I received one of my best parenting tips while trapped in a dentist’s chair. Big with my first baby, my voice quieted by the examination, I was an obvious target for advice. My dentist, a mother of three, leaned over conspiratorially. “Don’t let them tell you what to do,” she said.
By “them,” she explained, she meant grandmothers and friends and all of the well-meaning observers on sidewalks and subways who tend to wonder aloud as to whether a new mother might be dressing her baby suitably or arranging for the best childcare. The yentas — as Yiddish speakers might say — who insist they know better.
As every experienced parent knows, there’s more than one loving way to raise a child. That’s why it was so infuriating to read the essay posted last month on The Forward’s “Sisterhood” site by a new mother and rabbinical student who declared that mothers should really take a hiatus from the working world.
In the essay, “Be Ima — Bima Can Wait,” Chasya Uriel Steinbauer responds to an earlier post by the newly ordained Rabbi Jill Levy. Rabbi Levy had complained that in job interviews, she was asked, “over and over again, how I planned to manage motherhood along with the demands of being a rabbi.”
Steinbauer countered: “I suspect congregations are concerned with hiring someone who is obviously allowing a rabbinic job to interfere with motherhood. And I have to agree.” Steinbauer says her colleagues suffer from the Super-Ima-Rabbi syndrome.
It’s true that many rabbis, particularly those who serve as spiritual leaders of synagogues, work intensely long hours. Their evenings include teaching sessions, their weekends include Shabbat with the community and their nights may include an emergency call from a distraught congregant.
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, who has four children between the ages of 2 to 9, worked for eight years at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. She stepped down because, she says, “I didn’t want to have two marriages.” She felt deep love toward her congregation, but yearned for a greater separation between her career and family life.
Now, instead of 70 hours a week, she says, she puts in about 40 hours, and focuses on writing, speaking and television appearances. And yet, Rabbi Hirsch observes that many of her rabbi-mother friends do in fact thrive as synagogue rabbis.
“My life is busy, full and sometimes overflowing, but I love all the different pieces in it,” says Rabbi Dana Saroken, who has three children, ages 3, 5 and 7, and serves as associate rabbi at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.
In several respects, the rabbinic career actually offers benefits to children that other high-profile jobs don’t. Thanks to flexible hours, Rabbi Amy Walk Katz at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass., e-mails, “I can attend school programs, I am available for parent conferences and I can do school pickup on a fairly regularly basis.”
Rabbi Saroken loves that her two daughters attend preschool in the same building where she works, and that they are growing up in a Jewish community shaped by their mother.
Rabbi Susan Grossman, one of the elders in this new cohort of rabbi-moms, has raised her son Yoni from babyhood on the bima. As an infant, Yoni stayed on the pulpit on Saturday mornings, cuddled in his mother’s lap.
Rabbi Grossman, who for the last 14 years has served as spiritual advisor of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md., admits that during Yoni’s younger years, she often missed his bedtime. On the other hand, her hours allowed flexibility, and “every night I was home for dinner; every night I was home for homework.”
In addition, she says, “a pulpit rabbi is not alone in difficult times,” which invariably arise throughout parenthood. Congregants reciprocate the love a rabbi directs toward them. “I’m not saying there aren’t downsides, but compared to the upsides, it’s really priceless.”
Rabbi Grossman believes that rabbis seeking jobs should speak with the interviewing committee openly — but kindly — about their expectations. They could explain: “We have a great opportunity for the congregation to learn how to balance work and family lives.”
For now, the Super-Mom-Rabbis — and I use the term without cynicism — often get by with a little help from their husbands, and, in some cases, little sleep.
Rabbi Saroken is often out four nights a week, but says, “I always feel like I have time with my kids, whether it’s before work or after,” or by sneaking in a few moments during the day. After her evening commitments, while her children sleep, she spends time with her husband. Between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., she writes eulogies, prepares classes and sermons.
“I’m in love with my life,” she says.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com