It all began with “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Angel Alvarez-Mapp can remember it so clearly. He was 9 years old when he went to see the movie with his father.
“As a kid, the idea that a group of people are holding so true to this tradition and are struggling with wanting to change, but not changing, and on top of that they experience pogroms and being persecuted for who they are. It would just be easier if they became Russian Orthodox instead, but they stuck with it and walked for miles, being kicked out of their homeland,” he said. “It was so fascinating for me, I realized there must really be something to this Jewish thing because if someone came to me and said, ‘You have to move or become something else,’ I just would have become something else.”
On their way out of the theater, the 9-year-old Alvarez-Mapp told his father, “When I grow up I’m going to be Jewish.”
His father responded as many parents do, saying, “Sure, sure,” thinking that this was no doubt temporary. It wasn’t.
Now 33, Alvarez-Mapp is into his second year as executive director of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom and is in the midst of studying for his bar mitzvah.
A seasoned nonprofit professional, he brings a background in both business administration and graphic design to his new position, having studied the former at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga and the latter at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco. In his previous position, as the creative services manager of the Masons of California, he planned and executed major fundraising and oversaw marketing efforts to increase the organization’s exposure.
When a friend on the Beth Sholom search committee called him about the executive director position, he thought she was referring to a job at Gap, where she was a recruiter. Then when he applied for the position at Beth Sholom, he didn’t expect to be hired. “I did it mostly because this would be a great way to brush up on interview skills,” he admits.
Alvarez-Mapp, whose father is from Puerto Rico and whose mother is from Panama, was born in Kansas but raised mostly in Germany, growing up as an “Army brat/preacher’s kid,” according to his website. When he was in high school, the family returned to the United States, where they settled in Stockton. (Alvarez-Mapp says he tried to convert to Judaism while still a teenager, but the rabbi then didn’t think he was mature enough to make such an important decision.)
But even if his father didn’t believe his son would eventually be a Jew, he and his wife supported the young man’s interest in Judaism. “Any time I saw the word Jew, or Israel, or Hebrew, or anything in a book or magazine, I’d always read it,” he said. “My parents did encourage a lot of questioning and finding yourself, so my father actually facilitated a lot of learning for me.”
Alvarez-Mapp first came to Beth Sholom when a Jewish colleague who had heard his story invited him to Rosh Hashanah services. Even though Alvarez-Mapp understood none of the Hebrew, he appreciated how Rabbi Alan Lew “had this interesting way of delivering a sermon that was almost poetic, in a very contemporary way.”
At age 20, when he told his parents that he was converting soon, his dad said he was happy for him, while his mother could be heard in the background saying, “Well, it’s about time.”
Alvarez-Mapp, who has been with the same partner for years, says it was much harder to tell his parents he was becoming Jewish than to let them know he was gay. Admittedly, he never exactly had to come out to them; they just knew.
What particularly resonated with him about Judaism was that it “wasn’t just [observed] on a particular day of the week; it really changed your mindset in how you look at the world,” he said. “Before, when going out to dinner, I’d look at a menu and get whatever looked good. It’s changed my perspective on everything.”
Furthermore, he feels as if he has joined an exclusive club. “I had this immediate sense of belonging, since as soon as you say you’re Jewish at a party, you have four new friends.”