A lot can change in 20 years. For it was just over two decades ago that I started as a researcher on BBC Newsnight. There I met Naomi Goldman, a producer and later planning editor on the programme. She was a solid, hard-working, reassuring presence on the team, someone apparently steeped in the BBC.
Now I’m the deputy editor of the JC and Goldman is the rabbi at Kol Chai Synagogue in Hatch End. Her career trajectory has been rather more dramatic than mine.
Then again, exchanging broadcasting for sermonising was not a sudden decision. Goldman’s move from journalism to the Reform rabbinate started many years before she finally took action. And, having met up with her for the first time in well over a decade, she seems, absolutely to have made the correct choice.
“In my early 20s, I would have defined myself as a cultural Jew, but something else was going on,” she says. “To do this and find a second career in midlife is such a privilege. I’ve definitely made the right decision.”
Goldman, now 51, grew up as a member of Edgware United synagogue. Female rabbis weren’t on her radar and she says she “dropped out” of cheder aged 11 — not even having a bat chayil or batmitzvah. Her family were not religious, although they were traditional, but in her teens she joined Habonim Dror, saying it was the first time she was involved with “creative Shabbat services”. A spark had been lit.
A gap year in Israel inspired her, not least after she met up with a group of students on an RSY programme and went to the Neilah service with them on Yom Kippur.
“I’d spent a whole day behind a mechitzah which I didn’t find very spiritual,” she says. “Then at that service they were reading poems in English and playing their guitars.”
Goldman was intrigued and that interest continued through Sussex University and a politics degree, and onto Cardiff, where she studied for a postgraduate diploma in journalism. Her journalistic future seemed set, but, while in the Welsh capital, she also found herself “drawn spiritually” to services run by the first woman rabbi she had encountered.
“I didn’t go that often, but when I did, I loved it,” she says, adding that she led a mock Seder at the JSoc and lit candles every Friday night.
“A spiritual switch had been turned,” she admits, but when she was accepted onto the highly sought-after BBC News trainee scheme, “it seemed as if it was a sign from the universe that I was on the right track” when it came to her career choice.
Goldman’s years at the BBC were successful, but along the way she was also enjoying her religious side. And although the move from journalist to rabbi seems unlikely (I certainly had no idea when we worked together), it becomes more understandable when she explains it.
Two key aspects came on her return to London. One was her attendance at Ruach Chavurah, a modern Jewish group, at ease with feminism and LGBT issues, pro-peace and highly influenced by the Jewish renewal movement. It might not be thought radical today, but it was back in the 1990s, and Goldman felt she had found her tribe.
“It was deconstructing what the flow of the service meant spiritually, what it meant to get beneath the skin of Jewish prayer,” she explains.
She also started attending Beit Klal Yisrael shul in Notting Hill, which was led by Sheila Shulman. “It was for people alienated by the traditional,” she says. “I felt as if was full of people like me —politically active, engaged with the world, not necessary married with kids. I was practising a Judaism that was relevant to me and my life as a young, single woman working in London.”
The Jewish side continued alongside her work, and as she met her husband Justin, a social worker, (at a Jewish spirituality workshop, naturally). Children took a long time to arrive, and Goldman admits that she prayed a lot during that time.
“It was part of my journey —cycles of despair and hope,” she says, adding that “managing it and finding the inner resources leaves you changed at the end.”
Her son Noah is now 13, and Goldman had a year off work after he was born. When she went back, she found work less appealing than previously, and her thoughts turned elsewhere, to the notion of becoming a rabbi.
“But it felt like such a wacky idea, so unrelated to what I was doing,” she says. “It was dismissible.”
And yet…those thoughts of doing something else would not quite disappear. Her work at the BBC seemed like less of a perfect fit and she envied some of her peers who had chosen to take voluntary redundancy.
“I thought that’s what I should do,” she says. “It was an idea that just wouldn’t let me go.”
She rang Leo Baeck College to ask if they would consider her as a candidate for the rabbinate and was told she needed to go to a wider range of synagogues and improve her Hebrew. She took that advice, but then nature and hormones kicked in and she wanted to have a second child. That meant staying at her job — at least for a while.
Jacob, is now 9, and after her second period of maternity leave, Goldman became increasingly convinced that she needed to make a change. The family had joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, so Goldman asked Rabbi Alexandra Wright for her thoughts.
“I was 42 and it felt like it was now or never, especially as it was a five year course.” Advice was given and gladly accepted, and Goldman took the plunge. Voluntary redundancy followed.
She is passionate about the course she took.
“My day job was to study and think,” she says with a broad smile. “It was really wonderful, with fabulous teaching. It was such a privilege.”
She was ordained — with six others — last summer. A placement at Kol Chai during her studies was followed by a job offer which she accepted with delight.
“The placement gave me a chance to know them,” she says. “And we liked each other. People talk about a shidduch and it is a bit like that. It’s a lovely community.”
Now she is a community rabbi, taking services and study sessions, and revelling in her pastoral role.
“It’s all stages of the life cycle, festivals and everything in between,” she explains, adding seriously that it is “a real privilege to be with somebody who’s going through a tough time in their life.”
“It is a huge honour, to try to give them what they need at that particular time. It is extraordinary and wonderful and still amazes me that people let you into their life. It always feels very moving and powerful.”
The reaction from those who “knew me well” to her career change was “pretty positive” she explains, while her family was not surprised, and are proud to have a rabbi in the family, alongside a lawyer and teacher (her two sisters).
“Doing something as a second career is very different,” she explains. “I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”
But does she wish she had made the move earlier, swapping broadcasting for the pulpit?
“Actually I don’t,” she says, smiling again. “I don’t think this is something I could have done in my 20s. I’m a better rabbi now for having spent 20 years working and doing other things. There’s a lot of life that I lived, and that I use now.”