Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

AJR’s Rabbi Gottlieb leaving academic posts, will shift focus to writing

AJR’s Rabbi Gottlieb Leaving Academic Posts, Will Shift Focus to Writing

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, who last year co-founded a Jewish-Christian-Muslim graduate school, is leaving his academic posts to devote himself to writing full time.

Gottlieb said that his writing will focus on the same goals underlying his university leadership — to build bridges among all Jewish denominations, as well as among the world’s major faiths.

His upcoming book will emphasize the spiritual dimensions of Judaism, he said, a subject he has been teaching weekly.

“I want our people to grow, and any religious growth must include spirituality,” he said.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Gottlieb also holds doctorate degrees in psychology and theology. For the past 11 years, he has served the Academy of Jewish Religion (AJR) as dean of the rabbinical and chaplaincy programs, as well as president.

Gottlieb will retire at the end of this year. Looking back on his tenure at AJR, he said, “We started out in a radical way to serve all of Am Yisrael and to emphasize the oneness of the Jewish people. We then expanded the concept of ‘unity within diversity’ to all religions.”

Last year, backed by a $50 million private donation, Gottlieb co-founded the interreligious Claremont Lincoln University with the Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, and Imam Jihad Turk, of the Bayan Claremont/Islamic Center of Southern California.

This fall, Claremont Lincoln has received about 100 applications for its graduate courses, emphasizing multicultural, multireligious, spiritual and secular value systems.

The same announcement carrying Gottlieb’s departure also reported Campbell’s retirement as president of both the Claremont School of Theology and of Claremont Lincoln University as of next June, though he will continue to serve the latter as adviser and ambassador.

Gottlieb said that the timing of his and Campbell’s retirement was coincidental.

Previously, Gottlieb held posts as Hillel director at MIT and Princeton, and as rabbi at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica and at the Westwood Village Synagogue.

Academy of Jewish Religion offers alternate path to rabbinate for 16 new grads

This year in Los Angeles, the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Region ordained 16 new rabbis. The Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ordained 10. And the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA) ordained 11.

Never heard of the AJR, CA? You’re not alone. Just six years old, it remains unknown to many in the Jewish community, though its impact is growing rapidly.

Currently housed in the UCLA Hillel building in Westwood, this new alternative-minded trans-denominational rabbinical school began in 2001 as the West Coast branch of the New York-based Academy for Jewish Religion. Within a year, AJR, CA became an independent entity, and since ordaining its first three rabbis in 2003, each year’s class has increased. With this year’s 11 newly minted rabbis, the school’s graduating class has for the first time approached those of the more established seminaries.

Several factors make AJR, CA an attractive option to students interested in joining the rabbinate. First is its trans-denominational approach. Not affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, AJR’s instructors nevertheless hail from all of those backgrounds.

The school was founded to “extract the strength in each [denomination and] to try to build bridges between them,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Programs. (The school also has a Cantorial Program).

Gottlieb was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and has led both Orthodox and Conservative congregations; he said AJR, CA also places a strong emphasis on spirituality, drawing from chassidic, mussar (psycho-ethics) and kabbalistic texts.

Another of the school’s strong attractions is its effort to accommodate students who have other professional obligations. Classes meet only three days a week — Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays — which allows students to continue to work and to more easily balance family life with studies. A year in Israel, mandatory at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, is an option, but not a requirement. And while other denominations are seeing greater numbers of students coming to rabbinical school later in life, a whopping 70 percent of those attending AJR, CA’s five-year program have already pursued another career.

This year’s graduating class includes a psychiatrist, a former entertainment lawyer, a publishing industry executive and a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, as well as Jewish community professionals.

Dr. Bennett Blum, the psychiatrist, became disillusioned with Judaism as a teen. Growing up in Phoenix, he attended a Jewish day school where he “received a good education from really obnoxious people,” he said. Blum’s family lacked the wealth of the other families, and he was frequently reminded that he didn’t belong.

