Jennifer was among the Mount Zion members who recently shared their stories of conversion with the congregation at Yom Kippur services. Though their paths were very different, each story was both heartfelt and compelling. Just the sort of thing I strive for with the Humans series – so over the coming weeks we will ask those who are willing, to share those stories again, through this posting.
Jennifer and I met recently, both to take this photo and to gather a bit of background for this intro. The picture was taken at her offices in the Ford Building, across from Target Field, in front of a floor to ceiling backlit image of the building, when it was the original Ford assembly plant.
Can you tell us about growing up?
I was born in California and moved to Minnesota when I was a child, when my dad was transferred here. I grew up in Plymouth and went to Catholic high school and Catholic grade school. Nothing will drill Catholicism out of you like going to Catholic school for 12 years.
I went to the University of Minnesota for my undergraduate degree in Spanish. It wasn’t terribly useful, but I was already working at the time, and eventually I got my MBA in Information Management.
What were the stepping stones to your job here?
I was working at American Express when I got my MBA, managing a team that negotiated technology contracts for global procurement. Then I went to ING and had a similar role negotiating contracts. After that I went to Thomson Reuters and was there most recently as Director of Technology Sourcing. A very interesting space in a very complex company. Finally, I started to think about doing something different, and I thought I really wanted to work in a smaller company. I wanted to maybe do something outside of IT, for the first time in eighteen years. So I got a job at ICF International, which owns the company I am at now, the Olson Advertising agency, as their Director of Contracts. And I am now on the other side of the negotiating table. I had always negotiated vendor contracts, and now I am responsible for customer contracts.
How and when did Chris come into the picture?
I was almost done with college and he was done with college, and we met … in a bar. Are you going to print that?
We can put in a bleep.
We got married way too young but we didn’t have kids for seven years. Now we have Benjamin who is twelve, and will become a bar mitzvah next April, and Avery who is ten, and Ella who is seven. She’s the exclamation point.
That means we’re done.
Oh! So it’s spelled Ella!
And how about Chris? (not spelled with a question mark)
Chris started a new job in January of this year. He is working as a contractor doing quality assurance for the implementation of new software at 3M. Before that he had been a massage therapist. Before that he stayed home with our kids for seven years. And before that he had been in technology.
These are like palindromic resumes – we go forward with yours and in reverse with his. Are you active at Mount Zion these days?
I am the scheduling coordinator for the shelter, for Project Home. And besides that, having three kids in Religious and Hebrew school we are just trying to figure out how to juggle it all, like everybody.
We will close with the text of Jennifer’s speech to the congregation, this past Yom Kippur. In its entirety, though sans emoticon cues to self.
My journey to Judaism started in junior high when I questioned the ideology of my Catholic upbringing; but without the courage to pursue alternative religions, not to mention the lack of a driver’s license, I waited several more years to explore my spirituality. I then slipped into the religion of so many college age people of my generation: agnosticism. Secretly, I wanted to be Jewish but I just didn’t know how.
My husband Chris had grown up celebrating Christmas and Easter as secular holidays but didn’t subscribe to any religion. He had never set foot inside a church, in fact, until he met me. We got married by a judge, Judge Howard Albertson, who incidentally became famous for having married 6,000 couples in his career. He was a wonderful man and did a fantastic job. What I didn’t know at the time, was that Chris secretly wanted to be Jewish, too.
Several years passed and as we started talking about starting a family, I wanted to provide a moral framework for our kids similar to what I had growing up, but not the same religion. I went to a few churches but I couldn’t embrace the theology. Chris happily stayed home watching football. One day, I came home and said what I really want is to be Jewish. Chris enthusiastically said “I would do that”. So, as was the custom in ancient times, we found Mount Zion in the Yellow Pages.
We came to Mount Zion and were immediately hooked. Right from the beginning, it felt like home. The music and the prayers spoke to us – not understanding the Hebrew didn’t seem to matter. Rabbi Spilker at the time said what page we were turning to in the Siddur, and it always felt like he was looking at us to let us know where to go next. We found out later that was just part of the service at the time – ha ha – but it made us less nervous about following along.
We began studying with Rabbi Adler who made Judaism seem accessible. She welcomed us into her home, her family, included us in the celebration of Shabbat and holidays, and gave us a perspective of Judaism that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. After the Introduction to Judaism class, attending services, and studying with Rabbi Adler for about a year, we both felt confident that Reform Judaism was the right choice for us and that we were ready to take the next step on our journey.
Throughout the years, we have become more confident in creating our own traditions and what is right for our family. In the beginning, it was challenging and intimidating to not have Jewish family to draw upon with years of tradition – and most importantly – recipes! It was easier to eliminate pork and shellfish than it was to figure out how to make kugel.
We have tried many different ways to make Judaism meaningful for us and some have stuck with us and some have not. We celebrate Shabbat dinner at home every Friday and do our best to attend services when we can, but what has become more comfortable over time is the feeling of being Jewish.
We have so many now in our lives who have shared traditions from their families that we can incorporate into our own, included us in holidays and life cycle events, and shared recipes. Although I still have not attempted kugel, Chris makes an absolutely amazing challah.
We did go synagogue shopping, as it were, but we returned to Mount Zion because it felt like the right place for us. There were so many who welcomed us and greeted us with warmth and community that we decided to make this our spiritual home. Many of those people are our friends today, some have moved away, and some have passed away, but all have been an important part of our journey to choosing Judaism.
Next April, our oldest will become bar mitzvah. We are unbelievably proud of the opportunity he will have to choose Judaism as well.