tips.

After, there was challah and grape juice and I made the long walk home – phone off for Shabbat – where I studied and read.

I enjoyed lots of firsts tonight, including my first offline Shabbat evening, and I began wondering about what my Saturdays could look like if I keep that up. Right now that’s my busiest day with work and has been for quite some time.

Time will tell! Next up, meeting with Rabbi Eger and with Rabbi Susan at Nefesh: How do you pick a sponsoring Rabbi? But first, Nefesh and getting called into the circle.