My Rebbetzin, on being a Rabbi’s Wife

Post by Melissa

This past Shabbat I had an opportunity to take a five mile walk with my Rebbetzin, T,  who is also in the truest sense of the word – my Rav (teacher, spiritual leader).  While T and I had a great conversation as always, the end of it proved the most meaningful and powerful this week.

T asked me how I saw myself as the wife of a Rabbi. Do I see us as a team, where what I am an integral part of D’s Rabbinic experience and the community in which we will live? Or, do I view that his job will be to be the Rabbi, and I can do whatever I want outside of that.  That I would be working in my chosen profession, and just so happen to be married to a Rabbi.  T then shared that the greatest piece of advice she had been given was that congregations “do not hire Rabbi pairs.”  That piece of advice, is likely to be one of the best for me as well, not in any direct way, but because of what it implies.  That ultimately, while a Rabbi’s spouse is an integral part of the interview and selection process, you are not the one the community is paying to be their leader. Especially because D and I definitely view my role as being a huge support to him and as a part of the community leadership.  I naturally engage with people and love to be an active part of any community I am, so to disengage that when my husband is the Rabbi, seems quite unnatural and unlikely.

T has a Masters in Social Work (like me) and a Masters in Jewish Studies.  I asked T what she would do if she could do it over again, as I too try to decide what my next step is.  While I will not share her answer so as not to sway my readers, I will say it was quite enlightening – both what she would do and the reasons why.  While they are very personal reasons, they were things based on the positions she has found herself in, as both a Rabbi’s wife and a Jewish communal leader.  The conversation really affected my own thoughts about the process and gave me some insights I was not lucky enough to have garnered in my own years on earth yet.

I hope to have many more conversations with many more people as I find my path, and trust that the right people will be brought into my life to help light the way.  I know I am extremely blessed to have the support system that I do who will always share their own backgrounds so that I do not have to learn everything on my own.  I hope that you too, can create such a network for yourselves.

{As an aside, just a reminder that if you have ever had a negative Mikvah-lady experience to please email me. We need more of your stories if we are going to make any changes.}

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11 thoughts on “My Rebbetzin, on being a Rabbi’s Wife

  1. Be aware that many congregations want to have their cake and eat it, too. They expect the rebbetzin to work extra hard on community issues, yet they want her to know her place. Not all, mind you; but certainly not uncommon. Unfortunately, I suspect it is more true in Orthodox communities. They expect the rebbetzin to be the paragon of the Jewish homemaker, including of course inviting the whole shul over for a meal every Shabbat, and they expect her to take the lead in all hesed issues in the community; but she better have nothing to say on running the community because they hired her husband, not her. Some communities have explicit expectations of the rebbetzin stated in the hiring process; some are more passive/aggressive about it.

    Then, there are the shuls that highly value the rav, and treat his wife with honor and deference. But I don’t know that those are the main.

    Keep it up on the mikvah campaign! I heard a very interesting rav last week, Rav Katz, from Brooklyn. It was mind boggling how much he understood about women’s concerns at the mikvah. But some rabbanim need to be better informed.

    • Thank you for the comment! I know that it’s an issue that probably needs more attention – especially in the Orthodox community. Being expected to spend the majority of your time and energy supporting your husband’s career is really an old model of how may careers used to work. There are still doctor’s wives clubs and that sort of thing, but for the most part, people don’t expect it nearly as much as they did before. Except for this particular career. I do think it is slowly changing, though.

    • Thank you for sharing your insights on the topic Rav Mordechai. I have definitely seen both of those experiences in communities, and hope I am one day able to make the best of whatever comes my way. (Though, my husband would love to wind up down in your neck of the woods.)

  2. firstly – more mikvah on my blog. all mikvah all the time 😉

    secondly – the position of rebbetzin is an interesting one. I have been a member of congregations where the rabbi’s wife was no involved and it was a source of tension within the congregation. If you are the rabbi of a shul you need to have a spouse that CAN engage with your people – it is SOOO important.

  3. Ok, it’s still Alison but wordpress has me logged in under a different ID. No biggie 😉

    Brief rebbetzin-related anecdote: I made a friend while studying abroad in Prague many years ago. This friend worked at the Chabad preschool but was not a Chabadnik herself, in fact her father was an Orthodox rabbi with his own congregation in Rome. I thought it’d be awesome to go visit her and stay with her for Passover (which coincided with my Spring Break that year, score!). Except she forgot to tell her mom. And there were two young men already staying there. So they made me (the non-observant “shiksa” Jew) stay in a hostel down the street. Also, her mother said, in front of me, in Italian (which she assumed I didn’t speak, but I do), “Why does everyone always expect me to be the hotel?” and made me feel horribly unwelcome. Needless to say, I have bad memories of Rome.

    • What an atrocious way to treat a guest! (For insights on how I feel guests should be treated, check out my post today – coming soon as of the writing of this comment)

      • Melissa, I agree – but it definitely addresses your discomfort at being taken for granted by your community. Who knows – maybe this woman’s husband wasn’t a rabbi when they first got married. Maybe she never wanted “this life” but got stuck with it after a few years of marriage and now feels completely put-upon. I have to give her *some* benefit of the doubt, even though I was treated in a very un-rebbetzin-like manner.

      • Its not only un-rebbetzin, its pretty un-Jewish. You are right though, and she could have had a very rough week and just not been up for company. We can never know the back story fully, and we have to forgive her and assume only the best. 🙂

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