Why I gave up my job to become a rabbi

Photographing footballers and working with Ruby Wax are not obvious routes to the rabbinate, but some had other careers before the pulpit. We talk to three of them.

By Alex Kasriel, September 9, 2009
Ariel Friedlander

Ariel Friedlander

● Ariel Friedlander, 45, grew up in Wembley and west London, where her father Rabbi Albert Friedlander was rabbi at Westminster Synagogue. She used to work as a sports photographer before training to be a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in New York. She has since worked in Toronto, Virginia and New York.

“My dad was actually the reason for me becoming a photographer. He was mad about football. I used to go with him to QPR and I became a big fan. When I was at school I joined the camera club and we had to work on a project, so I took my camera to the football and stood in the crowd and took pictures from the terraces. I started sending them to the club and they gave me a pass to sit on the grass.

“In my mid 20s, I was one of the official QPR photographers for around three years. I was one of two photographers at the time. There was a game coming up at Tottenham and since I’d never been to White Hart Lane, I made a fuss so I could go. The game got re-arranged on Rosh Hashanah, which was a bit of a problem. I went to see my rabbi— who was my dad — and he said, ‘It’s your decision, it’s your conscience’.

“I decided I would go to shul in the morning and still make it to White Hart Lane by 3pm. I rushed across to the football and made it by about 3.15. QPR were being thrashed and I was thinking, ‘This is all my fault’. Then it started raining. There was thunder and lightning and I thought I shouldn’t have gone. Then the crowd started singing, ‘Does your rabbi know you’re here?’ to the Tottenham supporters. I was so hysterical by this point, I jumped up and left.

“That was a turning point. It just made me think if I’m getting this upset about it, maybe it’s more important than I thought it was. This was a catalyst for re-evaluating the situation. I went to my grandmother who was also a rabbi. I thought she’d say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ but she said, ‘Go to rabbi school.’ When I told the Hebrew Union College the story about White Hart Lane, they took me.

“There’s a certain number of situations that you can photograph — the goal celebration and tackle — but in all cases it’s the people you are interested in. It’s the same with situations that people find themselves in life.

“I miss doing photography and being at the game but the advent of digital photography means it’s a lot less about aesthetic and more about the product.”

● Jeremy Gordon, 37, studied law at Cambridge before drifting into a career in the media. After quitting, he studied at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and was 32 when he got his first post at St Albans Masorti Synagogue. Now he is rabbi at the New London Synagogue.

“I spent four years working in TV in the independent sector, starting off as a researcher and becoming an assistant producer. I worked for various companies including Tiger Aspect and worked with Ruby Wax on The Full Wax for a while which was always great fun.

“What I was really interested in doing were high-end documentaries and that industry disappeared.

“I encountered Judaism in a way that I didn’t expect. I didn’t engage with it when I was growing up but it was through Limmud. The more I got interested in it, the less I got interested in TV. I remember walking up to the editing suite bringing this tape and feeling the shallowness of this tape and how I want to be doing something else now and I don’t want to go to work. I think I would probably have felt that anyway but it’s just that I found something more meaningful.

“Because I’m very young — I was the youngest in my class at seminary — it helped that I had a little bit more experience in story-telling, how to put something across in a way that someone can understand. I was just grateful that I did something else in the real world. People do like that I have a great deal of life experience and skills. If you have some understanding of mortgages and pensions, it helps.

“I do miss the expense accounts — not really! Every now and then I drive past the place where I was filming or the office where I worked and I have really fond memories but I love what I do. TV has become part of what I used to do rather than part of who I am. I have got no desire to do anything else.”

● Rabbi Baruch Davis, 51, of Chigwell United Synagogue, grew up in Kingsbury, before going to Beersheba and spending two years in yeshivah. He returned to London to do a degree in economics and went back to Israel for a further year at yeshivah before getting a job at the department of international affairs in the Ministry of Finance .

“Being an English speaker with an economic background was really what they were interested in. I was there for 18 months. By that time I was married. When I was 26, my wife and I decided that we’d rather do something different and we had a very strong feeling in Israel of growing up in the post-Holocaust world. The result of that was the forced migration of Jews all over the world, which was weakening their links to Judaism. We felt that this was something we wanted to devote our lives to.
“I went to yeshivah for a further four years where I gained semichah and after that I took up a position in Australia. I was rabbi of Adelaide Hebrew Congregation for nine years. Then I came to Chigwell in 1997. The main attraction is the proximity to Israel and family. I don’t miss finance in the sense that my wife and I have never really regretted for a day our decision to go into the rabbinate. I miss the fact that I don’t live in Israel but I find the rabbinate really fulfilling.
“The fact that I mixed in the worlds of university, work and the outside world means I am better able to relate to it and I think people find it easier to talk to me knowing that I have a secular background and I’m able to express myself in terms that they understand. If they want to discuss the finance situation with me, they know they can.”

Last updated: 1:53pm, September 29 2009