Rebbetzin vs Rabbanit

I first heard the term rabbanit about a year ago, and always had the impression it was the Hebrew equivalent of rebbetzin, which is Yiddish.

However, a recent conversation in the Midrasha showed me another viewpoint….

One of my classmates said to me that I was going to be a great rebbetzin. To which another responded immediately “No she won’t, she’ll be a rabbanit.” I thanked the first person and quizically looked at the second. She went on to explain that rebbetzin is simply the title one gets by being married to a rabbi and that anyone can be a rebbetzin. In her opinion, a rabbanit is  woman who is educated and respected in her own right, who happens to also be married to a rabbi.

Woah! Now thats an interesting distinction. It sort of had my mind reeling with the implications and questions, but I couldn’t come to any sort of conclusion.

So now dear readers, I ask you — Do you feel there is any difference between the terms “Rebbetzin” and “Rabbanit?” Does one of these trigger a guttural reaction like it did to my friend?

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The women who inspire me….

Post by Melissa (Photo Copyright realphotography.com)

Into each of our lives, come people who inspire us and who we look to for advice and mentorship.  I am lucky to have had a few Rebbetzins as these people in my life, who I can only hope to emulate in some small way when my time comes.  I want to take a moment to talk about the three Rebbetzin mentors I have had to date, and the strongest lessons I have learned from them.

The first Rebbetzin who really made a positive impact on my life and serves as my mental inspiration, is Debbie.  Debbie was always happy to welcome new and familiar faces to both the synagogue and her home.  I will never forget the first time I had lunch at her home and she said the following when I asked if I could help: “This is your first time here, you are a guest.  Next time you come, don’t wait this long. Just make yourself comfortable and do what needs to be done.” Granted, it has been a few years so my recollection may have slightly changed her words, but definitely not the thought behind them.  Debbie also had four children underfoot, so having friendly visitors who could be useful was a great asset.  She was sure to find a balance between making new people feel welcomed and appreciated and treated as guests, and also making sure everything happened and people felt comfortable in her home.

The second Rebbetzin who has strongly impacted my life is Tammy (pictured happily dancing with me at my wedding).  Tammy may be the wife of a Rabbi and the mother of four wonderful teenagers, but her knowledge and wisdom goes far beyond that.  I was recently engaged in a conversation about who our Rabbi’s were, and I had to admit that honestly, mine is not anyone with smicha (Rabbinic ordination), but rather – Tammy.  She is the person I approach with my questions and the one I trust to give me a truthful and halachic answer, that is also relevant to life as a Jewish woman.  Tammy takes the time to get to know the people in her community and to find ways to get people involved.  She is always happy to help connect people to each other and the greater Jewish community.  I know that I can not attempt to count the ways in which she has enriched my life,  including and most importantly – introducing D to our synagogue’s young adult community.

Last, but certainly not least – and certainly not the last Rebbetzin who will inspire me, is Melanie.  Melanie is not only a Rebbetzin in my community, but a very dear friend.  On a regular basis she reminds me, and others, that it is but one of many hats she wears.  While her husband is a Rabbi, she too has a professional and personal life.  She is an amazing mother to her three young children, and is never afraid to get down on the floor and just be a mom.  Her children already love being Jewish and have a sense of giving and tzedakah, which is greater than many of my peers.  Melanie inspires me daily and this is but one small and very special part of that.

Not ironically, all of these women are well educated in Judaism and have social work backgrounds.   Each of them shines a light on what it means to be an educated lay leader and an observant Conservative woman.  If I can take just one thing from each of them, it would be their welcoming spirits and eagerness to meet new people.  They truly will always be a part of me and I cannot thank them for that enough.

Guest Post: A Rabbi Defends Rebbetzins

The following post from Rabbi Josh Yuter’s blog was shared with us last week, and we wanted to re-post it in its entirety here as well.  Thanks to Hadassah Sabo Milner and Rabbi Josh Yuter himself for the outreach on this one.  (The title below is a direct link to the original post.)

