Recently, a congregant asked me to speak to her daughter, who was planning to become a Rebbetzin, to give her some words of encouragement and advice. I immediately agreed and offered heartfelt congratulations and sincere wishes for all to go well. But, knowing how difficult the role can be, I had to give some serious thought as to what I would say to the new Rebbetzin.
Being a Rebbetzin can be 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 the added challenge of juggling one’s home, family, and jobs.
The flip-side is the reward – not just the heavenly payback, but the earthly satisfaction. Forging deep, meaningful bonds with your congregation and knowing that you are changing 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, 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 your 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.
Her first question was about managing her communal responsibilities while holding another job. 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 hamishpacha (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 took a moment to formulate my response.
Whether something as simple as the delivery of a home cooked meal or kind words at a momentous life-cycle event, the Rebbetzin’s presence means everything to her congregants. It communicates that she and the rabbi value their congregants and their needs. The sense of accessibility and warmth created by “being there” for the congregants – both physically and emotionally – when needed are more important than any checklist of tasks.
The role, I added, extends beyond the walls of the synagogue, and includes sharing the beauty of Torah Judaism with everyone you meet, in the supermarket, the park, or the public library. By virtue of her leadership role, the Rebbetzin can connect with people in a meaningful way.
Once again I noted that being a Rebbetzin poses some serious challenges. Perhaps the most difficult is sharing 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.
I suggested that she seek out a mentor and a support group. Every Rebbetzin should have a safe place to voice her concerns and learn from others’ experiences. It will help her solidify her goals, better understand how to set boundaries, and will 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.
As we parted, I reminded her that the Rebbetzin’s ultimate challenge is building and maintaining meaningful relationships with others while nurturing herself and her family. The Rebbetzin is a force that shapes her community and adds dimensions to her husband’s position. The successful Rebbetzin is one who experiences fulfillment through her role and maintains a solid sense of self while working for the greater good.
Adina Shmidman received a PhD in Educational Psychology from City University of New York, a MSEd from Queens College, and a Masters in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. Following a nine-year stint as the Rebbetzin of Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, AL, Adina now serves as the Rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, PA. 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, NJ.