Melissa’s Story, Part II – Embracing the Rebbetzin Opportunity

I have finally embraced that my greater destiny (indulge me here) is not in being a Rabbi, but in being the supportive and encouraging person at the side of the Rabbi – the Rebbetzin.  I truly believe that being a Rebbetzin requires a similar, yet unique, commitment to Jewish life and learning.  While I love it now, it has been a long road to acceptance which I’ll try to condense for you.

As mentioned previously, I grew up in a “West Coast Conservative” household and my greatest teacher, inspiration and role model was my grandfather who had grown up Orthodox.  As the years passed after his death, I found myself seeking a way to keep his memory alive and an even more present part of my life.  When I arrived at Hillel at my graduate university, there were three male undergraduates who would forever alter the course of my life.  These men all self-identified as Conservative, yet they wore kippot and kept Shabbat and Kashrut; they were educated about Judaism and the movement.  They inspired me to learn more about what Conservative Judaism really stands for, as opposed to what the masses say it is.  For this, I am ever grateful!

The more I learned, the more I wanted to do.  I began to keep Shabbat and found it a struggle to find a way which worked for my graduate student life.  I studied Kashrut with the (fabulous) Rebbetzin on campus.  I attended a conference and spent four days having amazing conversations with Rabbinical students.  As I said my goodbyes, one gave me his email address and said “When you change your mind about becoming a Rabbi, give me a call” – I don’t think I will ever forget that.  I went home with a renewed vigor for Judaism and going to Rabbinical school, though as the end of my Masters program came and went and I relocated to the heart of young adult Jewish life in Chicago, the latter dissipated.

Living in Chicago opened my eyes to a whole new way of life, and my former self every once in awhile was stunned.  We had a community of traditional/observant/religious Conservative young adult Jews who spent Shabbat and holidays together.  That was the life!  However, as often happens, life had other plans and took me to Denver, and while I happened upon an amazing traditional Conservative synagogue and great community – it is not the same.  Over the years since my move I pondered Rabbinical school more – especially as I met and married my husband D who has talked about going since the day we met.  D and I have been able to also greatly challenge and support one another on our quests for a more religiously observant life.

I knew I was going to be a Rebbetzin early on, but could I be a Rebbetzin and a Rabbi myself? I toyed with the idea, even secretly looking at admissions requirements and speaking with a few close friends.  I mentioned my dilemma to a good friend (who recently joked that she has completed her PhD in Rebbetzin) and she reminded me that Conservative Jewry needs educated, observant lay leaders just as much as Rabbis.  She is right.  It was in that moment in her kitchen that I realized I could have it all while enjoying being a Rebbetzin.

{More details about what I have taken on as I became more religious to come as we discuss those topics specifically…}

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12 thoughts on “Melissa’s Story, Part II – Embracing the Rebbetzin Opportunity

  1. :-) I’m so happy that you have found your balance. That shared love for Judaism, Torah and leading is why I first thought that you & D needed to meet. I didn’t know that you had toyed with the idea of becoming a Rabbi (you’d be great!), but I knew that there was/is a Rebbetzin in you.

  2. “They inspired me to learn more about what Conservative Judaism really stands for, as opposed to what the masses say it is.” — I know the feeling. I started becoming observant when I realized that even though I was committed to Judaism and proud of being Jewish, that nevertheless, I didn’t know what it really meant or entailed. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what inspired me, which makes it difficult to answer people’s questions. I remember it all started with my reading Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy and Rev. Abraham Cohen’s Everyman’s Talmud (the latter is extraordinary – think of it as a 300-page version of Bialik’s Sefer ha-Aggadah), but I don’t remember why I was reading those books, as my standard reading material was things like Upgrading and Repairing PCs and Atomic Maximum Power Computing. :P

    I’m not exactly sure why you decided not to become a rabbi after all. I understand that you realized that you could have (almost) “it all” as a rebbetzin, but that still doesn’t explain why you didn’t/don’t become a rabbi too. Is it simply a cost/benefit analysis – i.e., is it simply a weighing of the benefits of being a rabbi (over being a rebbetzin) versus the costs of being a rabbi (i.e. the schooling, whereas becoming a rebbetzin involves less)? In other words, did you realize that being a rebbetzin gives you 90% of the benefits at 10% of the cost, roughly speaking, more or less? What I get from your post here is that you decided not to be a rabbi after all … for some reason or another. … ?

