By Adina Shmidman
Recently, a congregant asked me to speak to her daughter, a young woman who would soon fill the position of “rebbetzin,” to give her some words of encouragement and advice. I immediately agreed and offered heartfelt congratulations and my most sincere wishes for all to go well, for her and her new community. But, knowing how difficult and complex the role can be, I had to give some serious thought as to what I would say to the new rebbetzin.
Being a rebbetzin, truly filling the role, can be challenging and a great deal of work. Responsibilities often range from hosting meals to visiting sick congregants to supporting families through challenging times and reaching out to the unaffiliated. And there is always the added challenge of juggling one’s home, family, and job “on the side.”
The flip side, however, is the reward–not just the heavenly payback, but the earthly satisfaction. Forging deep, meaningful emotional bonds with the congregation and knowing that you are changing the course of Jewish life in your small corner of the world is incredibly gratifying.
So, when I met with this young woman, my first message to her was to embrace the position. I explained that the scope of the position–including adult and youth programming of all kinds, preparing and delivering public and private Torah classes, and hosting guests and congregants–may seem overwhelming at first.
But I reassured her that, just like in a new marriage, there is an adjustment period, and the union of the rabbinic couple and their congregation is a relationship that develops over time. While there are many demands on your time and a seemingly endless list of responsibilities, the most exciting part of the position is the opportunity to experiment with every one of your unique talents and strengths to get the job done. And your new “spouse,” the synagogue and its members, loves you more with every skillful and creative contribution and idea.
As expected, her first question was about managing her communal responsibilities while holding “another job.” It was at this point that I clarified that the role of rebbetzin is somewhat self-defining. There are some rebbetzins who play a less visible role, while others take upon a more public one. To some extent, the individual can set those boundaries. On the other hand, the size of the community often dictates each synagogue’s unique demands.
Living in a small community may obligate the rebbetzin to fill gaps that her counterparts in larger communities may never have to worry about. For example, teaching taharas ha’mishpachah (family purity) classes, being a mikveh (ritual bath) attendant, or joining the chevra kadisha (burial society) may come into play.
Ultimately, however, the extent of a rebbetzin’s involvement and the parameters of her contribution should be outlined by her and her husband, defined in the context of their specific synagogue and its needs.
“Is there a checklist of things a rebbetzin must do? How does a rebbetzin know where to spend her time and what to focus on the most?” I was impressed with the extent of her questions and took a moment to formulate my response.
Whether it is something as simple as the delivery of a home-cooked meal or kind words at a momentous life-cycle event, the rebbetzin’s presence and the investment of her time means everything to her congregants. It communicates that she and the rabbi value their congregants and are cognizant of their needs. The sense of accessibility and warmth created by “being there” for the congregants–both physically and emotionally–when needed is more important than any checklist of tasks.
The role, I added, extends far beyond the walls of the synagogue, and includes sharing the beauty of Torah Judaism with everyone you meet, whether in the supermarket, at the park, or at the public library. By virtue of the leadership role, the rebbetzin has the ability to connect with people in a unique and meaningful way.
I noted, once again, that being a rebbetzin poses some serious challenges. Perhaps the most difficult is realizing that you must “share” your husband with the synagogue while making sure that “the job” doesn’t spill over into the rabbinic home. It can be intense knowing that you are your husband’s partner in this holy mission, that so much rests on your shoulders. But it is also empowering when you realize that it is your devotion to him and the family that keeps your home vibrant and strong.
As our discussion came to a close, I suggested that she seek out a mentor and a support group. Every rebbetzin, I explained, should have a safe place to voice her concerns, learn from others’ experiences, and develop her skills. It will help her solidify her goals, better understand how and when to set boundaries, and give her the encouragement and support she needs and deserves.
I recommended the Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yeshiva University Yarchai Kallah for Rebbetzins, an annual gathering that provides a nurturing atmosphere, facilitates open discussions between peers, and makes seasoned rebbetzins more readily accessible for consultation.
As we parted, I reminded her that the rebbetzin’s ultimate challenge is building and maintaining meaningful relationships with others while still nurturing herself and her family. The rebbetzin is a force to be reckoned with, a force that shapes her community and adds various dimensions to her husband’s position. The successful rebbetzin is one who experiences fulfillment through her role and is able to maintain a solid sense of self while working for the greater good.
Sensing a newfound clarity, optimism, and confidence in my new protÃ©gÃ©e, I wished her well and sent her on her way to change her small corner of the world. And I was happy to return to mine, having renewed my own sense of excitement for this incredibly holy work. v
Adina Shmidman received a Ph.D. in educational psychology from City University of New York, an M.S. Ed. from Queens College, and a master’s in Jewish education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. Following a nine-year stint as the rebbetzin of Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, Alabama, Adina now serves as the rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Adina will be attending the YU/CJF Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yarchei Kallah for Rebbetzins on January 7—8, 2013 at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey.