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Episode 185: Relaunching in the Clergy (With Advice for All Relaunchers!), Part 1 - Rabbi Suzanne Offit

Suzanne Offit headshot

Episode Description

This is Part One of two episodes and a part of our mini-series on relaunching in religion.

Rabbi Suzanne Offit was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, which she entered enthusiastically as one of its founding students in 2004. She started her deep Jewish learning in earnest at 40; and she experienced tremendous guilt when glorious hours of Jewish learning took her away from her children. She is a Board-Certified Chaplain and served as the Palliative Care chaplain in post-acute services at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston for 14 years. Her focus is geriatrics and end-of-life work with patients and families. Rabbi Offit is dedicated to understanding through her many experiences and research how best to serve vulnerable populations in our society and how substance use disorder, moral injury, chronic illness and racism affect families. She holds leadership positions on the boards of a number of non-profits. In addition to caring for patients and families, Rabbi Offit cares for 12 beehives, 4 chickens, 3 adult sons and 1 husband.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Just a quick warning that there's some salty language in today's episode. So if there are little ears nearby, maybe save this one for later.

Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we start with part one of two episodes speaking with Rabbi Suzanne Offit about her relaunch in the clergy.

These episodes are part of our miniseries on relaunching in religion. I have to say at the outset that Rabbi Offit is a long time friend, and one of my closest friends. I usually don't interview my close friends on our podcasts, but I am today, and you will see why when you hear about her relaunch and her thoughts on relaunching.

Rabbi Offit was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, which she enthusiastically entered as one of its founding students in 2004. She started her deep Jewish learning in earnest at age 40, and experienced tremendous guilt when glorious hours of Jewish learning took her away from her children. She is a board certified chaplain, and served as the palliative care chaplain in post-acute services at Hebrew Senior Life in Boston for fourteen years.

Her focus is geriatrics and end of life work with patients and families. Rabbi Offit is dedicated to understanding through her many experiences and research how best to serve vulnerable populations in our society and how substance use disorder, moral injury, chronic illness, and racism affect families. She holds leadership positions on the boards of a number of nonprofits. And in addition to caring for patients and families, Rabbi Offit also cares for twelve beehives, four chickens, three adult sons, and one husband. Rabbi Offit, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Suzanne Offit: Thank you, Carol. I'm so happy to be with you today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, I should say it's so awkward for me to call you Rabbi Offit because we've been friends forever. So I just wanted to know, how should I address you during the podcast?

Suzanne Offit: Thanks for asking. People often ask me if they need to call me Rabbi Offit, and in many situations, I say, "What do you need to call me?" So, some people need to call me Rabbi Offit because they need that distance, and they need something specific from me. But there are many situations, such as this, where I feel like you calling me Rabbi Offit creates a distance between us. So I very often say, "Just call me Suzanne," and that helps us start the conversation closer together.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, that makes total sense, I'm going to call you Suzanne. I feel more comfortable already. But let's get into it because, Suzanne, you were one of the first relaunchers that we interviewed for Back on the Career Track when Vivian Steir Rabin and I were co-authoring the book and we were doing our research back in 2005. Can you please give us a history of what you did pre-career break, how long you were on career break and any defining experiences you had during your career break that influenced your relaunch decision to become a rabbi?

Suzanne Offit: So before my career break, I had jobs. I had jobs that I loved, but I wasn't a professional. I didn't have a career. In fact, before my first pregnancy, I had started my own business. I was doing medical editing and computer graphics, and I thought it would be great to have my own business like this and have my first pregnancy. And also, I was taking some graduate classes at the same time, but I only had thirty seconds in between my first and second children. So, I had twins, that was pivotal because I nursed them and I often had to hang out around the house without a shirt on. That would have been a problem working even today in the zoom world. So when I had my twins, my business just stopped because I just couldn't keep up.

It had been my plan to keep going. There was never a moment where I thought, "Oh, I'm going to be a working mom" or, "Oh, I'm not going to be working outside." I never made that decision, it just happened. And so I admire all those women who really give it forethought to decide one way or the other. But while I was home nursing twins, which is a full-time job, my mom told me to keep my brain cells going. And there was this college down the street from where I was living called Hebrew College. And so I thought I'd take some classes because I thought if I nursed them, I could run over there, take a class and still be home in time to nurse them again.

That kind of started my Jewish learning.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Interesting, and very good advice from your mom. So you're taking these classes, and take us through a little more of what happened in the next few years, however many years you were on career break.

Suzanne Offit: So I had my two babies and I did some learning and I also did a lot of volunteer work in the community leadership and organizations. I became president of a Jewish women's organization that had 5,000 members, and even as the volunteer president, it was a full-time job. I had twelve paid employees that I was responsible for.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.