Defending the Rebbitzens

The recent controversy surrounding orthodox women rabbis has reignited the general debates of gender discrimination in Orthodox Judaism. Jewish law precludes women from participating in many communal functions such as counting in a minyanor serving as witnesses. Since no such law or statute prohibits women from being ordained as rabbis or rabbinic figures – either in the classical or modern sense of the term – it is understandable if some women view their exclusion from leadership positions as a form of institutional misogyny.

However Jewish society has discriminated against both men and women in leadership positions for generations, often with the communal complicity of self-identified feminists. I am referring here to the expectations and demands of the Rabbi’s wife, better known as The Rebbitzen.

The position of Rebbitzen is unusual in that it is more social than an occupation, yet it assumes innumerable obligations to the community. As the son of a longtime pulpit rabbi, I have observed first hand how much my mother did – and does – for the community, often without recognition let alone compensation. Depending on the community, rebbitzens can be expected to do any number of the following tasks:

  • Entertain: shopping / cooking / cleaning / playing hostess
  • Organize and run shul functions and programs such as events, Shabbat groups / day care, or kiddushes
  • Accompany her husband to communal and private functions in an official role
  • Train bat mitzvah girls
  • Give classes
  • Answer halakhic questions
  • Provide personal counseling
  • Anything else the community demands or expects.

Furthermore, the rebbitzen is often expected to do all these things while raising a family and likely holding down a job on her own.

There are some synagogues which disclose their expectations of the rebbitzen up front in the job description or contract, in which case it is up to the couple to accept or decline the position. But even in these instances, the salary offered by the synagogue rarely takes into account the labor and time required of the rebbitzen in which case she is essentially expected to work for the shul without proper compensation.

This reality would appear to violate the feminist dictum of “equal pay for equal work.” As described by the National Organization for Women:

Women still are not receiving equal pay for equal work, let alone equal pay for work of equal value. This disparity not only affects women’s spending power, it penalizes their retirement security by creating gaps in Social Security and pensions. [Emphasis Added]

Given that a rebbitzen may perform similar functions as her husband – often providing coverage if the rabbi is indisposed – then it is hard to argue that she is not providing similar value to the congregation with minimal if any payment in return.

While such an arrangement may not be consistent with feminist ideals, it is obviously financially beneficial to the communities. In fact the inequality is continually perpetuated by congregations not only their treatment of the rebbitzen, but even in the search process of a new rabbi. Based on my reading of placement lists, the majority of congregations seeking rabbis will only seriously consider married couples even though being married is not necessary to perform rabbinic duties. Even though this type of discrimination is very likely illegal, congregations often ignore the law and their own sense of purported ethics in the prospect of getting cheap, if not free, labor.1

My intent is not to disregard the perceptions of gender-inequality in Jewish society – for the moment I will accept them at face value – but I would like to use the example of the rebbitzen to reframe the conversation. For better or worse, the reality is that Jewish culture (and perhaps all cultures) accepts and legitimates various forms of discrimination, and it is hardly rare for individuals to compromise their beliefs when it is expedient to do so. If the goal of a Jewish community is to incline towards egalitarianism, then it must be willing to do so even it is socially and financially inconvenient. Otherwise, Jewish feminist advocacy will be rightly considered by critics as specific issue-driven politics, rather than a commitment to a true ideology of equality.

1. There are certainly other social reasons for not hiring single rabbis such as perceived maturity and stability. It is possible then that congregations would only be engaging in illegal discrimination rather than perpetuating misogynistic stereotypes.

Josh Yuter is an Orthodox Rabbi currently based in New York whose blogging interests include religion, politics, culture, technology. Rabbi Yuter develops his artistic/creative side though such projects as www.JewishGuitarChords.com, photography, painting, and some truly horrible esoteric puns. Click here to learn more about Rabbi Yuter or send him an e-mail using the contact form.