I believe some of the most important unsung heroes of non-Orthodox Judaism are the spouses of pulpit rabbis. We don’t pay them, but more often than not, we expect them to devote their lives to our synagogues. We want them to attend every social occasion, be there near the front of the sanctuary on Shabbat evening and morning, to recognize all of us by first and last name, and to be able to chant the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah whenever someone is needed for an aliyah.
Beyond that, we’d like the rabbinical spouses to perhaps help teach a class, or pitch in as a volunteer, to be a confidante, and a back channel to the rabbi. And woe to them if they disappoint us in any of these matters. We will huff that they are “standoffish’ or not supportive of the rabbi, and, worse still, an unfitting role model.
Perhaps America’s First Lady, or the nation’s Second Gentleman labor under similar expectations, but can you imagine anyone else in this country being similarly burdened? Imagine your spouse is the vice president of a small company. You are told that you must attend every company function, no matter what else is on your calendar. Do your children have team sports they need to be chauffeured to? Would they like their parents to root for them in the stands? Is your teenage daughter preparing for her first prom? Maybe a grandparent can help get her ready. You’re needed and expected elsewhere.
How long would you put up with such expectations in any non-rabbinical job situation? When would you declare in no uncertain terms: “Listen, you hired my husband/ my wife, not me, and I have other matters in my life that require my attention”? Could you dare speak up like that, if your spouse’s contract was up for renewal? Or would you grit your teeth, put on a smile, fake it till you make it, and pretend to be all the things that these non-family members expect of you?
And yet, as a young rebbetzin shared with me the other day, even as different congregations have different expectations, so too do rabbinical families have their own sets of priorities. The rabbi may be starry eyed with idealism, wanting to help every member of the congregation, and hoping to demonstrate a good Jewish neshuma, but the spouse has other more pragmatic issues to worry about. Is the synagogue paying a big enough salary to the rabbi to enable the family to live in a nice home, to afford the necessities as well as a few luxuries, to send the children to good schools, and to have sufficient time to bind together as a family? Or are they taking the rabbi’s time every waking hour of the day, so that the children consider the rabbi to be an absentee parent, and you wonder if the rabbi is the spouse you thought you were marrying?
This is the time of year when rabbinical contracts are entering their final phases, when boards and rabbis are deciding whether to remain in each other’s company for another contract period or, if not, to submit their names to rabbinical organizations for help in new placements.
My advice to the rabbis interviewing and providing guest sermons at various congregations in the hope of finding a new job, and to the congregational boards that are seeking new spiritual leadership is to show compassion, rachmanis, for the rabbi’s dependents. Board members should try to imagine if they could willingly work under the expectations they set out for the rabbi and spouse. Rabbis should remember that the needs of their families are paramount. In contract negotiations, these are the issues that can be worked out amicably, if each side shows respect and empathy for the other.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World