Ten years ago, Sonia Saltzman was a frequent business traveler to Latin America for a Boston-based nonprofit job in international microlending.
Evette Lutman spent more than 10 years working as an attorney representing battered women and serving as a family referee in a Michigan county courthouse.
Charles Friedman worked for nearly 15 years in his family’s business in plastics construction manufacturing.
Today, all three are rabbis, having changed careers midlife to pursue their Jewish dreams.
“Switching to become a rabbi in midlife is not like becoming an engineer,” Saltzman said. “It permeates your entire life and changes who you are.”
The three belong to a small group of second-career rabbis who are finding their place in the world of Jewish religious leadership in their 40s and 50s.
Various factors are propelling these individuals into the rabbinate. Some long had harbored dreams of becoming a rabbi but wound up pursuing other careers for personal or financial reasons. Others became interested in the rabbinate later in life, prompted in some cases by something specific.
Not all the new rabbis are pursuing congregational jobs. More professional options exist now for rabbinical school graduates, including in the chaplaincy, education and Jewish communal work.
Pursuing the rabbinate as a second career is not a new story in American Jewish life, but it’s more common for those in their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s after working for some time in professions such as law or medicine, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Sarna said it is unusual for those in their 40s, 50s or 60s to go for the rabbinate, and that it’s more common for older second-career clergy members among Christian denominations.
After the tragedy of 9/11, however, there was a sudden increase in the number of older rabbinical students, Sarna noted — those who were moved to pursue more meaningful careers.
Indeed, Friedman, 47, said the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were a wake-up call for him.
“It was so horrific, many people were re-evaluating their lives,” he said.
Friedman was ordained in 2008 at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York. Today he is the chaplain and director of pastoral care at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in northern New Jersey.
Saltzman received rabbinical ordination from the nondenominational Hebrew College in Boston in 2008 — at the age of 52, when she already had two grown children.
Her road to becoming a rabbi brought about changes at home. As her level of religious observance deepened, Saltzman said that she and her husband found themselves negotiating lifestyle changes. In August 2011, she began her second job since being ordained: as rabbi at Temple Ohabei Shalom, a large Reform congregation in Boston and the oldest Jewish congregation in Massachusetts.
Lutman, 52, was ordained in 2010 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School in Philadelphia. She has been serving as rabbi at B’nai Havurah in Denver.
Despite the differences in their backgrounds, the three rabbis share a common sense of answering a call to explore more fully their Jewish spirituality. They faced challenges as well: four to six years of rigorous study and, in some cases, up to a year’s study in Israel.
Sarna pointed to Rabbi Helene Ferris, rabbi emerita at Temple Israel in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., as a pioneer among
older second-career rabbis. Ferris, ordained in 1981 at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was 36 and had children when she attended rabbinical school.
Ferris recalled that 35 years ago, when she began studying for the rabbinate, it was difficult to be a pioneer, though she said her classmates were very congenial. When word got out that she was in rabbinical school, she would receive weekly phone calls from people seeking guidance. Now, she said, the calls are much less frequent as older second-career rabbis aren’t so unusual.
Their prevalence varies by denomination and rabbinical school.
At Boston’s Hebrew College, 15 students older than 50 have attended since the rabbinical school opened in 2003, said Rabbi Dan Judson, its director of professional development and placement. In recent years, the average age of incoming students has dropped, drawing a more typical age range for rabbinical students — those in their late 20s. Still, Judson stressed, it is not unusual for 25-year-olds to have study partners in their 40s or 50s.
In the past three years, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, has enrolled a handful of students in their 40s and 50s who are pursuing the rabbinate later in life or as second careers, according to Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS rabbinical school.
At the New York campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, two of the 12 rabbis who were ordained in last year’s graduating class were second-career rabbis in their late 40s or early 50s, according to HUC’s associate dean, Renni Altman.
The average age of rabbinical students at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary is the mid-20s, according to Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the Orthodox, male-only rabbinical program in New York. For the occasional older student, the motivation is generally personal growth as opposed to professional advancement.
By contrast, over the past decade at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School, approximately one-third of the rabbinical students have been in their second careers, including some over 50, according to Rabbi Amber Powers, who oversees admissions at the suburban Philadelphia school.
“Part of what makes classroom discussions so dynamic at RRC is the diverse backgrounds of the students,” Powers said. “Learning Jewish history really comes alive when a student who was an anthropologist brings their expertise to the discussion.”
Of the 75 graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s rabbinical school, only three have been second-career students, and they have all been in their 30s and 40s, according to Ruthie Simon Strosberg, director of recruitment and placement.
Saltzman said she considers herself fortunate to have found two fulfilling careers that reflect her Jewish values.
Friedman similarly said that becoming a rabbi was a good decision. While acknowledging the emotional difficulty of hospital chaplaincy, in which he often counsels gravely ill patients, Friedman said that he finds the pastoral work meaningful and worthwhile.
Lutman said she hopes to inspire others as she has been inspired.
“Even if I failed, at least I tried,” she said. “It took a leap of faith.”