On Sunday nights, Rob Cabelli takes the short flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles, along with business people getting a jump on their Monday morning meetings on the coast. He is usually exhausted from a packed weekend of work and braces for a full week of classes at Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the University of Judaism.
"I am quite tired, but I’m through the worst of it," says Cabelli, whose life took a sharp turn when he gave up a career teaching neuroanatomy at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and doing laboratory research on brain neurons. But 20 years in neuroscience and working as a developmental neurobiologist left him unfulfilled, and Cabelli decided to make a midlife career change so that his interpersonal skills could be better employed.
Since August, Cabelli, 47, has been interim rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Chandler. In his fifth and final year of rabbinical training, Cabelli is expected to celebrate his ordination, or smicha, next spring. He signed a year’s contract to serve the more than 160-family congregation, which is working toward hiring a permanent rabbi.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, the congregation’s spiritual leader for 18 years, abruptly resigned last spring in what was called a "mutual parting of ways." Neither temple leaders nor Koppell would discuss it publicly.
Born in Utah but raised in Rhode Island, Cabelli earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University, a master’s in pharmacology from the University of Virginia and a doctorate in molecular microbiology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He also did postdoctoral work in developmental neuroscience at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. He taught for nearly four years at USC’s medical school.
That’s a lot of specialized training and expertise to abandon, but Cabelli says that the teaching part was good preparation for the rabbinate.
"I enjoyed teaching very much, and I knew that some aspect of teaching needed to continue to be part of what I was doing," he said.
His research had focused on how the brain develops and remains healthy by maximizing by constant reading, speaking and interacting with others.
Yet "during that period, I gradually realized that this just was not what I wanted to be doing the rest of my life."
He looked back and realized for a decade he had been unhappy with his work, and "it was more of a struggle than it should be." A divorce prompted him to do further re-evaluation.
Cabelli embarked on his rabbinical training in the summer of 2000, and his Temple Beth Sholom work is his internship. He arrives Friday mornings and averages Shabbats two weekends per month. He also teaches classes, attends meetings and does regular caring outreach.
"It is extraordinarily challenging and yet so rewarding," said Cabelli, who is trying to find a balance between his personal warmth and "some of the academic rigors that I carry from my previous life" in how he studies, reads texts and sees the Torah. His goal is to be a pulpit rabbi at a temple.
"We are trying to bring back the sense of spirit and spirituality, the love of Torah, the love of God and the love of human beings," he said. "We rabbis are simply trying to help our congregants appreciate Judaism — to know enough about Judaism in order for them to be empowered to find meaning for Judaism in their lives."