September 23, 2019

Katie Piel: She kept hearing a message

On Nov. 9, about 12 hours after Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to become the president-elect, the mood at a West Hollywood Starbucks was somber. Sullen strangers were exchanging supportive hugs. And in this raw moment, Katie Piel — there to be interviewed by the Jewish Journal about her journey to Judaism —  articulated an emotional action plan.

“It’s devastating on a lot of levels for a lot of people, but the only thing you can do about it is get spiritual,” she said. “Because it’s such a big, massive event on a world level that I think you have to dig back into the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And realize that the universe is shaking things up. First it’s a whisper; then, if you don’t pay attention, it’s a little louder. It is what it is, and getting to the future is what we need to do. Everyone needs to galvanize and get together and reorganize to put aside their pettiness — that’s why we got to where we are. This is the reality now. So how do we protect people from [their] civil rights being taken away? That’s what is on the table.”

Piel, 39, grew up in New York City in a “happy, liberal family on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, depending on the decade — a bunch of intellectuals who had the planet’s good at heart,” she said. Early on, she learned that “the environment in which we live is as important as who we are on the inside and is created by who we are on the inside.”

Piel’s family didn’t have any religion, but awareness of Judaism permeated her early life. “The Upper West Side is the seat of Judaism in New York City,” she said, remembering that her family celebrated Chanukah because “I was demanding it because I had made a menorah” in nursery school. When she was 6, her aunt converted to Orthodox Judaism. Piel went to Passover seders and had many friends whose families were “half and half.” Her grandparents lived next door to the young Barbra Streisand.

“Judaism had always made an impression on me,” she said.

Piel moved to California 16 years ago to pursue an acting career, but discovered that “being [cast as] ‘Woman No. 3’ wasn’t the most fulfilling thing that had ever happened for me.” She then interned for a casting director and realized that in such a position, she could be creative and continue to be a storyteller. She’s now been casting for more than a decade and has her own company. 

Piel also had begun a spiritual journey with Transcendental Meditation, during which she kept hearing a message: “It’s time to explore Judaism some more.”

She consulted with rabbi friends, who advised her to “ ‘Take a class, chill out about it, go to synagogue and see what Shabbat is like,’ ” she said. “This fit perfectly with my own sort of philosophy and ideals about faith and spirituality and organized religion.” 

Piel said her family didn’t believe that a person needed organized religion to instruct them on morality, just that a person should live a good life. “Of course, there’s always morality in universal truth and, of course, any religion is built on inner and outer peace and caring for your fellow human beings,” she said. “[But] the overriding understanding and knowledge [is] that love and God are the same thing.” 

Piel described herself as a person who “holds my nose and jumps in the deep end,” pointing to her move to California and her impulsive habit of adopting dogs. (“They kept appearing, and I’m not going to send them to the pound. … If I do something, I tend to go all in.”)

So, when she finally had the time and inclination, she enrolled in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s “Judaism by Choice” course. 

Last March, on her birthday, she immersed in the mikveh, the ritual bath to signify her transition into Judaism. 

“Besides seeing my niece and nephew emerge into the world, it was the most powerful experience I’d ever had,” she said. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Cantor Lizzie Weiss served as her beit din, the panel of clergy overseeing her conversion.

Piel said her family wasn’t terribly surprised by her big Jewish announcement. Her sister initially was taken aback, but then was fine with it. “If it had been any other religion, she would have been horrified,” Piel said, “but if it’s Reform Judaism and you’re still a Democrat, no big deal.” Piel also recalled that one of the most beloved books in her family had been “The Joys of Yiddish.” About a month before Piel converted, her sister sent her the new edition.

Since her conversion, Piel has had moments she described as “definitely overwhelming” but that helped her discover that the Jewish journey is about finding one’s own interpretation. For Piel, right now, what’s resonating is the idea of l’dor va’dor, that Judaism is passed from generation to generation. As someone who is musically engaged, Piel called this “the Jewish melody that goes backward and forward through time.”

“This is the Jewish fabric that binds every Jew in the world together,” she said. “The deep knowing and feeling of that connection to community is kind of mystical … the care with which Jewish people recall their ancestors. Every Shabbat we are praying for those who have come before us.” 

She also appreciates Judaism’s reverence for the past.

“If you think about how Judaism sits in your life, you have to think about the connection to the future and the connection to the past. We have a deep responsibility to each other and to the world,” she said, connecting this concept with tikkun olam, the responsibility of healing the world. “What are we going to do to leave this place better than we found it? This is a call back to our ancestors, to experiences in the Torah. How do we leave a legacy for those who come after we do?” 

At Temple Emanuel, Piel found her community. When she first walked into the synagogue, she saw Michelle Aaron, an actress she had known for a long time and who is married to Rabbi Jonathan Aaron. “I felt instantly at home,” she said. “And with Sarah and Jon and Lizzie having presided over my entrance into Judaism, it seems sort of ridiculous to go anywhere else.” 

She has found a place at Temple Emanuel’s Saturday “silver minyan” — so called because it is attended mostly by senior citizens, whose knowledge she admires and respects. “As a new Jew, getting to sit there and listen to the Torah portion and discussion afterward, I try to say nothing because I have nothing valuable to say. …  I have 39 years of Jewish education to make up for.” 

Piel joined Temple Emanuel’s intergenerational choir for the High Holy Days, which gave her the opportunity to sing sacred music with a group of people who reminded her that “people have hidden talents. Who would know that this soprano who’s on the violin was in a Tim Burton movie, happens to be a convert and is in the choir?” 

Although improving her Hebrew is on her agenda, Piel noted proudly that “more and more, I’m ‘off book,’ even during services.”

“There’s something spectacular about being able to read texts in the original language, no matter how good a translation is,” she said. “There’s much debate about what a particular word choice means, the tense of the verb, etc. — all of that is kind of fascinating.”

Shabbat is very important to her. Although she doesn’t unplug entirely, she said the day provides a spiritual pause. 

“I try to turn my phone off before services and take Friday and Saturday reflecting on the week,” she said. “Saying the prayers is something I find soothing and comforting. You can pray all the time in any language anywhere, but connection to the Jewish fabric is saying those prayers and knowing that, for centuries, the same prayers have been said by people in your community every Friday and Saturday.

“That connection is miraculous.”