Finishing Four Years

4 yearsAs Melissa mentioned, she and I were at an event where we got to talk to several rebbetzins in the field. As we sat around the table, I realized, possibly for the first time, that our time as students is ending. Real life is just around the corner.

The rebbetzins spoke about their journeys – the first congregations, where they met their husbands. Most knew already that their husbands were rabbis – unlike us, who came to it already in the relationship. But R graduates in a few short weeks, and we already know where we’ll be next year (more on that to come, I promise), and so my perspective has shifted. The questions about work-life balance aren’t theoretical, but will rapidly become practical.

It made me realize, also, how much time has passed since we started this journey to the rabbinate, and how different (or not) it looked from what I expected. From my computer in Chicago, I had no idea what to expect. I still don’t yet know the day-to-day realities of “rebbetzining” in a congregation. But I know a lot more than I knew then.

In the past four years:

  • I’ve started and finished a graduate school program in Non-Profit Management and Jewish Studies (thanks NYU!)
  • I’ve held several internships and job
  • R started rabbinical school, set to graduate in June
  • R started a master’s in Modern Jewish History at YU, set to graduate in two weeks
  • We haven’t moved anywhere, although the bookcases in the apartment are multiplying (they’ve doubled in the time we’ve been here!)
  • We’ve met amazing, wonderful, intelligent people that we’re honored to call colleagues and friends
  • Almost five months ago, after two years of struggling with infertility, I gave birth to our beautiful daughter. I’ll write more about that journey soon.

So much has happened, and yet, so much will happen in the next few months. R and I both feel like this is the year we become adults – parents and a new career direction. Life changes like this make me introspective, so I have sense that there will be more posts like this. I also have a whole set of posts languishing in drafts. Watch this space.

“New” versus “Groundbreaking”

yeshivat maharat

post by Jessica

The Times of Israel recently posted a beautiful article about the upcoming Maharat graduates (we posted the article to the RR facebook – it’s here, if you’re interested). It takes the time to profile each of the graduates and talks a little about the opportunities they face. Plus, the nice pictures are awesome. Just this past Shabbat, the Chicago Tribune ran a great piece about Rachel Kohl Finegold, who was hired by Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Both pieces, while appropriately realistic, were also celebratory.

As with a lot of news, sometimes it’s good to ask “Is this worth all the fuss?” After all, maybe this is just my friend Rachel (we were congregants of hers in Chicago) taking on a new job. As the Tribune points out, Rabbi Lopatin hired Rachel in 2007, before there even was a Maharat program.

So, what’s new? What’s groundbreaking?

Without the opportunity for recognition, some women have gone elsewhere. Finegold has watched friends abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers, secular lawyers or CEOs instead.

“How sad is that for the Jewish world to lose a leader?” Finegold said. Not to mention, those women still feel the sting when they walk into the shul on Shabbat, she said.

“Women are Ph.D.s, CEOs and running for president and then they have to bifurcate their identity when walking into a synagogue where they don’t feel like full participants,” Finegold said. “That can be hard. When women participate in every other area of their lives, this feels like a glaring omission.”

The groundbreaking part? The way in which Maharat is trying to address this issue. It’s the first time that Orthodox Jewish women have been trained on the model of Orthodox rabbis, deliberately, in an institutional setting, not just one-on-one. Given the way Orthodoxy has been struggling with this place of women, it’s a very big deal.

As a society, we value training and credentials. Sure, there are stories of this teacher or that prominent person in the community who is self-made, without education, but most of the time, we look for the qualifications, something that tells us, yes, this person knows what he or she is talking about. Even in my own program, when a friend and I got down about some of the course work, I called it our “entry fee” – things we have to get through to gain the degree. And once we have the degree (in not very long for me), it opens a world of possibility.

The kind of training these women are receiving will prepare them to be leaders of the community in a way that we haven’t had in the Orthodox community. The value (and controversy) of having this kind of institution is that it legitimates women’s leadership in a way that it hasn’t been in Orthodoxy. So, the answer? No, this is way more than just Rachel getting a new job. We’re seeing something new in the community – not just one woman here or there, but a real chance for a place – and a career path. At the end of the Tribune article, they talk about Shayna Lopatin (age 12) seeing Rachel as a role model. And that’s something that’s also groundbreaking.