After day school, Blum had little to do with organized Judaism until he enrolled in medical school. There he met a woman raised in an Orthodox home who began to draw him back to Judaism. They have been married 17 years.

Blum went on to specialize in two psychiatric fields that brought him into the legal system — geriatric (dealing with elders) and forensic (involving crime investigation). He is a nationally sought expert on manipulation and abuse and has provided testimony on the abuse of elders to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Blum developed a tool to assess whether an individual can be considered competent — to manage his own affairs, for example, or to stand trial — that is now used both in the United States and abroad. He testified to the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding the competence of accused war criminal General Pavle Strugar.

Blum’s Jewish journey was propelled when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify in a case involving a rabbi accused of molestation. The rabbi claimed his background and Torah training meant he couldn’t have committed the act. Blum was asked to refute the argument with Jewish sources.

“I was paid to relearn Talmud,” said Blum, who poured through ancient and modern rabbinic rulings. “It re-sparked my interest.”

Blum was living in Los Angeles at the time, and took some classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which further whetted his appetite. He even applied to the rabbinical school there, but was not able to attend full-time.

When he returned to Arizona, Blum assumed he would have to give up the idea of enrolling in rabbinical school. But his rabbi told him about AJR, which accommodates part-time attendance.

Blum enrolled and commuted from Phoenix to class each week, where students “were studying and asking deep and profound questions.”

Now he is bringing religious wisdom to his secular world. He has published a paper describing ancient rabbinic views on deceptive and manipulative practices, which has been presented to the legal community “as food for thought in elder abuse cases.” The paper has been so well received that attorneys, social service personnel and others throughout the country are “using Talmudic perspective for formulating their arguments,” Blum said.

And applying secular knowledge to the Jewish community, Blum plans to create a training program to help Jewish professionals recognize and deal with issues relating to elder abuse. He would like to see a specialized group established to serve as a resource to clergy.

For Julia Watts Belser, who was not born Jewish, the path to ordination began in her teens. Although she was brought up without any religious observance, she craved a spiritual life and began exploring Judaism as a teenager. She later enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, in part because it was “open to people of all faith traditions.”

By the time she graduated, Watts Belser, who had already undergone Renewal and Conservative conversions, knew she wanted to go to rabbinical school.

“I had fallen in love with Judaism as an intellectual tradition and as a place of my life’s work,” she said. “I wanted to teach the tradition and bring my creativity and sense of social justice into my work.”

Letters to the Editor

Jewish Festivals of Yore

Rob Eshman does not have to apologize for sounding like a cranky old-timer in his lament about the Jewish festivals of yore (“A Bigger Sunday,” May 27). Much has changed since I participated in the Rancho Park festivities with my children. If attendance at the Woodley Park festival was 90 percent Israeli, many in Los Angeles must share the belief that Israel today may not represent the Diaspora view of Jewish values or Judaism itself.

The actions of the Israeli state suggest a people marching to a different drummer than the communal spectrum of the ’70s and ’80s that gathered at Rancho Park.

Martin Wallen
Bethesda, Md.

Many thanks for the nice mention of Big Sunday in your recent editorial.

Big Sunday is a volunteer day whose mission is to bring diverse people together from all walks of life, all over the city. As such, finding a date that is convenient for everyone is like walking a minefield. Big Sunday is always on a Sunday in the spring, and once you eliminate Passover, Easter, school breaks and Mother’s Day, the pickings are slim. One year we finally found a date, only to discover it was Greek Orthodox Easter. (Who knew?) This year we overlapped not only with the Israeli Festival, but with the NoHo Arts Fair, as well – and we happily sent volunteers to help out at both.

At Big Sunday our goal is to celebrate inclusiveness. Please tell your readers that any or all of them (and their congregations, schools, clubs and offices) are welcome to join us next May 7 for Big Sunday 2006.

