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Episode 186: Relaunching in the Clergy (With Advice for All Relaunchers!), Part 2 - Rabbi Suzanne Offit

Suzanne Offit headshot

Episode Description

This is Part Two 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: 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 iRelauch, and your host. We continue now with part two 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. Suzanne, let's just skip now to how this whole perspective and everything that you were going through as a very unique rabbinical student with the life experience you were having, I'm guessing it probably couldn't help but inform and reflect on the kind of rabbi you ended up being when you graduated and then moved to the roles that you had subsequently.

Can you talk a little bit about that and also give us a sense of what happened after rabbinical school?

Suzanne Offit: So I just want to say, in retrospect, everything is so linear. I can connect the dots and they all make sense. Although, while it's happening, it's a tumultuous storm of chaos and curse words.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I like how the curse words are interspersed.

Suzanne Offit: So much of my learning was about finding my voice. Listening and speaking, listening and speaking, learning and writing and becoming my fullest self. So my first internship was in the summer. Everyone else had time to go to school and have an internship, but I couldn't do that, I couldn't add one more thing. So my first internship was during the summer.

And the only summer internship that was available to me was being the rabbinic intern at a funeral home, which I loved. I learned two important things. I learned the sacred responsibility of being with people in sadness and grief and suffering, very powerful, truly sacred moments. And I also learned about being invisible.

When people go to funerals, whether they're a friend or family or whatever, they're very focused. Jews are generally running late and there's always someone there who's handing out the little pamphlet with the details on it, and I was often that person. And people who knew me would walk right by me not noticing it was me, and what it means to be invisible.

So this was very interesting, I like to process a lot. I like to think about a lot of things and juxtapose things, so there was so much learning about being seen and not seen, being heard and not heard, being present without talking, was a very profound experience for me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So that was your first internship that summer.

Suzanne Offit: That was my first internship. And they had never had a rabbinic intern, so there was just a lot of reflecting going on. So my next internship, which became my job, my next internship was at Hebrew Senior Life, in their senior supportive housing, to be a rabbi for a community of people. They live together, they eat together, they pray together, they learn, it ends up sounding like middle school, because they're very cliquey and everyone's very hypersensitive about who's talked to whom. But that was also my first opportunity as a congregational rabbi, to stand up, to lead services, and for my children to see me in that role and my parents to see me in that role.

And I loved it, and that I got a lot of love, and it was the first time I considered I would be a really good pulpit rabbi if you're a really good congregational rabbi. And then the summer after that I took my first chaplaincy course, which is really all about listening and hearing, which are different, and seeing and not seeing, and developing your own voice and supporting other people to find their own voices.

And I realized as I said the words for the first time, "I am a chaplain," I realized that was my true sense.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait, can I just interrupt you for a second, Suzanne? So you're saying, "I am a chaplain," and I'm thinking about the road that you took to get there. And the idea that when you were in that summer internship at the funeral home, and they had never had a rabbinical intern there before, do you think that you were uniquely situated to be able to be in a very emotionally demanding role in that funeral home as an intern, as opposed to a rabbinical student who might have been younger and had less life experience, maybe that's why they hadn't had a rabbinical intern before you?

Suzanne Offit: I think that could be true. I think actually the reason they chose to have a rabbinical intern was a business decision. This had been a family owned funeral home that was just bought by a large national chain. And it was a business decision to show that they're still personal, the fact that they wanted to have a rabbi on staff for anyone and everyone.

It's a self-selecting group who wants that internship. There's a lot to be said for maturity, but I've also met rabbinical students in their late twenties who blow me away with their deep well of sensitivity and wisdom and it's a self-selecting group, let's put it that way.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So let's get back to where you were talking about this recognition, "I am a chaplain."

Suzanne Offit: I am a chaplain. I am a chaplain. While I enjoy and I'm capable of standing in front of people and sharing insights on liturgy and philosophy and all sorts of things that we study, I really like being with one person. I like the listening and the affirming, and I find it very, a very sacred space.

Eventually, I work with patients and families.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So Suzanne, when I'm listening to you talk about this, it's reminding me of a question that I wanted to make sure that I asked you. Can you talk about the different kinds of roles that rabbis can have after they become ordained? Because, usually you think about the rabbi up in front of the congregation and at the pulpit giving a sermon.