    • A very good friend of mine, who is a Rebbetzin and also once aspired to be a Rabbi, reminded me of the need for educated lay leaders in our movement and communities. While Rabbis provide a great service, so do lay leaders. I realized I could still have the learning and leadership, without the title. (I thought I had touched on that towards the end, but if it still doesn’t seem clear, I can reword it…)

      • You’ve made me realize the need for a clarification: when you think of a rabbi, do you primarily think of someone with a pastoral office, or someone with a professional degree? On the one hand, we have Western European Jewish clergy who lacked semikhah and who were referred to as “reverend”, and on the other hand, we have people with semikhah who do not occupy any office whatsoever in the congregation and whose occupation has nothing to do with anything Jewish.

        If the need for educated laymen dissuaded you from becoming a rabbi, it would appear you are viewing being a rabbi as more of an office than a degree. For if you viewed semikhah primarily as a degree, then you could be an educated layman with semikhah. Only if you view semikhah as primarily an element of office, does it make sense to forgo semikhah and become a layman instead.

        Is what I’ve said correct?

      • Not quite… I believe semikhah is about the learning, and the title grants an ability to do a wide array of things not just to be in a congregational setting. I think it is possible to have semikhah and not work in the Jewish community even, however once you hold the title you are inherently no longer just a lay leader, regardless of how you position yourself in a community. Try as they may, Rabbis who teach or run camps will still be looked upon as Rabbis wherever they daven on Shabbat…
        That said, there is also a large cost associated with the only Rabbinical School where I would consider applying to, and I can get the same quality education from the institution in a graduate program and by osmosis of being in the environment.

      • Okay.

        I still think we have a slightly different perception of what semikhah, but I think this is due to our respective sociological conditions. If JTS is your only option, then you are perforce influenced by the fact that JTS is a rabbinical seminary. If, however, you are Orthodox, then you are faced with ten-bajillion yeshivot all over earth, who primarily teach Torah lishmah, and who merely offer semikhah as something on the side.

        In other words: semikhah as an office and as a degree are two diametrically opposite extremes, but there is still a continuum in the middle, and I think that our views on semikhah are influenced by our options and our lives, and while we may not occupy the extremes, each of us is still further to one side or to the other. You may not see semikhah as purely a factor of public office, but you’re closer to that side of the spectrum than I am; I myself would never see a layman with semikhah as anything but a layman. (Not that I wouldn’t respect him for his learning, but he’d still be a layman to me.)

        I’m not criticizing you; I’m just trying to dispassionately analyze.

        I recall that Rabbi S. R. Hirsch was concerned by the influence of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary because, even though he completely supported Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, nevertheless, he was concerned that too many laymen would erroneously believe that higher yeshiva education is unnecessary for laymen. Rabbi Hirsch, in his writings, constantly – and I mean constantly – criticizes parents who deny their children Jewish education on the grounds that their children won’t be “theologians” anyway. He usually speaks of children, but he had the same concern for young post-high-school adults. Rabbi Hirsch ardently desired to found a non-clergy-oriented seminary, and while he never was able to, his son-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Breuer did, founding the Frankfurt yeshiva. But even then, many of the congregants erroneously believed that Rabbi Hirsch would have opposed the creation of a non-clergy-oriented yeshiva. For years, the Frankfurt yeshiva was filled with students from Hungary, and it was years before native Germans started attending it.

      • Wow, I just realized that my viewing semikhah primarily as a degree and not as an office fits well with my political views. I dislike government, I dislike religious denominations, and I’ve deflowered the rabanut of its political tones. At least I’m consistent, eh?

      • I think the key component is the options… As a woman I do not have the option to attend those sort of yeshivot. Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the only female with semikhah in Orthodoxy and that is a huge “controversy” in and of itself as is her ability to do anything or even have it acknowledged. Though, I do personally know many Rabbis (of both genders and varying denominational/community affiliations) who have experienced what I described before which was a contributing factor in my decision and likely my friend and Rebbetzin’s.

      • Actually, there are one or two other Orthodox women with semikhah (such as Haviva Ner-David), but I’m just quibbling; I’ll concede your point.

        Also, there are plenty of women’s midrashot that offer the exact same level of learning as men’s yeshivot, the only difference being that you don’t get a fancy title at the end. But the learning itself is the same.

        By the way, I fully believe that women should both be able to receive the title as well as be clergy in the synagogue. For now, I’ll just say that I’ve yet to see any halakhic justification for holding otherwise.

        But I’m still quibbling. I’ll concede your basic point that your being a woman likely has influence on your views in this matter. As I said, our respective sociological positions (Conservative versus Orthodox) and opportunities (male versus female) likely influence our views on such matters, to some degree or another.

      • There is also a difference in what semikhah means and entails in the different worlds in which we reside. I will not profess to be the expert, however, I do know there is a very different approach and finalization of the process.
        Thanks for the article :-)

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