Meet the rebbetzers: Husbands of female rabbis find the role challenging, fun

At first, Roger Studley wasn’t sure what to call himself: Rebbetzman? Hubbetzen? Nothing seemed quite right. Finally, he chose “rebbetzer” as a substitute for rebbetzin, the traditional term for a rabbi’s wife.

Studley is a rabbi’s husband.

Married to Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Studley typifies the male subset of rabbinical spouses.

Until a few decades ago, it was a role filled exclusively by women. Then, in 1972, Reform Rabbi Sally Preisand became the first American woman to be ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination. Today, “rebbetzer” is a role that husbands of rabbis appear to embrace wholeheartedly.

“I feel honored to be able to support her in that role,” Studley, 45, says. “I feel like an ambassador of the synagogue, so I want to act ambassadorial. That part is not hard. It comes with the territory and I’m happy to do it.”

He says he tries to “take off her plate” whatever tasks he can, which isn’t always easy, since he works, too, as a part-time research analyst, and the Berkeley couple has a 1-year-old son.

“It’s not just that she’s a rabbi with a really demanding job,” Studley says. “It’s also that she’s a new mom. That’s extra hard on her also.”

In most respects, the job of rabbi’s spouse is gender neutral.

Roger Studley and Rabbi Chai Levy at home with their son. photo/cathleen maclearie

It requires adjusting to a rabbi’s long, sometimes unpredictable hours. The rabbi not only oversees the spiritual life of a congregation, but also attends numerous board and committee meetings (not to mention being on call for family emergencies). That means the spouse often takes on the bulk of domestic and childcare duties.

Mostly, it means supporting one’s mate in a demanding career.

Rabbi Dvora Weisberg is director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. She teaches rabbis the importance of setting boundaries between their personal and professional lives.

She says that back in “the dark ages” before women were ordained, the typical rebbetzin did not work outside the home. Her “job” was to attend services, work with the sisterhood, help with fundraisers and be a smiling presence in and around the congregation.

Weisberg says men who marry rabbis face no such stereotypes.

“The default assumption is that men have jobs,” Weisberg says. “So when [congregations] hire a woman rabbi, they expect men have something else to do. There aren’t as many a priori expectations.”

However, Weisberg does perceive some finer distinctions, depending on whether the post is as a senior rabbi, an assistant rabbi, a non-pulpit rabbi, or a rabbi at a Hillel or a Jewish day school.

For the most part, at congregations with multiple rabbis, only the partner of the senior rabbi would be expected to fill the role of rebbetzin or rebbetzer, she noted.

However, for Studley, whose wife is the lone rabbi at Kol Shofar, the role falls to no one but him. And while he says being a rebbetzer has been a mostly positive experience, he also says that it does sometimes require a black belt in multi-tasking.

James Gracer and Rabbi Judy Shanks

“There is tension at times,” says Studley, who works a flexible, part-time schedule at an education consulting firm so he can care for the couple’s son. “Her job is really demanding. By making my job flexible, there is an imbalance. Sometimes its difficult for Chai, who wants to be a mom.”

Levy, 40, acknowledges the challenges, but feels gender counts for less than it once may have.

“In our generation, there aren’t the same expectations, even on wives of rabbis,” Levy says. “I was a rabbi as a single person for several years before I met Roger. So I got into my own routine before I was part of a family. The congregation and I didn’t have expectations of Roger, but once I got married, and especially having a kid in the last year, he has really shown up in a more active and supportive role, and everyone has responded positively.”

Like Studley, Raj Abbasi stays home to care for an infant son, while his wife, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi, serves as rabbi of San Francisco Reconstructionist congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community. He says playing Mr. Mom to an 11-month-old, a concept unknown in his native India, is a role he loves.

He chose to quit his job as a restaurant chef to take on the role. “I’m very open-minded,” says the 40-year-old Abbasi. “I follow my family’s needs.”

James Gracer and Rabbi Judy Shanks with their daughters in 1986

A Jew by choice, Abbasi notes that he has been warmly welcomed into the Or Shalom community, and that synagogue members understand the challenges he and his family face. “She’s working with a wonderful community,” he adds, “and I’m really having a good time there.”

Like Levy, Mizrahi, 38, longs for more time with her child. She says the rabbinate was originally designed as a job for “men whose wives stayed home.” Absence from the home can be an occupational hazard for female rabbis with young children.

“I’m still nursing him,” she says. “Even if Raj is a full-time dad, I still have certain responsibilities only I can have with my baby. I do miss my baby and I feel some guilt, but I don’t worry because I know my husband is doing a great job.”

Studley and Abbasi, both married for only a few years, have not been rebbetzers for all that long. However, James Gracer is an old hand at it, having been married to Rabbi Judy Shanks for more than three decades.

Shanks has been a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette for more than 21 years, and before that she served as head rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond for seven years. When Shanks’ career was beginning, back in the early 1980s, there weren’t as many rebbetzers as there are today, but Gracer says his experiences have been positive from the outset.

Well, almost. After his wife’s ordination, she applied to be a Hillel rabbi in the Midwest, but during the interview, she was told in no uncertain terms that the rabbi’s spouse was responsible for cleaning up and cooking the Shabbat meal.

After it was made clear that Gracer was busy establishing his new medical career, Shanks never got a call back. But that was then, and Shanks’ two jobs in the East Bay proved to be perfect fits for Gracer.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says, “because both times I landed in a place that had open arms, not only for their rabbi, but for the clergy family, too. [Temple Isaiah] is an easy place to be who I am.”

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Gracer came of age in the 1960s as part of an active synagogue community with a male rabbi. He doesn’t remember the rebbetzin at all, which suggests she had a largely invisible presence at the synagogue.

That’s not the route he chose to go.

A psychiatrist with a private practice in Walnut Creek, Gracer is a familiar face at Temple Isaiah. He sings in the choir, helped lead a temple trip to Israel and taught an adult education class with his wife. The topic: psychoanalyzing the couples in Genesis — he is a therapist, after all.

His presence has been a comfort and an asset, Shanks says.

“It’s hard to do alone,” she says of the rabbinate. “I’m incredibly fortunate to have someone who is so supportive and integrated in the life of the community.”

The couple’s two children are grown, so child care is no longer an issue for them. But when their kids were small, Gracer took on the bulk of home child care, just as Studley and Abbasi do today.

Preparing for the realities of the rabbinate is part of the curriculum in the Jewish world’s many rabbinical training programs, but spouses, fiancés and boyfriends of rabbis don’t have a seminary of their own. They learn the ropes as they go.

For Studley, that included feeling a certain pressure to remain careful about what he does and says around congregants.

“I am a representative of Chai and an informal representative of the synagogue, so I do need to be on my best behavior and I might open up a little more slowly than I normally would.”

Raj Abbasi stays home to care for an infant son, while his wife, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi, serves as rabbi of San Francisco Reconstructionist congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community.

Levy sees her husband as a partner in her rabbinate. He shows that partnership in ways big and small: He serves as her chief sounding board, offering feedback on sermons; he belongs to the men’s group; and he plays on the synagogue softball team.

At a recent bar mitzvah for which she officiated, she noticed Studley and the bar mitzvah boy talking together, bonding over “cool funky sneakers” they both owned.

Levy also admits that while it can be a bit distracting, she enjoys having her family attend services she conducts.

“It’s neat for me to be part of a rabbinic family,” Levy says. “A lot of jobs are separate from your family life, but in the life of a rabbi, you’re a teacher and a role model on how to be a Jew and a Jewish family.”

While sewing one’s family into the fabric of synagogue life is nice, it’s also important to carve out “sacred family time” away from the synagogue, Mizrahi notes, which she does by taking Tuesdays as a midweek “Sabbath.” The phone is turned off, the email inbox goes unchecked. It’s just the rabbi, her husband, and baby makes three. “The community understands and respects that I need time for something other than congregational [work],” she says.

She stresses that female rabbis are striving to create a new model, rather than simply trying to be men rabbis.

For her that can mean taking her baby with her when teaching Sunday school, or having her husband hold the baby during services (as she leads them).

“Feminism is not just having women doing what men can do,” Mizrahi says, “but valuing what women have always done, and having men do those things, too; having men care for children, so women can be leaders.”

Indeed, it’s a partnership that has to go beyond gender stereotypes.

“I completely admire the fact that Chai is a rabbi,” Studley says. “I come home from a day of meetings and say I worked on this project, solved a problem and the client is happy. She’ll say, ‘I helped a family lay their mother to rest.’ There’s a significance to what she does that’s on a whole other level compared to what most people do on a day-to-day basis.”

It’s that sort of impact that has already changed the way the Jewish community thinks of rabbis.

Gracer, for example, remembers when his wife announced she was leaving Temple Beth Hillel, and the search for a replacement rabbi began.

“When they were interviewing rabbis,” he recalls, “one of the young kids in the congregation said, ‘I didn’t know a man could be a rabbi.’ His whole life experience was with a woman rabbi.”

 

cover photo   |   cathleen maclearie

pine-dan
Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.