Rabbi Jill Turns Mid-Life Career Change Into a Success

They say when one door closes, another one opens. For newly-minted Rabbi Jill Gold Wright, that was very much the case.
June 12, 2024
Rabbi Jill Gold Wright

They say when one door closes, another one opens. For newly-minted Rabbi Jill Gold Wright, that was very much the case. When she was ordained to the rabbinate last month, she was ending a 27-year career teaching at Mt. San Antonio College. What caused that sharp turn? “A few years before my 50th birthday,” Rabbi Jill explained, “I was starting to feel a little utzy at my job. It took a year of thinking about what to do next.” She passionately loves teaching, but saw how some longtime colleagues were just waiting to retire. “I was not unhappy, but unhappy at being at my job another 15 years. Almost on the edge of unfulfillment. Like I wasn’t there yet. I still am not there. But I knew it was coming. I saw a lot of my  colleagues who were drag-g-g-g-g-g-ging to retirement at 65. One colleague had a red sharpie literally slashing away the days he had left.” Her father had died at 54, and she was ”not going to slash my days away. Not me.”

Helping her make the decision was Cantor Ruth Berman Harris at the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC). Rabbi Jill, a Burbank native, and her family have been davening there for nearly 15 years, and she had become “extremely close friends” with Cantor Ruth. “As I was thinking about what I wanted to do the second half of my life,” Gold Wright said, “I was talking to Ruth about various options. She said, ‘Why don’t you go to rabbinical school?’”

Her first instinct was to dismiss the idea. “Why would I want to go to rabbinical school?”  But even before she finished that sentence, Gold Wright was thinking, “rabbinical school … A lot about that was very exciting to me.”

There were many reasons why: “One, I love school. I have always been a student. I am a lifelong learner. I love being in classes. I like learning things. About 15 years after I completed my PhD, I was feeling pretty intellectually staid.” A tireless worker and steely self-driver from childhood, Gold Wright felt she was coasting not pushing. “I wasn’t reading much besides 120 student essays a week,” she said. For professional stimulation, she would rework the syllabus for her Mt. Sac classes. “Bringing in new texts for my own sanity. But I was not really pushing myself intellectually.”

If she was going to pursue the rabbinate, Gold Wright promptly eliminated two of the three Los Angeles rabbinical schools: Hebrew Union College and the Ziegler School at American Jewish University. Both require full-time participation plus a year in Israel. 

“I have a job, a spouse, two children in school, a mortgage, a cat and two guinea pigs,” all of which added up to her saying “no, thank you.” 

The Academy of Jewish Religion | California offered something different. “The special contribution of AJR is for second-career people who can’t drop everything for five years,” Gold Wright said.

Dipping her toe in without making a stone-cold commitment, Gold Wright told herself “I am not going to make a decision.” Her friend Cantor Ruth advised her to “take one class and see. If it’s the right thing, you will know.” The cantor was correct.  “On Day 4 [at AJR], I said ‘Let’s go! Sign me up! I want to matriculate.’”

It was still a rigorous program. “I was taking four classes and teaching four classes – which is what I have been doing for the past five years. Full-time at Mt. Sac, full-time at the Academy. It’s been a lot.”

There were three crucial keys to her success: “I am ridiculously organized, a hard worker and I also have an ability to focus intensely on one task for a period of time.” She learned to break her days into two-hour periods. She would teach for two hours, grade for two hours, or be in an AJR class for two hours. “I was always double dipping,” she said. “If I was taking my kid to gymnastics, I would have papers with me to grade. Or if I was taking my kid to piano, I would sit outside with a Tanach and do my homework.” Once she entered rabbinical school at the Academy, Gold Wright would make homework dates with her son, now 19, and her daughter, now 14. 

“After picking them up at school and getting them a snack,” she explained, “everyone would take a seat at the table. For 45 minutes, we would focus on what we were doing. Then we would take a break and run around the backyard before returning to the table.”

This teacher/rabbi is intensely disciplined. “When things are due and you don’t have a choice, you just do it,” she explained. “Never felt like a chore. I hold myself to maybe an unhealthily high standard. But it is a standard I am proud of.  I just do the work. I am not a super-genius.”

In Gold Wright’s third year of rabbinical school, the country was coming out of COVID, and she landed her first internship with Beit T’Shuvah — one year as a spiritual counseling intern at their addiction treatment center. “It was a little difficult to triangulate among Mt. Sac, Culver City and my house,” she said.

In spring 2022, Gold Wright interviewed with Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei at Adat Ari El, Valley Village. He asked what she needed to learn. A lot, she said, because she had not grown up in the Conservative movement. “All of that summer I was doing power walks while listening to davening in my ears,” she said. “I worked really hard. Brian Schuldenfrei taught me an enormous amount.”

Jill Gold Wright is launching her rabbinic career at the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, her spiritual home since 2010, while doubling — how fitting — as Director of Education.

Fast Takes with Rabbi Jill

Jewish Journal: What figure in Jewish history would you like to have a meal with?

Rabbi Jill: Twenty names are swimming in my head. I would say Rav Kook. I once wrote an essay comparing Rav Kook and Walt Whitman. They were very much the same kind of democratic, spiritual lover of humanity and nature and the world.

J.J.: What is your favorite Jewish food? 

R.J.: Two: A really good bialy with fresh cream cheese and a lot of lox. Also, my husband’s latkes, crispy on the outside, quite pillowy on the inside with sour cream and applesauce.

J.J.:  What is your favorite family activity?

R.J.: Throwing on a daypack and tromping through cities with my family. Last summer we took a seven-week odyssey, two weeks in Israel, five weeks in Europe. The rule was everyone does everybody else’s favorite. We travel hard – museums, concerts, events, tours, busses, trains, underground. Every place must be seen.

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