It won’t be easy. We’re going to be “groundbreaking” for a while. There’s a reason we use that term – the word connotes moving earth! There are the myriad issues in our own community, not the least of which is what, exactly, these women will end up calling themselves (the school is granting Maharat). And we know from the experience of the liberal denominations that even once there are women rabbis, the issues don’t end. I don’t think we even know yet, exactly, what it will be like in the future. Just by doing what they’re doing, they’re already changing the landscape. For what I mean, see a piece written by another friend for the Lilith Blog – Rabbis in Red Lipstick.

There’ll be more new, old, unchanging, ever changing issues.

But for now – I’m so immensely happy for and proud of the three graduates, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Around Our House

In honor of our new look, just some fun little tidbits from around our house:

After R talked about textual difficulties between versions of the Yerushalmi:

Jessica: There we go! We don’t argue, we have girsa issues!

At the beginning of the school year:

R: You know you’re going to the right school when you get cool points for having borrowed your wife’s Mishna Berura for class

At Shabbat dinner with R’s chevruta:

Me: I end up getting 30 minutes of backstory to explain the puns.
Chevruta: I feel your pain, I’m there when he makes the puns.

In my Medieval Jewry class:

Professor: I thought about bringing my [medieval] Kabbalistic sex manual, but decided that would be too much.
Student: Oh man, that sounds like fun!

A friend, after a management class:

Friend: I met my friend for coffee the other day, and she’s having trouble at her job. I was able to give her advice, and know what I was talking about. GRAD SCHOOL WORKS! *high five*

Who is Lily Montagu?

Montagu

Lily Montagu – Post by Jessica

One of the nice things about being back in school, particularly in grad school, is that there is often the thrill of discovery. With the Non-Profit Management side of my degree, it’s often about some new technique or approach that I’m putting in my “bag of tricks” for later use. In the Jewish Studies program, it’s generally more intellectual, the kind of thing that’s like “wow, the world is more interesting than I thought.”

Those moments make all the late nights worth it. Because I was taking a LOT of Jewish Studies last semester, I needed paper topics. I was floundering for one in particular, until I asked a friend what he thought. He suggested someone named Lily Montagu. I needed to analyze a primary source, and apparently, she had written a memoir. As it turned out, she had written a lot of things.

Born in 1873 to a very wealthy Orthodox family, Lily decided early on that Orthodox Judaism as it currently stood had very little to offer her as a woman. With little access to religious texts, yet still with an interest in a personal religious experience, she began to create religious services that spoke to her, first in the form of a religious service ostensibly for children (although often attended by women), and then through services held by the Jewish Religious Union, who held additional services on Shabbat afternoon. For a long time, she continued to try to work within the system, but eventually, it became clear that they were outside the realm of Orthodoxy, and began, in earnest, to try to create a movement. Through her alliance with Claude Montefiore, they began to form congregations.

This was a very painful break for her personally, since her father rejected the idea of reform, and in his will, forbade her from using the money towards the cause. As the movement grew, however, she remained heavily involved, helping to create the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and even housing their headquarters in her home for many years, until they were moved to New York. She also regularly led services and spoke from the pulpit, with her address at the WUPJ conference in Berlin in 1928 the first time a woman had spoken from the pulpit in Germany. To this day, Liberal Judaism, the new name of the Jewish Religious Union, is still housed in The Montagu Center.

I found her story fascinating in general – but there were two aspects that made it even more interesting. First, the reasons she left Orthodoxy, and second, that her story is largely unknown and unstudied. Lily was given a secular education comparable to the non-Jews around her, while at the same time being denied access to Jewish texts. She saw the difference in what was offered to her brothers, and felt the injustice. This not only meant that she felt isolated from Judaism, but that her ways of thinking about religion were shaped by secular study rather than Jewish knowledge. Her language when discussing religion uses secular imagery more often than not; religion was used as a tool for personalizing secular values. That many women and men found this vision compelling speaks to the fact that this kind of education was common. But it also meant that, aside from her personal feelings of connection to Judaism, she was preaching a version of Judaism that was not compatible with Orthodoxy. It’s impossible to know what Lily would have done with a more rigorous Jewish education.

Still, why her story is largely unknown, even among liberal and progressive branches of Judaism? Ellen Umansky, until recently the only scholar who had studied her in depth, thinks that it might largely be the “fault” of Lily herself. Certain of her activities, such as preaching, were public. But many others, like her efforts to start the JRU and WUPJ were behind the scenes, and Lily deliberately described her own participation as non-essential. Umansky’s research, however, has unearthed evidence that she was often entirely instrumental in these efforts, both doing ground work and providing or gaining access to funding. That Lily’s attitude played better for the historians of the time is debatable – how would they have reacted if she had taken credit where the credit was due? Would there have been greater pushback? Or would it have just made it easier for historians of our time to understand where she fit in? The fact remains that, having grown up in a community connected to hers (both in South Africa and in Illinois), I had heard of Leo Baeck and of Samuel Montefiore, but not of Lily Montagu.

