"And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a help meet for him.’" (Genesis ‘:18)
When the man is a rabbi, what becomes of his "help meet," the rebbetzin?
Gathering at the yarchei kallah were, from left, Julie Yanofsky-Goldstein, Fair Lawn; Debbie Baum, New Milford; Sharon Zwicker, West Orange; Gila Midaodownik, Highland Park; Chaviva Rothwachs, Teaneck; Ayala Rockoff, West Orange; Efrat Sobolofsky, Bergenfield; and Ruth Glasser, Passaic.
Any rebbetzin worth her headcovering will recognize the following scenario: a congregant approaches at kiddush on Shabbat morning, eager for her attention. At the same time, she has a todddler hanging on either arm, demanding lunch. A young mother and doctoral student in medieval Jewish history at New York University, Julie Yanofsky-Goldstein, who is married to Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Cong. Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn, can relate. Fully invested in the role she says "comes without a job description," she nonetheless acknowledged, "It’s difficult to always be ‘on.’"
So, when a notice arrived in the mail inviting her to a conference for rebbetzins, sponsored by the Center for the Jewish Future at her alma mater, Yeshiva University, Yanofsky-Goldstein joined the steering committee to plan the program. In conference calls with organizer Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, committee members from across North America "voiced the challenges and issues to be addressed. Most of us haven’t been trained to be Jewish leaders," said Yanofsky-Goldstein.
The three-day yarchei kallah, convocation, for rabbis’ wives, drew 44 rebbetzins, most in their ‘0s and 30s, to Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck earlier this week. In addition to Yanofsky-Goldstein, seven rebbetzins from Bergen and Passaic counties participated.
Shoshana Poupko, who took a day off from her job as a Judaic studies teacher at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck to attend, found the experience valuable. With a long commute, she said, it has been hard to figure out how to break into the large community in Englewood where her husband, Chaim, serves as assistant rabbi at Cong. Ahavath Torah.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, serving in his first pulpit at Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, urged his wife, Ruth, to attend. "The rabbinate is by no means an occupation that consumes only the rabbi. The whole family, especially the wife, plays a prominent role in servicing the synagogue," he asserted.
The impetus for CJF’s second annual gathering of rebbetzins, as well as for last year’s inaugural event, said Schacter, Teaneck resident and senior scholar at the CJF, was personal experience. A pulpit rabbi for about 30 years, Schacter was certainly familiar with the joys and pitfalls of the rabbinate for rabbinic couples and their families. More recently, as a member of the faculty at YU, he’s run a professional enhancement program for young rabbis. "It was very clear to me that their wives are a very essential part of their work and very often the happiness of their wives is essential to their success in their careers," observed Schacter.
With the committee’s guidance, Schacter assembled scholars and more seasoned rebbetzins to present a series of workshops and mentoring sessions that would empower the participants to grapple with the challenges and complexities as well as the opportunities rabbis’ wives face. Registration was limited, he said, "because we felt we needed a small group in order for this to work."
Targeting this age cohort, Schacter explained, maximizes YU’s "investment in rabbis and their wives when they’re younger, so that they can benefit over a long career." That, in turn, enhances the benefit to the Jewish communities they serve.
Speakers included YU president Richard Joel; Rabbi Kenneth Brander, also a Teaneck resident, dean of YU’s CJF; and Dr. David Pelcovitz, a mental health professional who grew up the son of an Orthodox rabbi. Pelcovitz spoke about raising healthy children and recognizing cases of mental and physical abuse within Orthodox families. Peshie Neuberger, faculty member at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth and rebbetzin of Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, gave a talk on teaching the laws of family purity, which often falls to the rebbetzin.
Schacter’s wife, Dr. Yocheved Schacter, a psychoanalyst with a practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, led one of the mentoring groups.
In her morning session on Tuesday with nine rebbetzins, Schacter fielded questions about setting healthy boundaries with congregants in order to preserve their own physical and mental health. "They want to be involved in community life. That’s why they’re here," she observed. All were interested in how Schacter balanced her roles as rabbi’s wife, professional and mother. "My message is that women can have everything, but not all at the same time," she said.
She also spent time addressing issues that can arise between husband and wife. "I stress the importance of communication with your husband about his work and what you can and can’t offer in a responsible way to congregants."
On Wednesday, Schacter’s session was devoted to the basic elements of counseling: how to listen and respond to congregants and how to know when to refer them on to someone else. Rebbetzins are traditionally on the frontline in helping congregants deal with grief over the loss of a loved one, with domestic abuse, or with parenting challenges.
"This is an initial stage," said Yanofsky-Goldstein, summing up what the conference had achieved. "We’re already talking about forming committees, listserves, blogs to keep in contact with each other. [We now have] a support group to help us find enrichment in our own communities, even as we are part of a global community that is the rabbinate."