Joan Laguatan did her due diligence before embracing Judaism.
“I went to Catholic school my entire life,” she said. “In my late 20s, I thought, ‘What is the right path for me?’”
To figure it out, Laguatan, who was born in the Philippines and raised in San Francisco, did a lot of reading and thinking before choosing to convert to Judaism 10 years ago. Now that “right path” includes being selected as one of 20 Bay Area residents in the 2018 Wexner Heritage Program for up-and-coming volunteer/lay leaders.
“It’s a significant achievement for Joan to have been accepted into the program,” said Rabbi Benjamin Berger, director of the Wexner program.
Laguatan, who owns a real estate brokerage, said becoming Jewish just fit with her character — she defines herself as a “skeptical” person and enjoys the questioning aspect of the religion.
“There’s this constant underlying encouragement to think critically,” Laguatan said.
The 43-year-old is married to a Jewish man (whom she met when he was teaching a course on Jewish values at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation) and has two children at the Shalom School in San Francisco, and the family is part of the Congregation Beth Sholom community.
Laguatan’s selection to Wexner’s 2018 Bay Area cohort — a process that was “highly competitive” and “brought more nominees and applications than ever,” according to WexnerFoundation.org — recognizes her leadership and volunteer work at places such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Moishe House.
“Because people in the community know I’m a real estate broker, they come to me and confide their problems,” she said.
That has meant pro bono or discounted work for organizations or community members trying to, for example, secure a lease or figure out how to invest sensibly in real estate. Right now, one thing she is doing is helping Flying Falafel, a tiny Israeli restaurant on Market Street, expand to a new location, just like she did for Frena Bakery, which is planning to open a new location this year in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
“That’s what I want to do when I complete the [Wexner] program,” she said. “Just to further my work.”
Israel has the highest number of vegans per capita.
The newest group of 20 Bay Area Wexner participants includes people mostly in the 30- to 45-year-old range; they will meet every other week and participate in out-of-town retreats and trainings over the course of two years.
“What we’re looking for in Wexner Heritage members is people who are outstanding leaders, who have either already demonstrated outstanding leadership or show the potential to do so,” Berger said.
The program is different than the Wexner Field Fellowship (which is for Jewish communal professionals) and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (which helps to develop Jewish community professionals in graduate schools), although all are run by the Ohio-based Wexner Foundation. The Wexner Heritage Program is designed to provide practical leadership and networking skills, plus a substantial dose of Jewish history, Talmud and Midrash.
“To be a changemaker, you have to know your stuff,” Berger said.
Laguatan is ready.
“I already have a whole stack of books,” she said.
Beyond her work, Laguatan is passionate about veganism (she and her husband had a vegan wedding), and to that end, this past April she held a “compassionate” Passover seder. Both kosher and vegan, the seder brought together people active in animal rights, responsible farming and food science, for networking and to raise money for Jewish Veg, which promotes vegetarianism as a Jewish value based on Torah.
“Israel has the highest number of vegans per capita,” she said. “Jewish people are really helping to lead the movement.”
For now, Laguatan mostly is focusing on the Wexner program, which will begin in earnest at a new member conference in Snowmass, Colorado in August. She said she’s ready to buckle down and learn even more about Judaism.
Laguatan admitted her conversion to Judaism a decade ago was difficult for her traditionally Catholic father, a San Francisco immigration attorney, but since she’s had children, he’s come around; he even wrote an article for a U.S.-Philippines news site about his expanded family.
“That was the redeeming factor for him, because he loves his grandkids,” she said.