The little hidden gems of history. And hopefully, with a new book coming out about her, she’ll be a little less hidden than before.

Advice Five (Plus) Years In

post by Jessica

post by Jessica

In honor of a friend’s engagement (mazal tov!), I decided to write a post that I have been thinking about for ages, even before our five year anniversary. That’s right, R and I have been married for five years (and 4 months), and it’s been kind of a wild ride. Another friend, when talking about our marriage so far, said, well, you haven’t had a chance to get bored!  I think part of my reservation about writing this is knowing that not all advice is useful in every situation, and that my situation and relationship is different from yours. Not only that, this is clearly formed with the understanding that we are, as a family, very involved Jewishly. So, basically, your mileage might vary, but maybe this will be useful.

Dating and Engagement

You never know where you will find your person. And that person might not be exactly what you expect. We met because we were both Jewish students at school, but on the surface, we were not particularly compatible. We saw things in common that seemed to enable us to overcome our differences – one of which was our commitment to Judaism, living a Jewish life and raising a Jewish family. When we met, our definitions of those were different, but we knew it was important so we dealt with it – many difficult conversations followed. And once we decided we were going to go for it, we sought experiences that would help us become more like one another. Beyond our story, how many stories do you know that begin with “I never thought I’d marry someone who/like/etc.”

That doesn’t mean don’t be looking. Just be aware that it might not look like what you were expecting. Life is exciting and surprising.

I’m not sure if you “just know” that he or she is your person. But I did. I get this question regularly, and while being confident seems to be the norm, it doesn’t seem to be the only answer. But truly, the only person who can answer the question about your relationship is you. And it is a leap of faith. Lots of things in life worth doing are.

Engagement means things are real. Expect that the relationship will suddenly be much different very quickly. The stakes are much higher (even if the relationship was serious beforehand) and it will strain your relationship. Not only that, but it is the first declaration to the world and your family – which brings a lot of stress. Don’t be surprised, and don’t let it shake the foundation of your relationship – even as you are working towards understanding each other better.

Marrying Young v. Marrying Later

There is no magic age. R and I met ten years ago, and started dating almost eight years ago. Because of that, we have become grown-ups together. And that has had it’s difficult moments – we grow and change and have to figure out what comes next, together. We literally don’t know what our lives would be like without each other. And we’re okay with that. People who met later have to figure out how to mesh established patterns together. There is no magic age – just different issues and problems.

Creating Traditions

Understand where you both come from. Things that seem obvious to you can cause problems. For my parents, birthdays and holidays are something special – whereas, R’s family generally was much more relaxed about celebrating. Therefore, it was important for R to know what I expected, because it was so different from his family. And knowing what it meant in each family made it easier to plan joint events as well – fewer surprises for everyone.

Don’t wait, but don’t be afraid to change. That is, start figuring out your ways of doing things. For us, in particular, this means how we do Shabbat and holidays. This has changed with every year and every new living situation, but figuring out what makes us happy has really helped create meaningful traditions.

The Day-to-Day

Make time for each other. And choose to, again and again. Part of this “not being bored” thing I mentioned above means that our life together has changed a lot since we first got married. Each time, we have had to make the conscious decision about spending time together – either when we were working at Hillel and it was about making sure we had personal time and professional time, even as we were working together, or now, when we struggle through the difficulties of both being full-time students. More than that, it’s about making that decision every day, as new things come up. It’s always a balancing act, but an important one.

Hurricane Sandy and the Aftermath

picture from the UK Telegraph, post by Jessica

Hello gentle readers!

As many of you know, we’re located right now in New York City. It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Big Apple, but I am glad to say that R and I are doing quite well. NYU is closed until at least Monday, since there is not enough power on campus to run both classes and keep those living in the dorms comfortable. NYU has a small power generation plant, so even though they are squarely in the zone without power, they have a little bit they can use for emergencies. The Yeshivah is opening again tomorrow, so R has found a way to get to school with the limited bus service, and we’re hoping that subway service will be restored soon. In the days leading up to the hurricane, we bought food, stored water, checked flashlights, and made preparations. Although our lights flickered and the noise from the wind was very loud and intense, in the end, the only damage to our area was some downed tree branches and a rip in the flag at the school across the street. I am sincerely grateful for that outcome.

