Being a Rabbi, a Parent, and a Jew
As Erev Shabbat approaches, my little family is all getting ready for shul and even the toddler is excited. He’s running around the apartment singing “Shabbat shalom, hey!” and keeps saying how much he wants to go to shul. The moment we walk into the doors of our synagogue he starts running around the lobby. We wrangle him to remind him we are going into shul, not only into the building. He refuses to calm down. I send my husband in to daven mincha. I eventually get the tot into the sanctuary, but then he wants to be with his father, so I have to catch my husband’s eye and get our son to the men’s side. Once we enter the vestibule to do the hand-off, the kid again refuses to go in. So we tag-team pray and parent. And so it goes, week after week.
In this clip, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses remembers an instructor who wrote the weekly schedule for being a rabbi on the blackboard. Cohler-Esses raised her hand to inquire where Shabbat preparations fit in and, seeing him totally stumped by the question, realized that the model being presented to her was of a married rabbi, whose spouse would be in charge of taking care of everything else, including the kids. This experience, of the married rabbi model with full time spousal support as the assumed and unspoken norm, deeply resonated with me.
A question that haunts me, and I know many others, is over who takes on the household and child rearing responsibilities when both parties “need” to be in shul. This dilemma applies to any couple where both members feel a desire to be present in their synagogue community. It becomes even more confounding in families like mine because my husband and I are both Orthodox Jews and both future rabbis. We both feel obligated to pray (at roughly the same time), and sometimes both have professional responsibilities in the synagogue—yet our children also need to be tended to. So, who is supposed to do that? Which one of us will have to have the sub-optimal spiritual or professional experience at any moment in order to parent? And how do we decide?
Do I get up early and go to the early minyan because I’m a better early riser, despite the fact that my husband would enjoy its style more? Does one of us pray at home, and then wrangle the toddler while the other spouse prays in the synagogue? Do we take turns? Or, do we just pray at home and give up on being in the communal space entirely, a “luxury” we only have right now because we aren’t currently working in pulpits? Do we just accept that our prayer time is limited, and our engagement and connection to tefillot diminished for this stage of our lives? Or do we give up on the idea of Shabbat as family time?
Clearly, none of these options are ideal. Programming for children in synagogue is helpful, but inevitably cannot fit the needs of every member—and it typically doesn’t cover the entire duration of tefillah. We could get a babysitter, but we want our children to be a part of our Shabbat. Both of these options ultimately separate families on a day which is often one of very limited times we have together. Having children welcome in the sanctuary is extremely important, but requires a lot of children and of parents—and inevitably makes parents less attentive to their prayers. We need to find a way to communally recognize (and appreciate) the needs of our rabbinic families, and all families where both parents have a desire to be in shul. We need to create an atmosphere that welcomes children throughout the synagogue building. Children’s groups and babysitting need to span the entire time of services, and early minyanim need to end with enough time for parents to make a switch before the main service. In Orthodox settings, spaces need to be created for children to pass between parents on opposite sides of a mechitza without having to exit the sanctuary. Quiet toys and books should be available for kids who would rather be in the sanctuary with their parents, and tot-sized chairs should also be available so that kids can feel welcome and not merely tolerated. Better yet, let’s create services in which kids are not merely welcomed, but incorporated—in which both parents and children are encouraged to pray. Let’s provide lots of options, so we can give families plenty of leeway in figuring out what works for them.
Historically, the decision of who should have a lesser spiritual experience in order to be a present parent has been gendered. Today, we cannot assume that one partner is available (or willing) to meet all of the parenting needs in any family, regardless of the genders of the people involved. We certainly cannot reasonably expect rabbinic spouses to bear the load alone while we rely on their co-parent to be our rabbinic leader. We must build in structures that accommodate the spiritual life of both partners in all our families, and reimagine the role of the rabbi in ways that do not assume they have a particular kind of family structure.
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How to cite this page
Scholten-Gutierrez, Melissa. "Being a Rabbi, a Parent, and a Jew." 22 May 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/being-rabbi-parent-and-jew>.