Suzanne Offit: You helped me understand, Carol, that I developed and had some really worthwhile skills, even though I wasn't being paid for it.

In fact, the first week into my presidency, a very demanding job, I found out I was pregnant again. And then when my presidency was over after three years, and my third child was just about three, my older children said to me, "Wait, you're not going to be president anymore. Where's your office going to be?" And it's always interesting when our children tell us what they think of us, in a way that's unanticipated. I didn't realize that it was important to them.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Or that they noticed. It's really interesting because they were very young.

Suzanne Offit: They were little. So then, after that presidency I took a little time, so my youngest was three and then I was still doing Jewish learning, still taking classes, just thinking that it was intellectual. It was just intellectual stimulation to take these classes. And then a friend of mine told me in passing that she heard that Hebrew College was starting a rabbinical school, and I couldn't sleep for three weeks, I was so excited. So when you asked me how long my career break was, I'm not quite sure how to answer that question.

So from the time of paid work, was it eight or nine years. But what about my full-time volunteer work? So I don't know how to answer that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm glad you're making a point of that, because some of us do very substantial volunteer work while we're on career break and it is like a full-time job except we're not getting paid for it. Okay, so let's say, if we're looking at it in terms of a number of years since you had paid work, you're saying it was about eight years.

Suzanne Offit: I think maybe ten.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay.

Suzanne Offit: Until I went to rabbinical school, from the time I was 29 until I was 40, so that's eleven.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So you couldn't sleep for three weeks and you knew this rabbinical school was opening and it was basically right down the street from your house. And did you know immediately why you couldn't sleep, because you knew you wanted to enroll, or did that idea get formulated during that time?

Suzanne Offit: When I was 30, I found myself saying the words out loud, "I want to be a rabbi." I didn't even know where it came from. So this had been percolating in me for about ten years. I visited a rabbinical school in New York because there were people who were commuting and I knew with small children, I couldn't do that.

So I knew I had to apply. And the three weeks of sleeplessness was just excitement of the possibility that something I had been dreaming about might actually come true.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so you applied and, was the process hard? Did you have interviews? And what did they think about you being a mom? How did that all happen?

Suzanne Offit: So just the application process was like a master's dissertation, and there was an interview process. First of all, when I called the admissions office for an application, the director of admissions asked me what I was doing. I said "I actually am home with three children right now." And she said "I'm not sending you an application." I said "Why not?" She said, "Because this is a full-time, intensive, very academic, very intellectually demanding course, and you don't have time for that." And I said, "I think that's my decision, isn't it?" She said, "I'm not sending you an application." I said, "I guess then I'll just have to get one online."

I didn't know how to do that then, but I figured it out. I submitted my application and I was invited for an interview. Rabbinical school interviews are notoriously challenging. They just want to go in and push all your buttons to see if you have the appropriate fitness, in addition to the intellectual challenges, there's an emotional fitness to it.

So this woman was in my interview with all sorts of people, there were twelve people there and she said to me, "How are you possibly going to do this program?"

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.

Suzanne Offit: And I thought, there are two women at this interview, this one woman, really? Is this the question you're going to give me, "how are you going to do this?" I said, "Busy people get the most things done." And then the other woman said to me, I was like, really, the women are challenging me? The other woman said to me, "How do you handle failure?" I said to her, "Failure to me would be not trying." I wanted to say, "How can you, accomplished, academic women, be the gatekeeper for not letting me in because of children?"

I have to say, and we'll talk about how difficult rabbinical school was for me, but at the times when I just wanted to quit, those voices were in my head and I was thinking, "I cannot let them be right. I cannot let them be right. I am more than that."

Carol Fishman Cohen: So, they were actually, they didn't know it, but they were motivators for you.

Suzanne Offit: Yeah, and I told them. I told them both after graduation, I thought their questions were wrong and inappropriate, but how those questions had really energized me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm glad you said something. I hope they listened. And so then what happened after that? You went through this rigorous interview process and an application process, and then you found out that you were accepted? Did you get a letter or they called you or what happened?

Suzanne Offit: I got a letter. I got a letter.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Notice, I didn't say email letter.

Suzanne Offit: No, I got a snail mail letter, and I was so excited that I called Hebrew College and I said, "If you have a letter for me, could you tell me? Because I want to come pick it up."

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great.

Suzanne Offit: So I did, I went and I picked it up, and again, no vision, I never had a conversation with my husband, "Gee, how do you think this is going to change our lives? How do you think this is going to change me?" There were two things in my mind at the time, one was the saying, "a ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what it's built for."

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay.

