Editor’s Note: This essay comes from first-time contributor Lee Joyce Richmond, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, Loyola University Maryland, Timonium, Maryland.
“How are you?” is usually the first question asked when people meet and greet, especially when they have been apart for a while.
Not so with me.
The common greeting that I get from friends or even friends of friends these days goes like this: “So tell me, why on earth did you ever choose to go to rabbinical school at the age of eighty-six?”.
Now I know that I could give a quick sort of pious answer such as, “It was always something that I wanted to do, but when I was young it was impossible for a woman. However, to be a rabbi was always my dream. Now that it is possible for women to go to rabbinical school, I decided to fulfill a lifetime ambition. Sounds good, but it’s just not true. My first career dream was to fly airplanes. I wanted to go to flight school. A little later, and a bit more realistic, I wanted a career as a history or English teacher, and I fulfilled that dream
In the early 1960’s I was teaching high school in the inner-city where kids struggled with many issues. The sixties were a turbulent time in U.S. history, bloodied by the War in Viet Nam, and civil rights issues fought out on our streets. The country was in a kind of chaos, particularly in urban areas. I wanted to help my students and their parents with issues that I knew they were facing. decided to become a school counselor, and later, a counseling psychologist. I went back to school and eventually earned a doctorate.
By 1975 the war abroad had ended, and I moved on, first to teach at a community college, later to teach in a graduate school. Licensed by the State of Maryland to practice independently, I also did some private practice counseling. Eventually I served as a consulting psychologist for national and international private and public corporations. My occupational aspirations were never the rabbinate.
So, when people ask me why I decided to enter an ordination program at my advanced age, I give a much more complicated response. I answer their question “why” with a quick “ why not” as if becoming a rabbi at my age was the most normal and natural thing to do . At this juncture, the person who receives my answer usually pauses. There is silence between us. The silence speaks volumes. The quick.” Why not” answer is quite complex, and I almost never explain. The reality has something to do with nonlinear dynamics, and serendipity, or happenstance. To explain would take a textbook. Suffice it to say that my life experience, intelligence, and intuition became my career compass. This plus an openness to possibility and a willingness to respond to strange attractors account and all of my life career decisions.
Most recently my life career compass pointed in the direction of a one-year rabbinical school program leading to ordination as a rabbi with a universal approach to Judaism. I knew when I began my one-year program that neither the orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist, nor reform rabbinical assemblies would recognize my ordination as something worthy of a congregational position. That mattered not to me: I have no intention of obtaining a pulpit. My interest was in learning more about the interface between various forms of Jewish practice and mental health.
At age 82 I retired from university teaching and was teaching a wise aging course, and other psychologically based courses, in a large synagogue based adult education center. I knew the psychology part quite well, but I wanted to know the Jewish better. Aware that in all probability I lacked enough lifetime to complete a five- or six-year seminary program and still teach and counsel, I decided to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. This is when I decided to apply for a rabbinical program.
On average I wound up studying more than fifty hours a week. In addition to attempting to learn some biblical Hebrew, in transition I read the entire Five Books of Moses and much commentary (in English translation), wrote fifty-two six- or- seven-minute sermons on a theme from the week’s parsha. I took extra courses from the Jewish Theological Seminary on other parts of the Tanakh, attended a weekly Talmud discussion class, and learned lots about how to conduct weddings, funerals and B’nai Mitzvot. But what I learned most is that with a lot of effort I could keep up with classmates all of whom were young enough to be my children, and some, my grandchildren. And when they knew I could do it, they accepted me as a colleague.
Though I have taught graduate courses in developmental psychology, I find thinking about life transitions more interesting than dissecting life into a series of stages. We continually move into, move through, and move out of transitions. We emerge ever more fully in the process. We grow into ever wider opportunities to connect with others. Modern technological advances in communication capability means that most of us can continue to develop new social networks and new learning experiences even when we are well into old age. Zoom, Vimeo and other live stream platforms allow us to engage in multiple learning experiences and growth in learning opens many doors.
Opening doors require decisions as to what door to open. Though decision making can be difficult, I have learned that life, self-organizes and always works whatever is door is chosen. Most decisions are really not either right or wrong. They can be viewed as right and left. Doors once opened can be closed, and new doors will be there to open. If one views choice in this way, one can run to try new things. Like in movie making, there are many takes. If one decision does not work the way one wants it to work, there is always a take two.
Before I enrolled in a program to become a rabbi, I had previously opened many doors. I opened a door that led me to become a psychologist when I was teaching high school kids who sorely needed counseling. A door opened. I Went to graduate school and got a master’s degree in counseling and took a job as a school counselor in an urban school that had some connections with the Johns Hopkins Hospital. There I received some training in pediatric and adolescent therapy through the Department of Pediatric Psychiatry. Fascinated, and with the desire to study further, I took advanced studies in psychology at Hopkins after which another door opened. I was accepted as a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Because I was needed to help with the family income, I had to hold a job, but I also had to work flexible hours if I wanted to go as a full-time student (the only way they would take me) to UMD. A door opened. A job as a full-time psychology teacher opened at a community college and I took it. was hired. After two years, Baltimore County opened another community, and I was given the opportunity to move to it as the Director of the Division of Social Sciences. II could have turned it down.
