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Boomers Turn To Divinity Schools

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Annie Wells will be 58 when she graduates in May from the Claremont School of Theology. She hopes to land a paid internship and ultimately a job as a chaplain in a hospice or hospital. Wells wants to comfort those grieving the death of a loved one. That she once photographed those wrenching private moments for the world to see in a major metropolitan newspaper is an irony not lost on her. The journey for the Pulitzer prize-winning news photographer has been clear for a while; it just took her a while to get here.

"I would be taking pictures of a family in East L.A. whose son was just killed," she said, "and I knew what I really wanted to do was to just put down my camera and put my arms around them."

Wells' call to serve in the ministry may have come late, but she's hardly alone. More than 20 percent of divinity school students are at least age 50, says Eliza Smith Brown, communications director of the Association of Theological Schools. And in the past five years there's been a 12 percent increase in that group's enrollment in the 261 schools under the ATS umbrella.

Is that simply because there are more baby boomers past 50? Brown doesn't think it's demographics alone. Neither is it the recession, she says. While the economic decline closed doors on many boomers' careers -- including Wells' -- and offers opportunity, to follow one's faith, help others, and practice what's preached, it doesn't necessarily promise a paying job. And the increase in boomer enrollment wasn't necessarily the result of them finding doors closed elsewhere.

"People call me crazy, but I think 9/11 was a wake-up call for a lot of people," she said. That national tragedy inspired introspection in many and a desire to work toward something better, she said. But that's not enough to explain the increased numbers either, says Brown.

Entering the ministry, she says, has long been seen as a way to spend retirement years for those who have been called. Many careers -- the military, police and fire protection, teaching -- provide pensions and retirement benefits at a relatively young age, leaving time for another vocation.

By thier mid-50s, many have paid off their homes and launched their children into lives of their own. "The circumstances are such that people are able to go to divinity school without incurring heavy debt," says Brown, "and are able to take ministry jobs that traditionally don't pay that well and are in the hinterlands. In fact, the ruralness appeals to them."

Annie Wells is a perfect case in point. She always knew that growing old as a print photojournalist wasn't "pretty," she said. When it came time to hang up her camera bag, she didn't want to be one of those shooters relegated to the photo lab or confined to the photo desk keeping track of assignments. After losing her mom and sister to cancer and battling her own breast cancer, she knew there was something more she needed to do with her life.

By the time she got laid off from her job at the Los Angeles Times in 2008, she had already booked a "college tour" of divinity schools on the East Coast. Losing her job was unexpected and painful, she said, but mostly it was premature. She had been planning to switch to a job in the ministry anyway. She's supported herself for the past three years through scholarships, freelance work, loans and dips into her retirement funds.

Going to graduate school as a middle-age woman doesn't even register as a problem on the Richter Scale for Jewish Theological Seminary cantorial student Ronit Wolff Hanan, 52. She lives in a New Jersey suburb and commutes to her classes. The perspective that older students contribute to the class dynamic is valued, she says. "We bring life experience to the table." Hanan, the daughter of a cantor, says she was probably always meant to enter spiritual service, but took a circuitious route to get there. She performed musically in the secular world, raised a family, lived abroad for eight years and kept a foot in the synagogue door through lay teaching. She would hire herself out for High Holy days for congregations in need of cantorial support.

She likely won't be competing with her younger classmates in the job-hunt that begins for her upon graduation because of her strong roots to her home in Teaneck and family ties. "I'm not someone who is going to move to Ohio for a job," she notes. Continuing doing what she's been doing -- but armed with the credentials of an advanced degree -- were justification enough for Hanan to go to theology school.

The job market for those seeking pulpit positions is extremely tight -- regardless of the age of the new graduate, says Rabbi Judith HaLevy, chief rabbi of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue in California. HaLevy, now 69, was ordained when she was 50 after a varied career that included working in the arts and theater world and living abroad.

Rabbinical schools produce more graduates than there are jobs for them, HaLevy says, predicting that rabbinical service itself will change because of it. There will be rabbinical healers, rabbinical therapists, she says. "When I was growing up, there were no women rabbis," she adds, "nobody to serve as a role model." She makes a point of mentoring women -- especially boomers -- who endeavor to become rabbis, as her intern, 52-year-old Mindie Jo Snyder, can attest.

Does spiritual guidance come with more gravitas when delivered by someone older? HaLevy says it's a matter of connecting on an individual basis. Do you prefer your doctors to look older than your kids? Is there added value when the person comforting you has experienced the same loss or challenges?

Finally, a second career choice where age may hold the premium.

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