And, at least I wasn't really thinking about all the other career paths that you're describing here that you can take when you become a rabbi.

Suzanne Offit: So a rabbi in its essence, in the meaning of the word is a teacher. So is it a teacher first and maybe a preacher second, there's so many possibilities. Like any professional, school, lawyer, doctor, there's so many ways of embodying that training.

The Hebrew College Rabbinical School, for some reason, attracts and specializes in social activist rabbis. We go and we do. Yes, we have a number of people who go into traditional pulpits, but we also have entrepreneurial rabbis and rabbis who are working for climate justice, and rabbis who are working for social justice, and racial justice, and rabbis who were executive directors of organizations or creating organizations.

There are so many ways of being a president of an educational institution, or a teacher in a college or a high school or an elementary school. I used to joke with a friend of mine who was head of the Jewish High School that most people think of a rabbi as someone who's the head of a big congregation. I would argue with him, he would say, "The lowest is the rabbi who teaches high school." And I would say, "No, no, no. The lowest is the rabbi who works in geriatrics." This cultural construct of a hierarchy, but it's all a way of loving and caring and sharing our deep connection to Jews, to the people who are Jewish, to the Jewish tradition, to Jewish history, to Jewish learning, it's all connected, and we just embody it in a way that works for us.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you go into more detail then about what happened after you graduated? I know you said you had this other internship at Hebrew Senior Life, you had the chaplain experience. What was your actual job at the beginning of your rabbinical career, once you graduated and how did that evolve over time?

Suzanne Offit: Chaplaincy training takes a long time. It takes years. It's a profession. There are plenty of people who call themselves chaplains who are not professionals and don't have the training, but the training takes years. So I had some of my training during rabbinical school during the summers and then, did some more training. So my job, when I graduated, I went right back to Hebrew Senior Life. I never left because I had my internships and then chaplaincy, and then my job was to be the rabbi of two supportive senior housing sites.

So I would be leading the services and I would be teaching classes and I would also be with them in whatever way they needed for me to be, very similar to a congregational rabbi. And then in the summer, I would cover in the hospital section of Hebrew Senior Life. And then eight years ago, the person who had that job, the palliative care hospital chaplain in post-acute, moved on to create a Jewish hospice, and then I was able to move into that job. And one of the things I loved about being at Hebrew Senior Life, it's a big institution, is that I could evolve as a rabbi and as a chaplain in the same institution and continually grow.

And so I also want to point out how lucky I am in another way. I stayed in the same house with the same husband, school, internship and job. I never had to move, never had to create a resume. It all just followed one from the other to the other. To this day I don't have a resume because I was so lucky to be able to keep my feet in one place and then grow and evolve just within two institutions. It sounds a little provincial, but the truth is, I'm just very lucky to be associated with institutions that they themselves are on journeys of growth and empowerment and learning and awareness. So I was just really lucky and just deepening my practice. So when I think of the evolution that you asked about, I'm going to give it to you in a long answer.

So in my twenties, I say that I learned to be a wife. And in my thirties, I learned to be a mother. And in my forties, I learned to be a rabbi. And in my fifties, I learned to integrate all those things. I learned to embody what does it mean to be all those things, including a chaplain. Is my rabbinate a subset of my chaplaincy? Is my chaplaincy a subset of my rabbinate? Who knows? Because I have to integrate all of them, and I have to integrate it into my body. Because these, as you mentioned before, are very demanding, physically, emotionally, spiritually demanding. So with that, I have to take care of my body, so I in turn can take care of myself and the people I love and who count on me.

So, it's the integration, the mindful and intentional and visionary integration of all these things that continually deepen my practice. When I was in school, I was very aware that I was incompetent, that other people in their forties were competent. They were, you know, my husband was so competent and you're so competent even in your growth, you're always competent. I don't know what's going on inside.

So, in my fifties, I became competent. And returning to work is that search for competence. I can be competent again, not only internally, but the world can see me competent. Now, not only am I competent, but I'm an expert. People come to me because I'm an expert, because I worked hard and my children are proud of my expertise and my competence.

