Last Saturday I opened the Post-Gazette to find Ronna L. Edelstein’s well-written, yet challenging First Person essay, “Losing My Congregation.” In it, Ms. Edelstein reflected on her mostly unhappy experiences as a rabbinic spouse.
As I read her words, I thought how different two people’s experience of a common reality can be. One rebbetzin (the Yiddish word for “rabbi’s wife”) is left cold by her superficial interactions with community members, while I feel warmed by the depth of connections I have with the members of my community.
A life with people is a challenge in the best of times and a blessing in the worst.
To be a rebbetzin is to have a front row seat on it all — not in the front of a sanctuary, per se (unless you like to sit there; with two young boys in tow, I prefer an aisle seat near the back). Rather, to be married to a rabbi, minister or priest is to locate one’s family life in the midst of a congregation; it is to live a life with people up close and personal.
This should not surprise us. The time and effort members of the clergy devote to their appointed rounds places them in the very midst of life itself. And because we who marry a clergyperson share in our spouse’s daily routines and rhythms, we find ourselves in life’s midst as well.
I know from sharing my life with my rabbi husband, the work they do is sacred work. And as their sacred professional responsibilities carry expectations for each of them personally, alas, so is it also true for their families.
For example, given that more people know who our spouse is than we know, and more people recognize us than we realize, life can feel as if it’s lived in a fishbowl. Further, there are often unarticulated expectations that can be a challenge for us to meet. And Ronna Edelstein is right, there is a small subset of folks who either fancy what our private lives might include or feel no compunction about sharing their latest thought about our spouse’s work ethic or fashion sense.
However, for the record, in spite of welcoming guests into our home on any number of occasions, we have never had snoops in our closets nor had to place our children as sentry over our bedrooms. I cannot say for certain that our cart has not been scoped out at the Giant Eagle. And if you have thoughts to share about the length of my husband’s sermons or shirtsleeves, please call on him at the office.
I understand that many are the hopes for a rabbi’s family and for what a rebbetzin is. And I won’t lie. Sometimes this can feel a bit much. Our children are aware their father is a public figure and recognize their mother is a presence in her own right. And our children also know that our family is looked to as a model, so they need to mind their manners. But on balance, I feel the inconveniences we face as a family as a result of my husband’s (and my) roles in our community are a small price to pay for the privilege of sharing — and exposing our children to — a life with people.
Folks call our home or stop us when we’re out, so as to share news that can be by turns celebratory or sorrowful. Following our lead, our kids are adept at wishing one family mazel tov, then turning to offer words of sympathy to another. Rather than seeing these encounters as intrusions, we use them to deepen our own sense of life’s wonder.
But most of all, I am proud of the relationships we have created as a result of our positions within our Jewish and wider communities. I take particular joy in those friendships that deepen my connection with others, cross interfaith boundaries or involve our entire family. That we can afford our children an opportunity to share in these experiences — many of them possible only because their dad is a rabbi and their mom is the rabbi’s wife — is one of the proudest gifts my husband and I can offer them. In our family, we are grateful for these blessings and try never to take them for granted.
Living one’s life in the front row of a community can be a challenge, especially when raising a family (and running my own business)! Yet my involvement in the lives of our community, rather than detracting from my happiness, makes me all the more aware of our family’s many blessings.
I feel fortunate and proud to be a rebbetzin. But most of all, I feel privileged to be warmed by a web of relationships that adds such goodness to our lives.
Michelle S. Bisno is president and founder of Achievement in Motion, a management and talent consulting firm (www.achievementinmotion.com). Her husband is Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill.