Family Matters: Women Rabbis I: Second Career
Many middle-aged women are opting for a more spiritual career path and bringing to synagogue pulpits both valuable life experience and work savvy.
Lilly Kaufman of Bloomfield, Connecticut, was 16 years into her publishing career when she was asked to lead a Shabbat service. The cantor at her shul was out of town. “I remember how completely natural and comfortable it felt,” she says. “I suddenly realized that I could be doing that which seemed to uplift people or keep doing what I had been doing.”
She spent nine years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York where she earned a cantorial degree in 1998 and a rabbinical degree in 2001. At the age of 47, Kaufman became spiritual leader of some 200 families at Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh, a Conservative synagogue outside of West Hartford.
Today, instead of negotiating books deals she’s marrying and burying, leading bar and bat mitzvas and imbuing her congregants’ lives with Jewish learning.
More than a third of the current students at the Conservative JTS are female (up from 5 percent in 1985), as are 60 percent of the current class at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and two-thirds of those in Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
There are no exact statistics on how many female students come to the rabbinate armed with experience in other fields, though the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion, California, reports that the majority of its female students had achieved previous success in other professions. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the number of women rabbis who transfer the skills, experiences and wisdom gleaned from earlier careers to navigate the day-to-day hurdles of the rabbinate is growing.
“For women, midlife is a time when old values, roles and goals no longer make sense,” says Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger. “They use this transition to live out their highest dreams.” She learned the lengths these women will go to satisfy old—and new—longings while researching her book The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women (Henry Holt).
As millions of baby boomer women struggle to make sense of their forties and fifties, this self-aware (some might prefer the term self-absorbed) generation insists this won’t be their mothers’ midlife crises. With longer life expectancies and healthier lifestyles than previous generations, they are nothing if not optimistic.
“It’s…an opportunity to serve the world in big-picture ways,” Shellenbarger notes. “A meaningful career change is often just what the doctor ordered, and what job could be more meaningful—and demanding—than rabbi?”
Rabbi Helene Ferris, HUC-JIR’s first “grown-up” female rabbinical student, juggled the needs of three young children with the rigors of rabbinical training. She was ordained in 1981 at the age of 44. “Jews don’t say we’ve ‘been called,’ but that’s how I felt,” she recalls 25 years later. “People looked at me like I was a rich woman from Scarsdale with nothing better to do, but I was also told, ‘You have the burden on your shoulders because you’re the first, so make sure you get through so that other older women will be accepted in the future.’” At 68, she is the spiritual leader for the 500 families of Temple Israel of Northern Westchester.
New midlife careers are becoming the norm, explains Sylvia Barack Fishman, codirector of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “More and more, we’re all on an occupational journey,” she says. Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Vancouver entered the rabbinate after spending 17 years as a philosophy professor and university department chair. She insists she’s happier as the rabbi for Jewish Renewal congregation Or Shalom in Vancouver.
Though her love for philosophy remains unabated, “I had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t really making a difference, that the number of students who you can actually help on their life journey was very small,” Kaplan says. “Working in the rabbinate, you have the chance to connect to people by entering their lives through the window of transformational moments, to offer the support of Jewish tradition and a listening, caring ear.” She entered Philadelphia’s Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal rabbinic school at 41 and was 45 at her ordination last year.
The congregants these women serve often feel just as lucky, insists Susan Shamash, Or Shalom cochair. “Laura is a huge asset to our very intellectual and professional community,” says Shamash. “Her administrative and people-managing experience, her maturity and understanding, make all the difference in dealings with congregants, our board and community. And she had the wisdom and patience to come without preconceived notions and let the relationships grow naturally.”
Not a day goes by, says Kaufman, when, as rabbi, she doesn’t tap her old publishing-executive self. The years of public speaking, creative problem-solving and management coalesce each time she works with a teacher or empowers a congregant to lead services.
“Now, instead of the publishers, I have Judaism and the Conservative movement behind me,” she says.
Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, a literature professor and writer, is working on a book about her own transformation into a rabbi—at age 60. She graduated last spring from the Conservative Ziegler Rabbinical School at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. “With the years, the yearning inside of me to address Jewish texts in a spiritual, not just academic, way became more and more intense,” she says.
Bringing lessons from one’s personal history to the job provides what Rabbi Jacqueline Koch-Ellenson, director of the Reform Women’s Rabbinic Network, calls “a hard-won wisdom about the human condition.”
“Very often, these women have experienced significant life changes,” she adds. “They realized something important was missing in their lives, something that only being a rabbi could fulfill. That makes them uniquely capable of helping with congregants’ problems while sharing their love of Jewish tradition.”
But such gains often come with a price, sacrifices that need to be made beginning with the years of rabbinical training. “The passion to share Judaism is there for everyone who enters the field, but older women often have more hoops to jump through—compromises with children and spouses, lost income and gathering the support they need to make it through,” says Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, HUC-JIR’s regional director for admissions and recruitment in New York. Former architect Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, flew every week to Los Angeles to attend the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Ordained in 2004, today she is director of the Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program of Jewish Family Service of New Mexico.
Kaplan moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Vancouver with her husband, Charles, and their two young children so she could take the pulpit of Or Shalom. But that hadn’t always been the plan. “I never really imagined that we would be pulling up stakes and moving across the continent,” recalls Charles, a child psychologist who gave up an established private practice and is building one from scratch while working at a local hospital. “After the initial shock wore off, though, I realized what better time for an adventure than now?”
Their children—Hillary, 13, and Eli, 10—also took some time to get adjusted. However, a welcoming community helped the whole family make the transition. “Best of all may be the synagogue itself,” Charles adds. “It’s a community filled with talented, knowledgeable and caring people. I’d say we feel pretty lucky.”
These rabbis—in fact, all women rabbis—face hurdles in their careers, too. They often earn smaller salaries than their male counterparts. A 2004 study by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly showed that, on average, that movement’s ordained women make $77,000 a year; in contrast, men earn about $119,000. In addition, women are less likely to be senior rabbis, though more are ascending the bima than they did 20 years ago, when most were cast in supporting roles such as education director and assistant rabbi.
Simultaneously, female rabbis are also resetting the bar of rabbinical success. “More of them are saying, ‘I don’t need a 1,500-family congregation to feel I’ve made it,’” Dantowitz says.
As Helene Ferris puts it: “The way I define success is feeling good about what I’m contributing. It’s that simple. It’s not about the money or how big the congregation is.”
Still, late-blooming rabbis often enter the field with an advantage—Rabbi Suzanne Singer of the Bay Area calls it “advanced standing.” Singer, a former television producer, is chairing a task force for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) on second-career rabbis. “Being older and experienced in the work force, you’re different from the 22-year-olds you were in class with,” she says. “People tend to treat you like a seasoned rabbi, not a ‘baby rabbi.’”
Like many other rabbis, Singer experienced an epiphany of dissatisfaction with her previous work. Beginning with a master’s degree in Judaic studies, she was ordained (from HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus) at age 50 in 2003. “Looking back,” she says, “I honestly don’t know what took me so long.”
Another newly minted rabbi agrees. Fifty-four-year-old Rabbi Terry Greenstein sits in the study at Congregation Klal Yisrael in Sharon, Massachusetts, reflecting on her journey. Beginning with the two-year adult-learning class Me’ah in the mid-1990’s, she was pulled inextricably into Judaism and away from her work as director of medical records at a local hospital. “I was like a sponge for Jewish learning,” she says.
Even after getting her master’s degree, Greenstein still hungered for more. She chose the long road to the rabbinate—and the equally long commute from Massachusetts to the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.
The process took a toll on Greenstein’s family when her two children were teens. “I hated the whole idea,” recalls her daughter Miriam. “I told her not to complain about all her homework, it was her own fault for starting rabbinical school in the first place.” But something happened to temper Miriam’s views—her own college experience.
“That’s when I began to really appreciate what she was up against,” says the Vassar sophomore. “And when I saw her up there at her ordination last year, I was so proud.”
Klal Yisrael, where Greenstein had worked for seven years before completing her studies, is nondenominational with a Reform-style prayer service. Many children attend Friday night services, so in place of the conventional sermon Greenstein usually tells a story with a Jewish message. “We like to say we practice joyful, gentle Judaism here, that it’s a place to heal the neshama [soul],” she says with a smile.
It is in that sort of healing that these older women excel, relying on their own history and experiences to help them serve as sure-footed guides on congregants’ and fellow rabbis Jewish journeys.
An Un-Orthodox Approach
Despite years of lively debate, Orthodox seminaries do not ordain women. Still, there are traditional women who choose the rabbinate as a career.
Rabbanit Tobie Weisman (right) of Montpelier, Vermont, is one of them. She faced the same struggles as all second-career rabbis, with the additional burden of fitting into a movement that denies her desired vocation. She’s achieved her goal, though not without compromises. Weisman, who is uncomfortable with such labels as Orthodox and prefers to call herself observant, took her rabbinical degree in 1992 at age 34 from the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in New York since she could find no Orthodox seminary that would accept her. Diplomatically, she uses the title rabbanit, which translates as either a female rabbi or the wife of a rabbi.
A former social worker, computer consultant and systems analyst, Weisman awoke one day to the realization that she vastly preferred working with people than computers. And with an undergraduate degree in Hebrew language, a cantor father and years of active involvement in her havura, she also knew her way around a siddur.
In the 12 years since her ordination, Weisman has worked as a rural traveling rabbi, training bar and bat mitzva students, visiting the sick and leading services. Today, she’s director of Spiritual JERNE, which brings in unconventional, spiritually inclined Jewish educators and rabbis from around the world to the Northeast. JERNE is a branch of the Albany-based Jewish Educational Resources of New York.
Inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Weisman’s commitment to traditional Judaism is unshakable. “The sense of community is amazing,” she says. “The people are warm and welcoming, and keeping Shabbat is a joy, with beautiful words of Torah at every meal and the sincerity of a true Jewish life.”
But her appreciation is tempered with frustration: “Although I want that kind of life, I…see the restrictions of the Orthodox world on leadership roles for women. I still don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to have both.”
Only now is Weisman beginning to understand the indelible connections between all the things she’s done and all the roles she’s played.
“As a computer consultant,” she relates, “I could teach people to make the esoteric language of computers their own; as a social worker, I could help people see that if they remove the fear, they really have so many choices; and as a rabbi, now I can show someone that connecting to their Judaism and their deepest self means an entire world opens up to them. I can see that the excitement of helping people transform and elevate their lives is what’s driven me all along.
“I also realize I’ve gone through all these roles just so I can use them to strengthen the Jewish people,” she adds. “It was worth all the detours and the wait to get here.” —D.F.R.