Suzanne Offit: And the other one is, When you're looking back on your life, you think about the things maybe you didn't do. You don't think about the things that you did your best, and maybe it didn't turn out. I didn't need to be safe anymore, I needed to take a risk. I needed to just try even without thinking, "Oh, my goodness, this is really going to be a challenge." Because really, if I thought about all those things, maybe I wouldn't have done it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So actually that brings me to the question I've been thinking about while you're talking, is what was going on with your family at the time, and when you brought to them the news that you were accepted into this program, how did everyone react and how did it play out?

Suzanne Offit: Most people were very excited for me, in the way that you're excited for your friends or family when they get to a point where they can step into something they want to do. I don't think anyone knew what it was going to be. My mom was especially supportive because I'm one of five, three daughters, and she really pushed her daughters.

She got married in 1955. And as she told it, she got married under one agreement. And then she read Betty Friedan, and realized she couldn't change the agreement that she had made, that there was another way of thinking and being, and she didn't feel like she had access to it, but damn it, she was going to make sure her daughters did.

And so she pushed her daughters way more than she pushed her sons. And I think she was actually a little disappointed when I told her at 23, I met the man that I was going to marry. One of my sisters has a PhD and the other one is a professional and my brothers are educated also. But this was like fulfilling, my mom was really proud. My uncle, her brother is also a rabbi. So, my parents were so proud. Andy, my husband was so proud. My friends we're not so supportive. Carol, you were the most supportive. One of our friends said "What if you don't like the people?" I think it was threatening to some people. I'm 40 years old and I'm really gonna change.

And maybe they were afraid of being left behind or all sorts of things. What does it mean when you think you know someone and they're about to embark on a life changing journey?

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm familiar with that myself in terms of when I relaunched and I felt like I was entering this entirely new phase of my life, which I was. So I really relate closely to that. So what happened when you actually enrolled? How long were you in rabbinical school? And also, what happened day-to-day in the house? How did you work it out logistically?

Suzanne Offit: First of all, I just want to be very clear, I entered rabbinical school because I wanted to be a rabbinical student. Again, lack of vision, I never thought of being a rabbi, I just wanted to study. I wanted to learn. I wanted to immerse myself deeply in this tradition to understand my tribalism. We're very tribal, and I needed to understand this. And I really took the first step as an intellectual pursuit, which quickly revealed itself as spiritual, emotional and psychological. I just wanted to be a student. I just thought I was going to be a student. I started rabbinical school the day before my youngest child started kindergarten and I didn't take him to his first day of school. My parents, thank God, we're healthy and living then. And they welcomed the invitation to come and insert themselves into our lives.

So my mom took my youngest to his first day of school for elementary school, and that was a lovely bond for them to have.

Is this the part when we get to talk about guilt? Every step of the way is an opportunity for guilt. Who am I serving here? At this point I asked my husband, "When you go to work all day, do you think about how the kids are?"

"No."

"Do you worry that when they left, maybe they had a fever?"

"No."

"Do you think about, are they eating their lunch?"

"No."

" Do you think about what's going to be for dinner tonight?"

"No."

And so there was guilt, so as I'm enjoying this, I used to explain that I felt like I was having an affair. I would leave every day, and would go, and just be so, so excited and stimulated and in love with the learning and this community of listening companions.

And we would just talk and learn and think, and my mind was exploding. And then I would get home, like this is the Yiddish term, okay? I don't know if everyone speaks Yiddish, but this term ie like, "what the fuck is going on here?"

Again, no vision. I had made the mistake of changing all the rules in the household without telling anybody. I was transforming into this intellectual, spiritual person, knowledgeable and, what? I had to do the laundry too? So it was troublesome. It was troublesome. I have to point out that I was the only one then, and I think it's still true to date, the only woman who's gone to that rabbinical school with three kids in elementary school, because that's a hard time. My older kids who came home after school would say about their brother, "Oh, he's one of those kids. He stays for after school every day. He's one of those kids."

So I would pick him up, the little guy, at 4:30 or 5:00 and I would leave my class, whatever class it was. And I was like, "I gotta go now." But going back to the home front, I yelled a lot. I yelled a lot because I didn't have the words. And I yelled so much that I scared my children. I was sad and frustrated and angry because the world around me wasn't catching up to me. And I guess if I had to change one thing, I wish I could have articulated that better.

And I came out with such anger towards my husband. So we went, after a few years, in the middle of school, we went to a marriage counselor and it was so helpful. We only went two or three times. We were determined to make it through together. We couldn't figure out on our own how to do that, but we had to seek out professional help in giving us language and a new framework for being together.