David T. Levinson
Big Sunday

As one of those cranky old-timers, I read, with nostalgia and great sadness, your description of the present-day festival. I’m afraid that the community of the ’70s and ’80s may be irretrievably gone. The Solidarity Walk of yore was organized and operated by The Federation as a communitywide event – not Israeli, Russian, Sephardic or any other single group – nor did we secularize it with “Mitzvah” programs on that day. We had and have other days for those programs.

It was truly an inclusive Jewish community day, demonstrating our solidarity with Israel and as a Jewish people. Organizationally, the only competition among ourselves was to vie for the honor of having more people participate, be they from the country clubs, the Jewish day schools, or from each and every synagogue in the city. The 30,000-50,000 people who participated – whether walking the 18 km, organizing the event, singing or dancing in the park ’til dusk, working the booths – all felt a sense of the total community that unfortunately doesn’t prevail today.

You raised an issue that is, I believe, a sad manifestation of what our community has and is evolving to. Your plaintive hope that the future generations will somehow change this situation is, I feel, misplaced.

I feel the loss that you have articulated. Somehow, that sense of community must be recaptured. It does not exist today. What should we be doing about it and whose responsibility should it be to act? It won’t happen by a laissez-faire approach, and that seems to be the present status quo.

Ozzie Goren
Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

I cannot speak for all Reform Jews, but I love the feeling of pluralism (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). If congregants choose to worship with us garbed in head-to-toe tallit, wearing tefillin and are comfortable sitting next to me with my bare, bald head, and having a young woman in a mini-skirt on the other side, they are more than welcome. Our temple, in the Conejo Valley, had a beautiful standing-room-only community prayer service after Sept. 11. Clergy and local residents representing every race, color and creed, sang, hugged and wept together. I have no problem if fellow congregants, or our rabbis, choose to become more halachic as long as there is no impact on my personal Jewish lifestyle or beliefs. That’s the beauty of Reform Judaism.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Cantorial Correction

Thank you for the wonderful article highlighting how far the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) has come in just a few short years (“Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step,” May 20). The article and accompanying photo do, however, merit a clarification and correction. In addition to the nontraditional roles noted, our graduates are also becoming congregational clergy. Indeed, of our 2005 ordinees, five out of seven will be serving in synagogues, in California as well as Arizona and Iowa. In addition, five of our eight past ordinees are also serving as congregational rabbis and cantors. Finally, the accompanying picture stated that it was of the “AJR rabbinical ordinees.” In fact, Paul Buch and Phillip Baron are being ordained as cantors.

Everyone associated with AJR has worked very hard to make the accomplishments noted in the article possible and we appreciate The Journal’s recognition of those efforts.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Chair, Board of Governors
Academy for Jewish Religion Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

Perhaps Micha Odenheimer of Ha’aretz has an excuse, but your editors have none. The principal architect and driving force behind the Pittsburgh Statement is our own community’s Rabbi Richard Levy, then president of the [Central Conference of American Rabbis]. That was itself a tribute to his stature within the movement as he was then neither a congregational rabbi nor a full-time teaching one, but instead the long-time executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is a major influence on the movement’s return to tradition, not to mention author/editor of several of its prayer books, which reintroduced Hebrew to the liturgy. Your failure to acknowledge Levy’s contributions in print is unforgivable.

Immanuel I. Spira
Los Angeles

Yip Is a Yid

Whatever her credentials may be, Jacqueline Bassan, author of the letter on May 27 denying Yip Harburg’s Jewishness, is simply wrong. Yip Harburg was born Isadore (or Isidore) Hochberg in New York City (Letters, May 27). His work is repeatedly referenced in “Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood” by Jack Gottlieb (State University of New York Press, 2004).

Eric A. Gordon
“Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein”

Given his passionate and quintessentially Jewish concern for the underclass, not to mention his literary genius, I confess I would have been crestfallen to read that E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was of some other persuasion, had I not known better. In fact, he was a product of both Russian Jewish immigrants and the Lower East Side. I’m quite sure the Christian lyricist the writer had in mind was Johnny Mercer, one of the very few non-Jewish songwriting giants of that era.

