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Woman, Mom, Rabbi: You Can Have It All

Woman, Mom, Rabbi: You Can Have It All

When I was a junior in high school I wrote a term paper on mothers who work outside of the home. I cannot believe that 20 years later, we are still having similar conversations. Between Melissa Mayer’s controversial declaration that employees of Yahoo may not have the option to telecommute, and the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s upcoming book, “Lean-In,” the conversations continue not far from where they left off from last summer.

That’s when Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article titled, “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” reviving the question of whether successful professional women can be successful mothers and vice versa.

In the Jewish community this is also an area of tension with regard to rabbinic leadership. Congregations, especially those currently hiring, might wonder, regarding the highly visible leadership role of a congregational rabbi, can their rabbi be a woman (and a mom). I would argue that the answer is a resounding yes. 

Of course it depends on the job, the women and their support systems, and it is by no means a perfect balance every moment of every day. But the question shouldn’t be, “Can women have it all?”, but rather can she recognize what she has. This means that “having it all” doesn’t require perfection but rather a constant striving for personal fulfillment while recognizing that no matter what, it is difficult. For either gender, working full time and being a present parent is not easy. As a congregational rabbi and a parent of two boys, 7 and 4, there are times when I feel I haven’t given enough to my kids and there are times when I know that I could have been at work a bit longer or made it to one more meeting.

But something that is challenging can still be very worthwhile and successful. Being a mother is the most important responsibility I have but it isn’t the only one I have. Serving as a congregational rabbi is what I am called to do professionally, for it is not just a job, it is a passion. Being a working mother in a synagogue setting is a tightrope I embrace with love and pride, and I am thankful for the trust of the congregations I have served.

Getting to this point was not easy, though, and I was asked questions in interviews that I knew were only being asked to female candidates: What if my kids got sick? What if my husband was away? How would I accomplish my job?” The underlying question was, “Can you be here for us if you have to be there for your children?” I realize these are questions that will be asked until it is normative to see women in positions of rabbinic leadership. Therefore, instead of hanging my head in despair, I decided to pursue what I love and to encourage others to do the same for the following reasons.

First, the ability to work with people at all ages in all stages of their lives is an honor, and it outweighs the logistical complications of trying to be in multiple places at one time. As a parent myself, it is amazing to be able to connect with parents who are navigating what it means to raise Jewish children. In fact, one congregant stated that having me as the rabbi demonstrated to both her daughters and son that it wasn’t just lip service to say they could be anything when they grow up.

Second, there is great value to raising my children in the life of a shul community. Watching my boys discover nooks and crannies of my synagogue; observing them meeting those old enough to be their great-grandparents, and laughing as they hang out with other children gives me comfort that I am not just creating one home for them, but two.

Finally, the flexibility that a supportive congregation provides a rabbi is priceless, given the toll that such a job could take on my family. I am fortunate to have a wonderful husband who is an active and present parent in our children’s lives, and friends and community members willing to help out when I am needed elsewhere.

I don’t get to the gym or the movies as often as I would like, but I decided that what I lose in “free time” I gain in “meaningful time.”

I trust that the synagogue can function and thrive even if I am not there 24/7. I take my Tuesdays off, recognizing that minyan will proceed and work will continue, and I happily take vacations that my congregants celebrate. Our relationship assumes that even if I am not there 24/7, I am available to them when they need me.

I would argue that “having it all” depends on the moment, and “successful” depends on how you feel. For as the Sages taught, “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his or her lot.” I am rich because I am both a mother and a congregational rabbi, not because I have given up on either. It is tough, but the rewards of blending my professional identity and my personal life define satisfaction with my lot, a “lot” that many professionals, men and women, are working hard to achieve.

I encourage women to give themselves the permission to see that it can work, despite the difficulty. And I encourage congregations to be open to the idea of having a woman rabbi (whether or not she is a mom). Don’t allow fear and prejudice to end a conversation before it begins.

Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue is the only woman leading a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan. You can follow her @RabbiRachelAin or check out

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