We have been lucky. In a city this big and this dense, the difference of a few blocks makes all the difference. Lots of classmates and friends have had their lives disrupted in a much more personal way, and I wanted to give some information about how to volunteer or where to send donations if you’re interested in helping out, but are far away. There are many other places looking for volunteers, and a quick google search will help with those. I do suggest signing up somewhere – often going into a disaster area with just a desire to help but without a plan will not be as useful as you hoped.

For those in New York City:

TO VOLUNTEER
* The City needs volunteers for a wide variety of purposes. If you can help, please email nycservice@cityhall.nyc.gov with your name, email address and borough.
* To volunteer with the Red Cross’s relief efforts, contact staffing@nyredcross.org.

For New Yorkers and those farther away:
TO DONATE BLOOD
* To schedule a blood donation or get more information about giving blood, visitredcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767)

TO MAKE A FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION
* To make a financial contribution towards Red Cross relief efforts: visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED-CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
* For comprehensive list of non-profits accepting donations for disaster relief, see: http://goo.gl/288n7

New York has an incredible collection of agencies, officials, first responders, and others who are helping the city to recover. Our city is harmed but not destroyed. The death toll, although no life is insignificant, is impressive given the sheer size of the population of the Northeast. No person can be replaced, but the loss of physical objects is much easier to recover from.

A Year in New York

Post by Jessica

Time really, really flies. I still feel like a new New Yorker, and yet, here we are, just passed our one year anniversary of being here.

So, what have I learned about being a New Yorker? Partially, I feel like saying “Ask me again in another year.” Things move so quickly here that I feel like I hardly have a moment to think about it.

In any case, my somewhat stream-of-consciousness list of ten (plus 1) things. I reserve the right to add as I see fit.

1) I can tell the tourists from the regulars. This is harder than one might think when there is a throng of a hundred people around you, but its getting easier. Most of the time I can’t even say why, but then I overhear them talking about going back to the hotel.

2) I love subways and hate subway stations. Basically, trains are awesome, give or take the occasional crazy person, but the stations are loud and hot and unhappy. And I’m fascinated by subway history.

3) There are things we don’t do because they are inconvenient. In fact, the flight better be free to make it worth us flying out of any airport but LaGuardia. One trip to Newark convinced us of that fact. Or the Target in East Harlem might as well be on the moon. They’re not impossible – it’s just too much for us, right now.

4) I’m still kind of a homebody. Even living in this fantastic city hasn’t turned me into some kind of metropolitan goddess. In fact, I think being in the city makes me need my alone at home time even more.

5) People still aren’t that rude. Really. I wrote about it before – we haven’t had it that bad. Although, I am starting to suspect it might be the neighborhoods I find myself in the majority of the time.

6) Being a two-student couple totally shapes the way we view the city. We have school friends, book clubs and a big difference between what we’re doing during the summer and winter. We vacation with the school schedules and have all kinds of things going on as extra-curriculars. And the budget is everything.

7) I really like our smaller space. I hadn’t really thought about it until a friend posted about minimalism. We’re not really minimalists (the five bookcases in the apartment should tell you that), but I really enjoy that we have figured out how to put our space together so that it is cozy but not cramped, and that we have just enough. And there really is an amazing feeling when you get rid of something, even something small, when you live in a smaller place. Plus, it’s much easier to keep it clean when you realize that just one bowl and a cup will make the coffee table feel really full.

8) Related to “I’m a homebody” – I need to explore the city more. It’s like everywhere – if you live somewhere, you don’t do a lot of the touristy stuff. Not only that, I really need to find my favorite neighborhood coffee spot. It’s the problem with having an apartment that is so comfortable.

9) The sheer scale of the city is still crazy. We went home for a week this summer. I joked that LaGuardia probably had more people in it than the entire town we would end up in, if you include all the passengers and employees. I did a little research. I wasn’t wrong. I see more people between my apartment and the subway than I saw on our entire trip to Target when we were home. And on and on.

10) Yet sometimes, it feels like a small town. I keep running into people I know, often on the subway. Maybe we’re keeping similar schedules, but often it feels like serendipity wrapped in ridiculousness. I have, even, on occasion introduced myself to someone because I keep seeing them. So far, hasn’t turned into any serious friendships, but it has provided some funny conversations.

+1) I love this city and am proud to live here. Watching fireworks on the roof at a friends on the fourth of July – I realized that. Do we want to stay forever? Probably not. But don’t be talking smack about my city either!