And because I developed a language and caring for myself along the way, I know how to find the language. And, with that competence, I can do the work that's so important to me, which is sitting with people in their suffering. Because that's what I feel the most called to do, that sacred place where other people run away from, because it's too scary,

I don't have that fear. And that's what competence and expertise has enabled me to do, which is my greatest work.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's so profound and the way you expressed it is so relevant to way beyond relaunching in the clergy, it's relaunching much more broadly. So thank you for sharing that and for articulating it in that particular way. Suzanne, I want to just ask you one question about being in the middle of a geriatric community. I remember you told me something a while back. It was so poignant. I remember you saying, "In my community, there are people who are never touched." And I want to know if you can just reflect on that about some of the unique aspects of working with a geriatric community and also their families.

Suzanne Offit: Okay. So it was predominantly geriatric, but it actually expanded, fewer than half of my patients were Jewish, most of them were Catholic, and a lot of them were in their forties, which is not geriatric. But I think this speaks to being human. And to be human, we need to be connected to each other.

And the greatest suffering is isolation. Isolation is I believe the root of so many ills in our community, in our world. Who's in and who's out. And as a chaplain, I wanted to be with people in their suffering because they needed someone to see them and hear them and help them articulate them. And there's emotional and psychological isolation, and there's physical isolation. And physical touch is really important.

I'm talking about neuro-typical people, right? There's so many different illnesses that might make touching people inappropriate or painful or traumatic, but in neuro-typical people holding someone's hand is so important, or so many people just wait to get their hair done every week.

Think about the physical experience of having someone wash your hair. And I think it's really important. Even I would take care of my staff, the nurses, and the doctors. And I know that when they got to know me, I could put my hand on their shoulder or their back and feel them relax. Power of physical touch is so important.

And like so many other things in our culture, the extremes have gotten people into trouble, like the extremes of religion, the extremes of everything, the extremes of abuse of touch. And so if we come back to the power of healthy connections, physical touch is healing in itself. It's saying, "I am here with you. I'm not leaving you. You can share your sadness or your anger or your suffering with me, and I'm not leaving."

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you. That was an amazing answer, and I'm so glad that you talked about distinguishing the physical touch that's appropriate as opposed to extreme. Suzanne, we're wrapping up now, and this has been an incredible conversation. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. The first one is, how do you view your relaunch retrospectively? You relaunched now years ago, you’ve had this whole career. Looking back on it, is there anything you would have done differently?

Suzanne Offit: Oh, it's always good to start with the regrets and get them out of the way. I wish I hadn't yelled so much.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah.

Suzanne Offit: I wish I was more aware. Part of my journey is my growing awareness of self and surroundings. I wish I had sat everybody down and said, "Look, we're in this together and we're going to go through something hard and things are going to change. And we need to think this through together."

I wish I had done that.

And I have to say in rabbinical school, having a spouse and transforming is very powerful. And so we started a support group for rabbinical students with committed partners. But the problem was we could never meet because we had to go home. I just wish I had been more intentional, although I don't know how I would have been. I think it could have been a smoother transition. I'm really sorry about that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And then if you like aside, so there's the regret section. And then are there any other thoughts retrospectively about it that you then think about? Or I don't know, maybe you haven't thought about it as much.

Suzanne Offit: I think what I'm pleased about is what I'm proud of. I'm proud that I took some risks. I'm proud that I was able to be vulnerable for so long, vulnerable in service of learning and growing. Being vulnerable every day for six years is really hard, but it taught me a lot about growth and vulnerability and intimacy.

You make friends when you're vulnerable. You learn when you make mistakes. And I'm really proud of some of the huge mistakes that I made, and that's okay.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Suzanne, I want to end by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Suzanne Offit: I think my best advice is to show up and to show up for yourself. I believe that living a life of meaning and purpose is why we're here, and it's not easy. It's really hard, but it's worth it. And if it's okay, I would like to end by quoting a Christian theologian who taught me so much in this small quote. His name is Frederick Buechner and he says, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet," which means you have something to offer. And the world needs that offering, and the journey is to figure out what it is. And it might not be big in the scheme of things, it might be small, but you have to show up to find it. And my hope is that everyone has that glimmer of being in the right place at the right time.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you. And thank you for ending our conversation in that way. And this has just been the most incredible exchange. Suzanne, thank you so much for joining us today.

Suzanne Offit: Thank you, Carol.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And 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

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