By her own admission, Jean Meltzer has a rather novel JTS story, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by listening to her talk about The Rabbinical School and the dynamic students and teachers who have become her friends and mentors.
Jean says, “JTS is incredibly open about discussing our individual journeys and issues. Along with other students who come from observant backgrounds, there is a great support system, so you can talk about those journeys.”
And what a trip it’s been. Jean is the middle child of Conservative Jewish parents who grew up boating with her two sisters on the New Jersey shore. She’ll gladly tell you that JTS is the last place she ever expected to find herself.
“When I was seventeen, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life: work in entertainment, make exorbitant and scandalous amounts of money in sitcoms and trashy television, live in New York with wood floors and white walls, and enjoy fancy pastas with fancy names. I had a list. I knew what my life would look like.” Jean thought of herself as “a cultural Jew . . . but Judaism had nothing to do with my life.”
As fate would have it, Jean’s young adult life closely matched the list of goals she’d written out as an adolescent. By the time she was twenty-four, she was a graduate of the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, with a BFA in Dramatic Writing; a creative director at the production company Tapestry International; a two-time national Daytime Emmy nominee and the winner of the 2004 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Television Series (The Discovery Channel’s Assignment Discovery). “I had my fancy apartment, fancy pastas, my television series
. . . and I was utterly unhappy.”
At a Rosh Hashanah service that Jean attended at the request of her parents, she heard the rabbi give a sermon about the first time God spoke to man and asked, “Ayecha?” (“Where are you?”). Something clicked inside her: “I thought, ‘Where am I? I am totally lost.’” Jean decided to go back to her Jewish roots.
Afraid her friends and loved ones would laugh at her change of heart and direction, Jean didn’t tell anyone about her spiritual awakening for some time, but when she did—and even expanded her dream to include a new desire to become a rabbi—she found acceptance and love, if not just a little surprise. She left her job to move to Israel, and got some of her training in Hebrew at the Conservative Yeshiva and Hebrew University. After that, it was a clear path to JTS, where Jean began to find the meaning for which she’d been searching. In fact, Jean has received so much from her JTS experience that she plans to make outreach to members of her generation an important part of her rabbinical career.
“To be surrounded by community is such a gift; even the day-to-day activities—keeping kosher and Shabbat—add such meaning to your life . . . and everyone’s very respectful. JTS is a great place. It’s the happiest place on earth . . . I would never, ever turn back. I would never look back. It’s that good.”
Today, when she’s not studying, Jean spends her time with friends, watching movies, listening to everything from hip-hop to country to popular music, going for an occasional run, waiting to see what happens with her third Daytime Emmy nomination—and being just plain happy.