I loved that job. My intention was to stay there for life. Why not? I had my Ph.D. and a family of four children. At the then age of forty-one, I thought that I was set. However, along the way I had started a program for adult women returning to school and another program for people with special abilities. The program for women was copied by three other community colleges and one four-year institution. The program for the people with special abilities was grant funded and a movie was made about it. This caught the attention of reporters, made the news and then a strange attractor appeared and swooped me through yet one more door. It just so happened that the School of Continuing Studies at Hopkins caught me. They recruited me to head a granted program for adult education that was to last one year. By then, as full professor and division head at the community college , I took a one-year leave of absence to work with people at Hopkins. I stayed at Hopkins ten years. It happened as follows. While there, the person who was directing the counseling specialty left. I was offered the job.
Hopkins has a big name, and I had the opportunity to meet and work with some really super people both in the School of Continuing Studies and in my old haunts at the hospital. During my ten-year stint at the University, I met many of the “greats” who introduced me to professional organizations. In time I became president of the National Career Development Association, and then the American Counseling Association. Among the greats were David and Anna Miller-Tiedeman who introduced me to theories of Emergence, Chaos, and Complexity, and that was a door that opened me to a spirituality, the seeds of which were sown in my childhood. I was moving into rabbinical school then, but I didn’t know it.
I suspect that if women could become rabbis in 1946 when I became a Bat Mitzvah, I may well have aspired to be one. As I said before, It was unthinkable then. I am certain the rest of the girls in the first Bat Mitzvah class my modern orthodox synagogue ever held never thought of it either. As we stood on the bimah in front of our parents in our little white dresses singing psalms and wondering what award we may have won, I observed that our coming-of-age ceremony was quite different from that of the boys in our class. Each had his own “ceremony” and every single one had his own Torah parsha to read.
It did not consciously bother me at the time. I was busy listening to who got the awards and what they won. II heard my name called. My award was for the female student most interested in religious activities. For this I was given a book about how to keep a Jewish home. I confess without shame that I never read it. My interests were in history, not housekeeping.
As a teen, a high school student, I traded orthodoxy for Labor Zionism. I stopped saying the morning prayer, the one where boys thank God for making them men, and girls expressed gratitude for making us as we are. Somehow it seemed to imply that girls were lesser, and I didn’t like it. I hooked up with some kids who belonged to Habonim, some of whose grandparents were the original chalutzim, and whose parents and older brothers were smuggling guns and grenades into Israel for the Irgun to use in the War for Independence that was to come.
Though I was no longer Orthodox, I never lost my interest in religion or in its origins. In college and beyond I made it a point to study the history of religion and the theology of religions other than Judaism. For me there were no right and wrong religious paths. They were just paths, this one takes you this way, and the other takes you that way , but they all wind up sourcing and connecting that which is Eternal and beyond our understanding, to the minds and hearts of “us”.
While I was in college. I married a young man who was also in college. I had to win a scholarship to continue in school. Four-year teacher education scholarships were offered at the time, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to use all four years by adding education and psychology to my history and literature major. By the time I graduated I was a mother, schoolteacher and still a seeker. I was a seeker when I learned from David and Anna Tiedeman about the new science and how it connected to psychology. I am a seeker to this day.
Doors and doors. Openings and closings. So many connections. So much serendipity. As a full professor, I left Hopkins to continue to teach at Loyola. That job gave me a tenured opportunity to remain a full professor, teach in the Pastoral Counseling Program, chair the school counseling program and serve as a consultant to the maintenance division of the United States Postal Service and to Recruit Company, LTD in Japan. But that is another story. When I finally retired from University teaching, I was eighty-two years old and another door had opened. Or by this time, I opened it.
Knowing that we were close to retirement and two energetic counselors from other universities and I started a non-profit organization offering workshops to mental health workers seeking continuing education credits for the purpose of recertification. This gave me the opportunity to connect counseling and career counseling to spirituality.
Earlier I had co-edited a book entitled Connecting Spirit and Work in Career Development and co- written two other books, one called SoulWork: How to Find the Work You Love, How to Love the Work You Have and the other called What Brings You to Life. Workshops based on these books and the works of others were fun to do. At the same time, I became interested in a program called Wise Aging which was then offered out of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York. I became a trainer, and for the past four years have offered this workshop and others that I have designed for the Mark G. Loeb Adult Education Program of the Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. Due to COVID, it has been offered on Zoom for the last two years.
You may say that my life was happenstance. I would say that you are correct only if happenstance is the same as emergence and complexity, two words that scientists use to explain the way the universe works: everything together in one big web of connection. It explains the doors, and why I went through them. Doors and gateways are always there, always visible to one who has eyes to see, and always open to one who would choose to enter.
Why did I become ordained as a rabbi? Everything that I ever did points to it. We live through a series of events that we move into, move through, and out of a process akin to waves of experience. I for one will attempt to surf the waves until they end.
Lee J. Richmond, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in the State of Maryland. She is a professor emerita of Loyola University Maryland. and former professor of counseling and human development at the John Hopkins University. Additionally, she has been a human resources consultant and leadership development trainer for national and international organizations including the United States Postal Service and Recruit Ltd. Japan. She is widely published in books, monographs and journals. Dr. Richmond is known for blending her interest in the nexus between psychology and spirituality, Dr. Richmond holds a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.