‘Becoming a Rabbi Never Occurred to Me’

After working in international economic development, I decided to deepen my Jewish learning—and changed careers in my 50s

I became a rabbi at age 52, nearly four decades after my childhood bat mitzvah in Santiago, Chile, and after a first career in economic development.

My midlife career switch was part of a long process that started in my 40s but that I can trace back to that ceremony when I was 13. For some Jewish teenagers, a bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls)—or what some synagogues now call a b’mitzvah to be more gender-inclusive—is an expected rite of passage. But for me, it was a choice I made at a time—in the late 1960s—when such a ceremony was entirely new in Chile. I wanted the opportunity to learn and acquire skills that were otherwise unavailable to me. While I grew up in a home imbued with Jewish values and traditions, I didn’t have a formal Jewish education. 

My mother came to Chile with her parents from Germany after Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews; my father—born in China to Russian Jewish parents who had emigrated during the Russian Revolution—moved to Santiago at age 21 during the Chinese Revolution of 1949.

Teenage girls in white dresses stand by a table with lit candles, in a black-and-white photo

Sonia (Brailovsky) Saltzman had an informal bat mitzvah at home in Santiago, Chile, along with her sister and two friends, when she was 13. “Because our rabbi was busy teaching the boys in the community, the learning I had hoped for didn’t actually materialize,” she says. Photo: Courtesy of Sonia Saltzman

Our rabbi had also come from Germany and gave sermons in German; I didn’t understand a word (we spoke Spanish at home). I didn’t understand the Hebrew prayers either.

My father, along with other families, reached out to a Spanish-speaking rabbinical student from Argentina to help the younger generation better connect with the community. This seminarian came to Santiago and stayed with us on the weekends to teach and lead services (in Spanish!). It was exciting to connect with a young rabbi!

However, my bat mitzvah, which I did together with my older sister and two school friends, happened before the days of the young seminarian. And because our rabbi was busy teaching the boys in the community, the learning I had hoped for didn’t actually materialize. I would have to wait many more years for that to happen.

In my early 40s, I decided to participate in a two-year evening program to prepare for my “adult bat mitzvah” at my synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. I also completed a one-month intensive study in Bible and Rabbinics at Hebrew College.

By that time, I was a wife and mother and head of financial services at Accion International, an NGO focusing on micro-finance. I was traveling regularly to Latin America, helping Accion affiliates obtain funding to on-lend to low-income entrepreneurs who wouldn’t otherwise have access to fairly priced financing.  

I loved my work in economic development. I saw it as an expression of my Jewish identity—in Judaism, we are always thinking, how can our lives contribute to make this world a better place —but the learning I was doing “on the side” was drawing me in deeper.

The idea of becoming a rabbi never occurred to me, in part, I think, because there wasn’t a rabbinical school in Boston at the time. I decided to get my master's in Bible and Jewish Thought at Brandeis University; I envisioned a new career in adult education.

In 2003, as I was finishing my master's degree, my thesis advisor told me he was starting a rabbinical school in Boston and asked if I would be interested; I would be part of the first class. But that was a five-year fulltime commitment with a very full schedule each day in the beit midrash or study hall. But with my husband’s support, I embarked on this exciting journey. One of my sons was about to start college and the other was going into 8th grade, which meant that five years later, we would both be celebrating our respective graduations. 

Rabbi Sonia Saltzman poses with two other rabbis

Rabbi Sonia Saltzman, who was ordained in her 50s, celebrates her installation at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Massachusetts, with the president of Hebrew College, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, center, and the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz. Photo: Courtesy of Sonia Saltzman

My first congregation after ordination was Sha'arei Shalom in Ashland, Massachusetts, where I stayed for three years. Then I was at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Massachusetts, for seven years—and a great coincidence is that Claudia Kreiman, the daughter of the rabbinical student who came to my house in Santiago, is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion. We were rabbis on the same street!

I think the fact that I know what it feels like to be an outsider infuses my work as a rabbi. Growing up in Chile as a Jew, I was an outsider. When my family moved to New Jersey in 1971, I was a junior in high school and an outsider again. And even within the Jewish community, I didn’t feel quite at home because of my limited knowledge and skills. As a rabbi, I want to ensure a welcoming experience for everyone in an atmosphere of deep respect for the wisdom each person brings and for the different paths that lead people to the Jewish community.

At Tufts, I learned about community at the Latin Society [a precursor to La Casa Latina/Latinx Culture House and the Latinx Center]. That’s where I found my friends. That’s where I felt at home. For me, the transition to college was very hard; I had only been in the U.S. two years. There was so much I didn't know. The Latin Society was my community for all four years.

A black-and-white image of six college students in the 1970s

The transition to college was challenging for Sonia (Brailovsky) Saltzman, who was a recent immigrant from Chile. Saltzman, shown third from left with members of the Tufts Latin Society in the 1970s, says the group was “where I found my friends. That’s where I felt at home.” Photo: Courtesy of Sonia Saltzman

Now, in semi-retirement, I teach community classes through the Open Circle Jewish Learning program of Hebrew College, and I teach and lead services at an assisted living facility. I love the wisdom these “elders,” who have led such interesting lives, share with me. 

My career advice comes from a funny experience. Before college, I took a career placement test. The result was quite surprising: I should become a nun! Of course I totally disregarded that; I majored in political science and took courses in economics. After Tufts, I earned a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University and took courses at Columbia Business School.

Clearly my religious identity was always of central importance to me, as was my desire to express it professionally. However, at the time of this career placement test, women rabbis had not yet been ordained. So, my advice is to be less literal and less dismissive in interpreting any such tests or recommendations!

My other advice for someone contemplating a career switch is to cultivate humility. Humility helps you say, “I used to know so much about this one area, but now I am a beginner in this new field and how fortunate to be able to pursue it.”

As told to Jamie Saxon, J83

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