For Single-Mom Clergy, Public Role, Private Path

For Single-Mom Clergy, Public Role, Private Path

New documentary chronicles stories of four women and their non-traditional choices.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

While davening in her parlor office one sunlit morning several years ago, Rabbi Felicia Sol had a revelation: If she were to pursue her dream of becoming a mother even though she was single, she would still have the possibility of finding a husband — she might just be shifting the order around. The notion that pursuing parenthood on her own wasn’t all about loss proved to be liberating. Soon after, she went to see a doctor to explore possibilities. Rabbi Sol, one of the spiritual leaders of B’nai Jeshurun and one of the most prominent women rabbis in New York City, is now the single mother of a son and daughter.

With considerable candor, she and three other Jewish women who are clergy tell their stories of nontraditional choices in the documentary, “All of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother.” Along with Rabbi Sol, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, associate dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Julie Greenberg, who leads Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir in Philadelphia, describe their experiences. The fourth, cantorial student Basya Schechter, founder of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter and music director at Romemu, an Upper West Side congregation, tells of being in the process of pursuing motherhood.

Produced by Debra Gonsher Vinik, founder of Diva Communications, “All of the Above” has the feel of an intimate conversation. The film is now airing nationally and can be seen in New York on WABC-TV on Sunday, April 13 at 5 a.m.

This isn’t an issue that has gotten much public attention. The decision to become a single mother is a complicated one, all the more so for these women who have very public leadership roles. As clergy, they’re role models for spiritual, moral and religious life. It wasn’t that they chose to be single mothers so much as they chose to bring more Jewish children into the world.

These are women who know how to turn a phrase — they speak with great eloquence. Their stories unfold through separate interviews, with footage interspersed of them at work, whether teaching or performing, or at home snuggling with their kids. Schechter is seen playing with nieces and nephews.

Their stories vary. For three of them — Rabbi Sol, Rabbi Gelber and Schechter — their childhood visions of family life were traditional. They put considerable energy into finding a partner, but as they got older and found themselves still unmarried, they didn’t want to put aside dreams of having children. So they moved ahead, making what was once considered a radical choice. The decision also involved some mourning about what wasn’t going to happen.

Rabbi Sol says in the film that at age 35, she began thinking about becoming a single parent. “You know, I never thought that was going to be in the cards for me. I don’t think anyone thinks that.”

Schechter, who grew up in the haredi world, comments on camera, “I think I waited a very long time because the dream of finding someone to spend your life with and to build a family with was so deep, and I think it still is so deep — I kept thinking that the next person I met was going to be the one.”

“I can’t say that I’m like a hundred percent ready yet,” Schechter continues,” but it’s a letting go process. It’s like you can’t always let go without tears though.” Openly, she tells of experiences with doctors and adoption lawyers.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Schechter says, “It could have been a film just about triumph. My part of the film is about the painful process.”

Rabbi Greenberg, the oldest of the group and a lesbian, knew from an early age that she would build her own family. Pregnant during rabbinical school almost 30 years ago, she now has five children — she gave birth to the first three and adopted the youngest two from Guatemala. She raised them on her own and had one year when three were in college: two at Brown and one at Yale.

In an email interview, Rabbi Gelber says, “Creating my family in the way I did was not what I dreamed of as a little girl (or even as an adult). However, as I remind my daughter, she was in my imagination for a long time, and, as she reminds me, she was in my heart even longer.”

They also discuss what has changed — and what has not — for women in the rabbinate. To her surprise, the Emmy Award-winning Vinik wasn’t able to raise funds for this film, as she had with earlier productions. She plans to expand this into a 90-minute feature film, with additional stories.

Rabbi Sol reports that many women have already sought her advice.

“What having a rabbi in this role does it says that one, it’s not that simple. That you don’t get the picture perfect life dealt to you on a silver platter,” Rabbi Sol says. “And that everyone in their own way has to plow through their life with some sense of faith about what’s possible and who they’re meant to be in this world and what’s asked of them.”

“All of the Above” can be seen on WABC-TV on Sunday, April 13 at 5 a.m. There is also a public screening at B’nai Jeshurun, 257 West 88th St., Manhattan, on Wednesday, April 30 at 7 p.m.

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