From Screenwriter to Rabbi: Susan Nanus, a Woman of Reinvention

img susan rabbiSusan Nanus, wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and holding a Torah scroll.

“It’s amazing . . . it’s like a miracle,” says Susan Nanus, 66, a rabbi serving at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the largest temple in Los Angeles. “A few months ago, I said to myself, ‘You’re a rabbi! You did it!’ I couldn’t believe it. I wish my parents were alive to see this.

“Being a rabbi is an honor and a responsibility. You become a role model: you have to embody the faith and values and morals of what you are teaching. It’s wonderful, and it’s serious. It’s a serious thing to me.”

Becoming “Rabbi Susan” was Nanus’s second career dream, achieved in her sixties after a successful 30-year writing career. “When I was growing up, my dream was to be a writer,” she says. “I always was a writer. I wrote plays in high school, majored in playwriting in college, went to Yale Drama School, and began earning a living as a playwright and screenwriter in my late twenties.  First, I had several plays produced in New York, including one on Broadway. Then, sfter writing four features films, my real career began as a television movie writer.  I had 15 television movies produced on the air, three of which won Christopher Awards—a beautiful award given by the Christophers, a Catholic organization, for ‘affirming the highest values of the human spirit.’ I was also a Humanitas Award finalist, and I won the Writers Guild Award for best long-form screenplay. I had a very joyful and fulfilling career as a writer—but after 25 or 30 years, it’s just time to try something new.”

The career-change began this way: All through her career as a writer, Nanus had been “doing Jewish education on the side, teaching Hebrew and religious school, conversion classes, and writing plays for Holocaust memorial celebrations.  One day when I was in my fifties, I was sitting in synagogue and I looked at the rabbi and suddenly thought, ‘I want to do that. I love Judaism and its values and ethics. I want to study Judaism more deeply.  I want to teach and bring people closer to this beautiful, meaningful way of life.  I want to try to be a rabbi.’”

She had tried it before, very tentatively. In her twenties Nanus applied to rabbinical school. Back then (the 1970s) female rabbis were a rarity. (The first female rabbi in America, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972; the first female Orthodox rabbi in America, Lila Kagedan, was ordained just last summer.) Nanus “found the admission process and the bias against women so arduous that I changed my mind and went back to writing.”

This time she was welcome in rabbinical school. “I really had great pleasure in learning,” she says. Asked whether it was difficult to go back to school in her fifties, she answers, “In the beginning I had to write papers and I felt very rusty, because it’s different from creative writing, but I really loved studying. Within six months I felt I was in the groove, and I enjoyed it very much.”

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  • Jeff September 5, 2016 at 11:55 am

    And to think it all began writing plays for CHUSY.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard May 28, 2016 at 6:55 am

    Sending this I inspiring story to my sister who was a congregant of Rabbi Sally Priesand.

  • Toni Myers May 24, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Rabbi Susan is utterly amazing and your story a pleasure. She does give the rest of us inspiration to follow our passions, knowing we will have obstacles on the way.
    Thanks, Deb.

  • Susanna Gaertner May 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    What is it with the Wonder Women of a Certain Age?
    Deb manages to find these paragons and show how they became who they so amazingly are in what some would consider retirement age.
    As a reader I only feel inspired, not defeated. Thanks!

  • Phyl Dupret May 24, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Terrific article…as a woman 73 year old woman the story of Susan Nanus is especially relevant (and timely)…I’m retired from wonderful career experiences but finding I need something to go to/do on a daily basis…I’m exploring several options because retirement is not for me…..