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

It took her nine years to get her degree; she attended part time while working as a screenwriter—and, later, as Director of Senior Programs at a Jewish community center—and raising her daughter. (In her forties, Nanus flew to Russia and adopted the baby who would become her daughter Lili, who is now 23.) “I worked really, really hard,” she says. “I was exhausted, but I did what I had to do because loved what I was doing. I was lucky; the process was great. It wasn’t ‘Omigod, I hate this, but I have a goal at the end.’ Instead, every year I thought, ‘This is beautiful, I’m enjoying it so much.’ When I got tired, I just kept saying, ‘Keep going.’ I was in a wonderful place . . . I had the encouragement and support of the school, itself. It was fantastic.”

She continues, “My rabbinical school, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, in Los Angeles, is unique. It is trans-denominational. You study with teachers and rabbis from all the different Jewish denominations and from all perspectives, and then you decide yourself personally where you stand. So it’s very broad in terms of the way I studied and the way I practice Judaism.

Again, as she often does when describing her career change, she notes her good luck. “I was very lucky, because in this particular rabbinical school the majority of students were second-career adults, so I was going to school with a lot of people in their 50s and 60s: lawyers, scientists, professors, an actor, an anesthesiologist . . . so I didn’t feel like I was an old lady; I felt like I was with my peers.”

Now, as one of the eight rabbis at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (her title is Director of Adult Programs), she does “many things. I teach a woman’s Torah study group, an Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, an Adult Hebrew class, an interfaith Bible class, and a workshop series called Wise Aging, which aims to help people 65 and older find meaning in their lives. I also conduct holiday and Shabbat services, create adult programs for all the Jewish holidays, and produce much of the cultural programming in the temple . . .  concerts, films, theatre, speakers, art exhibits, dinners, and interfaith events, to name a few.”

Her goal was worthy and her journey toward it transformative: “I was able to study with great scholars and contemplate things at a very deep level. I looked at the Bible and our tradition through multiple perspectives. I am different than I was when I started. More spiritual, certainly.”

Whatever you have a passion for, she counsels, do it. “When I started the thought process of becoming a rabbi, I called a couple of rabbis who were my age, and I said, ‘I’m thinking of going to rabbinical school; what do you think?’ and they said, ‘Don’t do it. You’re too old; you’ll never get a job.’ They discouraged me. And I didn’t care. I thought, ‘This is my dream and I’m going to do it. If I can’t become a rabbi one way, I’ll do it another way.’ If you really have a passion for something, you shouldn’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You can.”

RELATED: Risky Business: Reinventing Life in Middle Age

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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…..