This article was originally published in the Jewish Exponent on June 8, 2022.
What if you found your calling after your first career ended — when you were already passing middle age?
Would you pursue it? Or would you just say forget it, I’m too old?
David N. Goodman, 69, decided to pursue it.
The Elkins Park resident became a rabbi on May 22 when he graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. He did so after spending seven years in his 60s studying to become one.
But it’s not just the near-decade in school that stands out about Goodman’s story. Rabbinical school required him to uproot his previous life. The new rabbi spent the previous 30-plus years as an Associated Press reporter in Detroit. He moved to the Philadelphia area to enroll at the RRC.
This summer, as he celebrates his graduation, he will continue serving as spiritual leader of Nafshenu, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, congregation of about 36 families.
“I look in the mirror, and I know I’m 69. But for seven years, I was in class with people half my age,” Goodman said. “I feel younger than when I started. I feel an excitement and a newness about what I’m doing.”
Goodman officially became a Jewish leader on May 22. But really, he had served as one for many years.
In his previous life as a journalist, he joined Congregation T’chiyah, a bottom-up synagogue that depended on members to lead services. It was 1988, and the 35-year-old had not been involved in Jewish life since his teenage years in NFTY, the national Reform movement that engages teens in Jewish activity.
But he had a son who was 6 and a daughter who was 1 at the time. He also had vivid memories of going by himself to the campus Hillel at the University of Missouri, where his dad was a physics professor.
As Goodman explained, Judaism was in him. He just needed to rediscover it.
At T’chiyah in Ferndale, Michigan, a small city in the Detroit metro area, he did.
One of the requirements at the bottom-up temple was that congregants had to take turns leading services. Goodman got in the rotation and grew to love it.
As he explained, the experience became an outlet for “an aspect of my personality that I hadn’t really explored.” He sang; he discussed the weekly Torah portion; he guided discussions among fellow members.
He was good at all of it.
“I enjoy the ritual parts of Jewish life,” the rabbi said.
Goodman began to keep kosher, too, and pray regularly. But as he went about his Jewish journey, the journalist never saw it as some divine path toward becoming a rabbi. As he put it, he just wanted to grow into a “well-educated Jew.”
“My attitude was the world doesn’t need necessarily another rabbi,” he said. “But what we do need is Jews in the pews who know what’s going on.”
That attitude motivated him to sign up for a prayer leadership training program called the Jewish Renewal Movement. Led by Philadelphia-area rabbis Marcia Prager and Shawn Zevit, the program included four one-week retreats over a two-year period. Its goal was to “help people bring more spirituality into prayer practice,” Goodman said.
What Goodman got out of it was a series of “amazing prayer experiences,” as he described them. In his AP days, he had covered church events and seen Christians lose themselves in prayer. But he had never really seen that among his own people.
Until the Jewish Renewal retreats.
“I said, ‘This is great.’ We need more of what they’re having,” he recalled.
Goodman went on the retreats in 2011 and ’12, around the same time that he was forced to consider retiring from the AP or getting a new job, as his pension would kick in at age 65. So when he asked himself what he wanted to do next, the answer was sitting there in his mind.
“I should apply to rabbinic school,” he said.
In 2015, Goodman loaded up his Ford and drove to Philadelphia. During his seven years at the RRC, he taught Hebrew at Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, served as the student rabbi at West Chester University and got hired as an intern at Nafshenu in 2020. He also met his new wife, Pearl Raz, and they have been married for 2½ years.
Goodman became full time at Nafshenu because congregants just liked him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man not smile,” said Rachael Blumer, 36, a synagogue member.
Lisa Lichtman, another Nafshenu congregant, interviewed Goodman for his initial intern position.
“Going back after retiring, that says a lot about somebody’s growth, right?” she said. JE