Mark Ellman
Los Angeles

Lost Parking, Lost Temper

On my return to my car after attending the Israel Independence Day celebration in Woodley Park, I could not help but notice on the other side of the street a young man wearing a kippah in his early 30s arguing with another young man of similar age about a parking spot (“L.A.’s Big Sunday,” May 20).

He was so enraged, this young man wearing the kippah, he couldn’t let it go. Soon some people passing by saw what was going on and tried to extricate the two men from a soon-to-be fist fight or worse. The young man wearing the kippah had left his young wife with a baby in tow and kept going back and forth to the man that aced him out of a parking spot. The anger was so evident you couldn’t help but notice. I feel sorry for this observant young man; he obviously had a problem that it ticked him off so bad. I’m sure this is what the media calls “road rage.” But still, how can you ruin a lovely Sunday afternoon for yourself and your little family all over a lost parking spot? How will we ever achieve peace in the Middle East if young men here fight over a parking spot on Israel’s Independence Day?!

Jacqueline Bereskin

Platform for Extremist

Why are Jews so self-destructive? In response to an ad in The Jewish Journal, I attended a forum run by UCLA Center for Jewish Studies on May 22 (“Is Israel Jewish, Democratic, and Western? And What Should It Be?” May 20).

One of the three speakers was Israeli Arab Nadim Rouhana, who rejects Israel’s right to exist. That he’s not tried for treason is proof that Israel is indeed “liberal, democratic and western.” The question I have for the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies is why provide a platform to this extremist so he can reach impressionable students and Jewish Angelinos? Surely there are other Israeli Arabs with whom a rational dialog is possible. Why buy the bullets for someone who wants to kill you?

Harriet P. Epstein
Santa Monica

Stand With Sudan Refugees

Almost four years ago, Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, and I brought out Francis Bok, a Sudanese slave who escaped after 10 years of being held in captivity to speak in Los Angeles prior to Pesach 2002 (“We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves,” April 9).

We made calls not only to synagogues and Jewish schools, but to many African American Churches to hear the horrific account of what happened to him as a 7 year old when he lost his entire family and became a slave for the next 10 years. His account of violence and slavery was not unusual and continues to happen to his people, the Dinka tribe, and the people of Darfur.

Four years ago, we were sadly met with a strange sense of indifference by the First AME Church where the Pastor Cecil Murray asked us, “Why should blacks in America care about slaves in Africa when we are still slaves here?” Although Murray did have Bok tell his story at the First AME, only about 150 of more than 400 members were interested enough to show up and listen.

To their credit, Francis was welcomed at UCLA, B’nai David, Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise to tell his tragic story. The most touching and heartwarming event was when Bok spoke to the Stephen S. Wise eighth-grade classes, which had been studying and doing a project on Sudan over the year. They welcomed him as if he was a rock star! This class had more knowledge of what was going on than their adult counterparts, and the Stephan S. Wise administration is to be congratulated for that.

Every year after that, Roz and I tried to again bring this issue to the Jews in Los Angels and were met with very little interest. More than 2 million human beings have died, and we are happy to see Los Angeles waking up. We need to show support and hope that this urgent message is brought to the attention of thousands if not millions of Jews. Jews can certainly identify with slavery and genocide and should play an active role in helping to stop this horrific atrocity. It is never too late to step up to the plate.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Associate Director
American Jewish Congress

Throw Book at Quran Flushers

Rob Eshman’s article makes good sense in reporting on religious stories; writer treat them sensitively (“Articles of Faith,” May 20).

I take exception to his questioning Newsweek’s story on the flushing of the Quran. They do indicate it was done by American interrogators. They are the guilty parties and need be tried by a military court.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

Another Jewish D.C. Museum

Most visitors to Washington, D.C., are aware of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (“Learn to Remember,” April 29). Yet for Jewish visitors there is a little-known museum that should also be seen: the National Museum of American Jewish Military History at 1811 R St. N.W. (free admission). Exhibits include a section on Jewish military involvement in the liberation of the concentration camps and a section on Jewish women in the military.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Los Angeles


Midlife Calling

For years, Min Kantrowitz resisted the pull. Sure, the books on her nightstand were more likely to be a reference guide to the Talmud rather than the latest best-seller. But a rabbi?

