One of the most important days in Barbara Aiello’s life was the birth of her daughter, Rosanna, in 1978. It was important not only for the joy of motherhood but because of a gift of four small items from her father.
The button, knife, bit of colored glass, and braided string had been given to him by Holocaust survivors in thanks for liberating their concentration camp during World War II. His passing them on to his daughter inspired her to complete her spiritual journey to rediscover her Jewish roots. Twenty years later, she was chosen over sixty other applicants to become ordained as the full-time rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bradenton, Fla.
While the direction of Aiello’s midlife career change might seem surprising, her commitment to the lives of others is nothing new. After graduating from IUP in 1968, Aiello began teaching elementary special education. In 1977, she expanded the scope of her career by introducing Kids on the Block, a group of puppets designed to serve as models of how children can be friends with people who have disabilities. Although Aiello is no longer involved, the business has continued to expand and today provides educational puppet programs that enlighten children on the issues of disability awareness, medical-educational differences, and social concerns.
Aiello views the changes at IUP in the last thirty years as reflecting the advancement of women’s roles in society. She notes that when she prepared to enroll at IUP in the mid-60s, there were basically two choices for women: be a nurse or a teacher. As she worked toward her special education degree, she knew in her heart that she wanted to become more involved with Judaism. Even though at the time of her graduation women were not allowed to be rabbis, she says, “If not for IUP, I wouldn’t be here today. The professors made us prove ourselves, and what they taught me was invaluable.”
Her memories of IUP include not only washing dishes in the dining hall but also professors who deeply affected her. She recalls the advice and mentoring from Dr. Eugene Scanlon, the love of languages from Dr. Kenneth Brode, who inspired her to learn and teach Hebrew, and Dr. Carl Bordas, who showed her how important it is to carry through on your beliefs. The Special Education Department taught her to appreciate diversity, and she carried that appreciation through Kids on the Block and ultimately into the rabbinical seminary. In the meantime, she earned a master’s at George Washington University in 1971, taught, raised a family, and created Kids on the Block.
Aiello encourages those considering a midlife career change to face their fears and try. She was forty-eight when she took the plunge and began her rabbinical studies. “The hardest part was making the decision to do it. Once past that, the rest was relatively easy,” said Aiello. Now she looks toward her next goal, teaching the faith for twenty years. In the year since she was ordained, she has found the profession to be a tremendous challenge, but also incredibly rewarding. “I’m pleased with the life I have had. It has made me a better rabbi.”
Editor’s Note: Readers interested in more information about Kids on the Block may access the organization’s website at http://www.kotb.com/.