What do a biomedical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a physical therapist, and a rabbi have in common? They’re all the same person.
Michal Woll, the new part-time rabbi at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel of Bergen County, is finishing her rabbinical degree at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., this year after trying her hand at other careers that left her feeling unsatisfied.
"I’ve changed and evolved a lot as a person," said Woll. "The way I serve the world keeps changing."
Student-rabbi Michal Woll
Rabbi Neil Tow
She is one of many who hope to join the rabbinate after dabbling in other careers. Woll will be at the Maywood synagogue two weekends a month during her one-year contract period leading up to her graduation. She will succeed part-time Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, who has gone on to a position with Hillel in New York’s Westchester County. The synagogue is too small to support a full time-rabbi, said its publicity chair, Caryn Starr-Gates, but looks forward to an exciting relationship with Woll.
"Michal really wowed a lot of people," Starr-Gates said. "Her spirit and presence on the bimah was just such a great fit for us and exuded a spirit that a lot of people connected with right away." Because the synagogue doesn’t have a full-time rabbi, it has a developed a strong lay leadership, Starr-Gates said, and Woll is eager to work with that leadership.
"I’m working with a group looking for somebody to facilitate and not do Judaism for them," Woll said.
Woll was an engineer after earning her degrees at Northwestern University and MIT, but she grew dissatisfied with the stress put on the business aspect of the profession.
"I was not interested in the corporate world, making money for companies or shareholders. I wanted to make things and help people," said Woll, who was doing mostly clinical trials by the end of her engineering career. She wanted to continue doing clinical work and also continue with her interests in dance and yoga.
"I take all the things outside of my work that interest me and I turn them into my work," she said. In 1994, she went back to school for a degree in physical therapy at Northern Arizona University. By day she took classes toward her degree and by night she became more involved in a local synagogue, learning how to lehn Torah and haftarah, and how to daven.
"I was engaged in starting my Jewish learning," she said. She soon moved to Philadelphia to study chaplaincy, without ordination. While there, she audited a class at a cantorial school. One day, while working on homework with a friend, she had to look something up in the Talmud; she pulled the necessary book from the shelf, flipped through the pages and said, "I need to know what this says."
Rabbi Neil Tow graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in May. This summer he began a full-time position at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, a far cry from his college majors in international relations and Spanish.
Unlike Woll, Tow’s rabbinic awakening occurred early on. He attended Tufts University and was active in Hillel activities, including helping to create a Conservative service. Toward the end of his sophomore year, he realized that what he wanted to do had little to do with his degrees.
"I wanted to be able to give back to the Jewish community," he said. "The rabbi is a teacher to get people excited about their Judaism and all the possibilities that can bring to them."
Upon completion of his studies at Tufts, Tow enrolled at JTS. But even though his career choice is not the same as his undergraduate choices, he still draws upon what he learned at Tufts to help him as a rabbi.
"One of the things I took from international relations was the importance of meeting people on their own terms and speaking to them in their own language," he said, noting this can be especially important in chaplaincy work.
"We all have this image in our minds that a lot of these guys are born to be rabbis," said Glen Rock’s president Neil Fishman. "It’s interesting that he had an epiphany."
"You look at the basic core essence of the potential leader," Fishman said, adding that Tow’s training in international relations and Spanish gives him an interesting worldview that would benefit the Conservative synagogue. "There are some Spanish-speaking members and it’s a nice little touch when once in a blue moon you’ll hear him conversing in Spanish with somebody."
Whether they came to it after years of other jobs or realized it early on, both Woll and Tow are confident in their career choices.
Woll said, "It really is a calling you can’t explain."