And it was very helpful and it helped us survive intact. Like any fissure or tear in a fabric, it's when you sew that fabric back together, that becomes the strongest point, right? So it was the destruction of parts of our relationship, and it was the healing, the intentional healing that brought us closer and stronger and gave us the language to have conversations. Because we kept having the same conversation over and over again, but we couldn't get beyond a certain point because we didn't know enough. So we needed to get help. So that was a relationship because I was transforming and the world wasn't.

There were other things happening on the home front, Carol. And you knew very well because for Thanksgiving one year, it was my mother-in-law's 70th birthday.

So I had to have my husband's whole family for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was also a full-time student. Full time, intensive, year round, okay? So I called you or wrote to you,and I just said, "Carol, how do you make gravy?I don't know how to make gravy!” And Carol, do you know what you said to me? You said, "Why don't you just order the whole meal?" And so you gave me the number of the kosher caterer, "This is what you have to do." I thought, "This is what I have to do," because I thought I had to do the whole thing myself.

This takes me to something else I just want to share openly about. So my husband had a very demanding job which required travel, but he was also compensated quite well. So, I could do this crazy thing, which was getting up at 5:15 every morning, falling into bed at 11:30 at night. My kids, my husband, my school, I could do everything, because one, my parents could help me at critical times, but also we had money, and I could pay someone to clean my house and fold my laundry and do my grocery shopping.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I have to comment, Suzanne, because every person's relaunch is different since everyone has a unique situation. And some people are propelled back into the workforce because of circumstances, death or disability of a spouse or partner, or divorce, or situations where there's a financial need.

And other people don't have that financial need element as part of their relaunch. And as you're talking very frankly, you weren't the breadwinner and you had the opportunity to go on this journey, which was quite intense and quite involved, but also took a long time. So I really appreciate you being so open about that. And also, in the same way that we tell relaunchers not to romanticize entrepreneurship, because you can go for a very long time when you start a company without an income stream. It's also important for everyone to evaluate what their options are in terms of the financial picture, the larger financial picture for their families if they have them.

Suzanne Offit: I could see it would be very difficult. I have to say, I could not have gone to school for six years, which required additional help at home, if we didn't have the resources. It would have been impossible. At one point during school, they had a guest speaker come in about time management, because most people were younger than me. And afterward I explained to her, "I get up at 5:00, 5:30, I have to get three kids out the door, breakfast, lunch. I try to do a couple loads of laundry in the morning, and then, I get to school at 7:45. (PS. Before all the young people do because they can't get their butts out of bed.)

And I'm explaining my whole life to her, and she looked at me and she said, "You don't need time management. You're managing fine. You need an assistant."

Carol Fishman Cohen: I just want to comment, because I remember having conversations with you, and this was in 2005 when we were interviewing you for Back on the Career Track, and you were talking about this complete change over in your family life, where you had been so much of an enabler for your kids and your husband, you would anticipate every need, even before they recognize that they needed it. And then things went completely the other way. So can you just talk about that and how it played out?

Suzanne Offit:I think I learned the term from my dear friend, Steven Cohen, "the turnkey operation."

Carol Fishman Cohen:That's what my husband used to call it when I was at home on my career break, he said, "It's like a turnkey operation, you just take care of everything with the family, and then I can show up when it works out with my schedule." So yes.

Suzanne Offit: Yeah. So I envisioned as Andy turned the key to open the door after work, and then everything was on. In fact, I had such a turnkey operation that once or twice Andy forgot his keys to get back in the house because he walked, he took the bus to work.

I changed all the doors to keypads, so no one had to remember a key. They just had to remember a code. They remembered the code. I mean, how enabling is that they didn't even learn the responsibility of finding a key, spotting a need and filling it even before the problem? So, I'm too embarrassed to say how I enabled my family.

And so I had created this like Nirvana, this garden of Eden, pick your metaphor, everyone was cared for and loved, and then I changed all the rules without telling anyone. First of all, I became more religious and that was like, "Who are you?"

I realized that breakfast for dinner was a good idea. So every Wednesday night was scrambled eggs and then one night we'd have french toast, and then, we'd get some chicken in there somewhere.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I have to say, I really appreciate you giving the details like that, because it's all in the details, and people need to know that scrambled eggs were served on Wednesday night and everyone was fine.

Suzanne Offit: Everyone was happy because Wednesday night we had scrambled eggs with cheese on a roll, and you were allowed to eat in front of the TV. So Wednesday night was a big deal. Everyone looked forward to it. Here's another detail, every morning as I backed my car out of the driveway, I said a prayer of gratitude that I actually made it out of the house another day. Every day I did that for six years, because every day I had to get out of the house.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That wraps up part one of our two-part conversation with Rabbi Suzanne Offit. Tune in to our next episode to hear part two with her. Thanks for listening to 3,2,1, iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.

And if you liked this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.

Thanks for joining us.


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