When the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) opened in Los Angeles in 2000, Kantrowitz resisted no longer. For four years she traveled to Los Angeles three days a week to study to be a rabbi, communting from Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. Last spring, at the age of 58, Kantrowitz was ordained as a rabbi.

"When I finally stopped resisting I got a lot more energy, and that was one way I knew it was right," said Kantrowitz, who founded and now heads an Albuquerque Jewish Family Service agency that provides chaplaincy services to the unaffiliated.

Kantrowitz, who went part time at her post as chair of the department of architecture and urban planning at the University of New Mexico in order to be a rabbi, is among a growing number of people who are opting to become rabbis midlife, very often after successful first careers.

Possessing both the life experience and maturity of an older rabbi and the passion and energy of a new ordinee, these second-career rabbis and cantors are leaving their marks on the profession. They bring to their posts not only expertise in fields such as law or business, but remarkable stories of what drove them to the rabbinate in the first place, and the sacrifices they needed to make to get there.

"More and more we’ve come to value personal stories and to see in personal stories insights into the working of God in the world and the working of human beings," said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. "When someone comes equipped with these stories, it can help people see the Divine design."

The increase in second-career rabbinic students over the last decade seems to be more intense on the West Coast. The vast majority of students at AJR are over 40 years old. HUC-JIR estimates that about 30 percent of its Los Angeles rabbinic students and 20 percent nationally are second-career students. At the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 35 percent to 40 percent of students are second career, a number that rose dramatically when UJ started ordaining rabbis nine years ago and remains higher than the percentage at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, according to Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean at the Ziegler School. In the Orthodox world, more and more rabbis are coming to the rabbinate after achieving degrees in other fields.

These figures represent significant jumps from 10 years ago, when only a handful of rabbinic students were not in their early 20s.

"We have seen in general a resurgence of interest in Jewish life and Judaism. That spiritual renaissance has been part of what has brought people to the rabbinate as well," said Peretz, who had a successful business career.

The trend among rabbis is an extension of a broader trend in the workforce. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not calculated the number — how to precisely define a career change makes data collection difficult — anecdotal evidence and the tremendous growth in resources for those wishing to re-educate themselves for a second career suggest that baby boomers and their children are more open to midlife career changes than previous generations.

"Most often what is missing is that people feel they are not making a difference in people’s lives," said Rachelle Cohn, a career counselor at Jewish Vocational Service, where an estimated 60 percent of people who come in for career counseling have had a previous career. "They are asking themselves, ‘Am I going to feel like I’ve made my place in this world?’"

AJR tapped into the midlifers when it opened with 11 students in 2000. Today, AJR has more than 50 students in its cantorial, rabbinic and chaplaincy programs, and only two or three of them are straight out of college. With a three-day-a-week schedule, AJR designed its program to cater to students with other major commitments, and the school’s transdenominational approach and spiritual bent attracts many older students with a newfound passion for Judaism.

"These students have had great success in their lives on one professional level, and yet feel a new calling and a new direction for their soul to take and have to overcome all the obstacles and barriers and difficulties dealing with that," said Rabbi Stan Levy, a co-founder and board chair at AJR.

For some, going into clerical life is is an unexpected twist in the plot of a life story; for others it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream put off because of circumstances or social realities.

Rabbi Yocheved Porath Mintz spent more than 40 years as a highly accomplished Jewish educator in Chicago before she was ordained at AJR last spring at the age of 64. She now serves as a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas, the first woman in a continuous line of 16 generations of Porath rabbis.

