Food, inspired by Israel

Sandy Leon, 42, grew up Catholic, but she never connected with the religion. Three years ago, she took a trip to Israel to see if, perhaps, Judaism was right for her. 

“When I got there, I wanted to embrace everything in Israel, like the food, the culture and the people,” she said. “I went to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall; it was huge for me.”

During the two and a half weeks she spent in Israel, Leon, who works as a hospital chef, took frequent trips to Jerusalem’s Arab shuk (market) in the Old City and shopped for local produce. She immersed herself in the culture, visited King David’s Tomb and explored Tel Aviv. “I traveled before, but Israel was calling to me,” she said. “It was the most beautiful experience. … I loved it.

“As soon as I came back, I knew for sure that I wanted to convert.” 

She took simple steps to start the conversion process. Leon bought a Star of David necklace in Israel and wore it every day thereafter. She also purchased a mezuzah and hung it in front of the door of her Arleta home. 

Leon started her formal conversion process in the summer of 2012. After studying initially at House of David bookstore in Valley Village, she was referred to the Judaism by Choice program, run by Rabbi Neal Weinberg — who formerly ran a conversion program at American Jewish University (AJU) — and his wife, Miri. Following a class about the Holocaust that she dropped in on, Leon realized she had made the right decision. “It was a very moving class,” she said. “I knew this was something that I wanted to do that same day.”

She studied Jewish history, prayers and rituals. She celebrated Shabbat and holidays, shul hopped, and decided to attend Temple Beth Am regularly and live a Conservative Jewish life. Her kitchen was kashered, and she started to learn Hebrew with the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute. “I was converting little by little,” she said.

During the conversion process, Leon also decided to investigate a family rumor that her ancestors were Jewish. “For years I knew, and it was always a question,” she said. “On my mother’s side, my ancestors came from Spain. I always wondered why they went to Mexico, of all places.”

Leon contacted, took a DNA test and within three months, found out she has Sephardic Jewish roots. 

Alhough her Catholic family has no intention of converting, Leon said they are very supportive of her choice. “My parents wanted to know more and why I wasn’t spiritually fulfilled as a Catholic. They told me, if you’re happy, we’re happy. They saw the positive in me during my conversion. Now they want to go to my synagogue. It’s great to be so open and not be discriminated or judged at all.”

After speaking with her family about it, and taking classes for seven months at Judaism by Choice, Leon completed her conversion by meeting with the beit din, a group of rabbis, at AJU this past March. Her sponsor was Rabbi Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am. “I’m still shocked,” she said. “I was extremely nervous, but the rabbis made me feel so comfortable in the process. They were really good to me. Emerging [from the mikveh immersion] was such a beautiful spirit moment. I was relaxed, at ease, and I cried like a baby. The whole experience was amazing.”

To make the transition, Leon has started a home library of Jewish books, eats at kosher restaurants in Pico-Robertson, speaks as much Hebrew as possible, attends synagogue and spends time with the friends she made through the conversion program. She chose the Hebrew name Yanah Danit, which means “He (God) answers” and “God is my judge,” respectively. For fun, she explores the outdoors, sees her family, boxes, and cooks Middle Eastern and Israeli food. One of her favorite activities is reading on Shabbat, because, she said, it allows her to “disconnect from the world completely.”

Throughout her three-year endeavor, Leon was able to come back to family traditions and start new ones of her own. Looking back on her journey, she said that she wouldn’t have done anything differently. “I would not change a thing. My conversion was a memorable experience. I was blessed to have shared my journey with good, positive people around me. I have made longtime friends, and Rabbi Weinberg and his wife, Miri, made me feel like family.”

Leon has taken on a new identity, but she said that she is “proud to be a Latina Jew. It’s a great feeling to be part of two beautiful cultures and celebrate both traditions.”