November 16, 2018

Jill Sperling: ‘I’m meant to be Jewish’

When Jill Sperling met her husband, Skip, in 1985, he was the first Jew she’d ever met. On a recent business trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the tables turned. Sperling — who converted to Judaism in 1989 — became the first Jew someone else had ever met: her business partner, who was Indian and a practicing Hindu living in a Muslim-majority country.

Until then, Sperling told the Journal, she had kept her faith secret from her colleague.

“I wanted to have tiny conversations with her without telling her I was Jewish; I didn’t want the fact that I was Jewish to bias her opinion,” Sperling said. But she did ask her colleague questions about why Israelis weren’t allowed in the country. The answer Sperling received: It’s because they treat the Palestinians terribly. “This is what she’s been taught her whole life,” Sperling said.

Throughout the trip, Sperling, who had been to Israel several times, took various chances to talk with her partner about Israel, Gaza and Hamas. When the partner posted something on Facebook that was anti-Jewish, Sperling sought a dialogue. That’s when her colleague revealed that she had never met anyone who was Jewish.

“It really opened her eyes and changed her opinion,” Sperling said. “Now she’ll send me an article and ask what I think about it.” The learning has been a two-way street: Sperling has learned a lot about Islam from her partner, as well.

Sperling met Skip while studying in France — and going to Chamonix on winter break at the same time Skip was on a skiing trip from New York. “We met in an apres-ski pub, we kind of liked each other, and 32 years later we are still together,” she said.​ ​

Sperling’s mother had grown up Catholic​, but the family never really went to church. Jill went to catechism class ​and explored other religions as a child​, but her father was not​ religiously​ observant, she said.​ Her parents were very supportive of her decision to convert; her mom has subsequently learned to make brisket and ​“has Passover dessert nailed!”​ Sperling said she connects to Judaism on “more of a spiritual level … in more of a ‘traditions-based’ way” — for instance, through weekly Shabbat dinners with families from her mid-Wilshire neighborhood, numbering as many as 20 adults and kids.

She recalled one rite of passage that made a special spiritual impact: her adult bat mitzvah, held as part of a group adult celebration at Temple Beth Am a year or two before her son’s bar mitzvah.

“I remember there was a moment when we all turned and faced the ark and I heard the whole congregation singing behind me, and it was just beautiful,” she said. “We were all being lifted up.”

After finishing her conversion through the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University (AJU, then University of Judaism) in 1989, Sperling has been active in the Jewish community, with the majority of her communal work centering around Temple Beth Am, Pressman Academy and an organization called Judaism by Choice (JBC), founded by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who taught her conversion class at AJU.

“The [Intro to Judaism] community was our first community; people in the class became our friends and are still our friends,” she said. “AJU led us to Temple Beth Am, and that became our community. Our kids grew up in a Jewish community, going to a Jewish day school. They grew up with Rabbi Weinberg, because of my involvement with JBC,” for which she served as president for several years. A lot of her friends are Jews by Choice, many of whom she has met through programs designed to bring together JBC’s current students and alumni for Jewish events like Havdalah.

Another poignant moment she recalled came on a trip to Israel with the Wexner Heritage Program leadership group. “We went on a hike in the desert, in the Negev. We were supposed to meditate or sit by ourselves, find a place where we couldn’t see anyone else. I think about it now and it was very emotional. In that moment, [I thought] I’m meant to be here and I’m meant to be Jewish.”

For Sperling, much of Jewish culture is about community, whether at her synagogue or Friday night dinners, which are at a different house each week. She and her neighbors have formed an urban kibbutz of sorts, a community of their own.

“Everyone shows up, the door is open,” Sperling said. “The kids, now young adults, still come,” she said, referring to her own children, a son, 24, and a daughter, 20, as well as the kids from the other four families, ages 17 to 25, “and if there’s a friend in town, they’re automatically invited.” Sperling’s eyes took on an extra sparkle as she described the weekly ritual, which sometimes features different themes.

For Cinco de Mayo, she said, they had a Mexican theme, and other weeks have featured Moroccan, Italian and Cuban. “We have wine, sing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and put our arms around each other, and the guys have their scotch-tasting,” she said.

Sperling runs a medical device company, focusing mostly on sales that often take her to distant countries. It was this work that had brought her to Kuala Lumpur.

“I love it,” she said. “I’m a people person. I love the challenge. I love the hunt. I love teaching the younger generation. The secret to sales is organization and follow through.”

Many Jews by Choice feel a connection to Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which in addition to commemorating the receipt of the Torah, is when synagogues read the story of Ruth. This year it begins on May 30. Ruth, a convert to Judaism, was an ancestor of King David. “In the story of Ruth, she’s accepted into the community, and that’s very important to someone who’s a Jew by Choice,” Sperling said.

Twenty-eight years after her conversion, Sperling feels settled in her community and accepted as a Jew. “We feel really lucky that we landed here in this community and on this block. It’s really amazing.”