"It was a lifelong dream since I was 5," said Mintz, a grandmother of 11 who in her flowing white-and-gold tallit and matching oversized kippah swept through the AJR graduation like the Shabbat Queen. "At the time when women were just getting into the rabbinate I was raising my family and that was the wrong time."

The right time came about four years ago, when Mintz and her husband moved to Las Vegas. Mintz took as many classes as she could each semester, a task that became more difficult this year as she battled breast cancer. But neither surgery nor chemo nor radiation kept her from getting ordained as planned.

"It’s been a challenging year … but I couldn’t have picked a better place for this to have happened," Mintz said. "It’s been a tremendous learning experience, and strange as it sounds to say it, I am grateful for this opportunity."

It is just that kind of perspective gained from personal experience that observers say makes second-career rabbis essential resources to other students in rabbinic school and valuable counselors to their constituents.

"By the time I became a rabbi, I had lost both my parents and been through some personal tragedy, and I think the very fact that I have gathered so much strength from my Judaism is an important indicator to my congregation that there is something there," said Rabbi Mike Lotker, 55, who became the first full-time rabbi at Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo after he was ordained at HUC-JIR last year.

Lotker came from a successful first career as a physicist developing alternative energy (the company he headed built the windmills in Palm Springs). He grew up with little religion and turned to Judaism in a serious way in his mid-30s when his wife fell ill with Huntington’s disease. With the financial resources to follow his heart and his three children grown, Lotker entered rabbinic school.

"One of my classmates was younger than two of my children," Lotker laughed. "Having lived a real life and going back to school was an absolute treat — compared to real life, the pressure was very low and I was doing what I loved to do."

Most second-career students make significant sacrifices, leaving successful jobs and steady income, taking time from family.

"They are hungry for knowledge in a way no student I ever taught was," said Rabbi Stephen Robbins, co-founder and president of AJR.

Their singular focus makes them less likely to drop out than younger students, and also balances any disadvantage they might be at in comparison to the younger minds who might be able to learn more easily.

"We watch people in the first year struggling to remember things, and as they move through they get better and better," Robbins said. "Instead of having the energy of kids they have the smarts of a more mature person. It isn’t that they learn quicker; they learn better, they know better how to use their time and manage their brains to get the most out of the material."

Still, returning students acknowledge that they often come in without the background and foundational knowledge possessed by students who knew at the outset of their professional lives that they wanted to be rabbis. Since many later-in-life ordinees have also come to Judaism itself as adults, learning Hebrew can be difficult.

"I was coming from a professional world where I was an expert in what I did and so it was difficult to be starting at square one and knowing nothing," said Rabbi Amy Idit Jacques, 33, who was ordained at HUC-JIR this year after spending six years as a systems analyst in her previous career. "The first few years in school I felt I was learning more about what I didn’t know rather than accumulating knowledge," she said.

But she caught up, and Jacques, who will be working at Ohio State University Hillel, is certain she made the right decision.

"One of the hardest things was to recognize that I had the power to choose however I wanted to envision my life and what that could be. It was very scary breaking out of what my entire life I had imagined it would be," Jacques said.

Chazan Eva Robbins wonders what would have happened if she had found her voice when she was 20 rather than in her 40s.

Robbins, who was ordained as a cantor at AJR this year at the age of 57, began leading services when she and her husband, Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founded Congregation N’vay Shalom in 1993 and there was no money to pay a cantor.

"I never would have suspected that in my late 40s I would have discovered my voice and my life’s work," said Robbins, who mentored privately with Stephen S. Wise’s Cantor Nathan Lam, AJR’s dean of the cantorial program, before the school opened.

Robbins and Judith Greenfield, a cantor at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, made history at AJR’s graduation by becoming the first two cantors ever ordained on the West Coast.

Robbins admitted that at first she "wasted a lot of energy" resenting her parents and teachers for not recognizing and encouraging her musical talent early on.

"But I finally got past it. Things happen when they are supposed to, and I realized that my voice was being saved for the right time," she said. "I really feel like Hashem has been there for me, guiding me and opening these doorways when I never would have expected it."