Pulpit Plus One: 'I Built My Own Castle'

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

“Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives” features the voices and experiences of the partners of pulpit rabbis. In this interview series, “Pulpit Plus One” takes an honest and lively look into the nuances of a complex role.

Tamar is a 36-year-old Jewish communal professional in a role of considerable leadership. She grew up Orthodox and moved away from the movement as a young adult. Her husband is the senior rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Massachusetts. They have four children.

You’ve been married for over twelve years, and your husband has been a pulpit rabbi for almost that long. What were your feelings going in about being married to a pulpit rabbi?

I had a lot of visions and fantasies, and things that I thought living that life would be…and I was totally wrong! [laughs]

What did you think that role would look like? How were you wrong?

Well, a lot of this does come from my Orthodox background, because I didn’t understand what it meant to be in a real Conservative synagogue. I grew up in an Orthodox community, and so I had a lot of rebbetzins [Yiddish, “rabbis’ wives”] who cooked big Shabbos meals, and had a lot of people over.

I thought that’s what that would be: you were your husband’s partner, and leading a community, and that it would be very warm, and we’d be helping people…and I thought that people would like me! I was not prepared for the judgement. I was not prepared for being looked at almost as a celebrity.

And going back a bit further — what was your husband’s job search like for you?

I think the craziest interview story that I have is when I couldn’t come out with my husband to interview at a shul [synagogue] in Florida, because I was sick. And so they decided that that meant that there was something wrong with our marriage. They had a psychologist from the shul call me to discuss my marriage with them, and why I didn’t come out.

The reason, we found out, was that the previous rabbi had been one of these sketchy characters, and had an affair with a congregant, and left his wife, and all that. And rather than saying that, they started making things sketchy for me.

That’s wild. Once interviews were over and you got to Indiana — or at the pulpits since — were there any expectations placed on you?

The biggest expectation is that people assume I know what’s going on in the synagogue. Even today. People assume that I know what’s going on in [their] private lives — which I don’t. My husband is extremely good at keeping things confidential. Sometimes I end up looking stupid, because somebody will assume that I know about a divorce, or an affair (we dealt with it all). When we got to Indiana, actually, that was when a congregational affair came to light. [laughs] Way to break you in!

Sometimes there are things that were…I don’t know if I told you the story of the woman who I pissed off so much by ignoring her at a dinner at someone’s home that she told everyone that my husband shouldn’t do her funeral. You know, and I was just trying to be nice; I thought there was someone else there that I was supposed to be sitting with, that the host had asked me to spend more time with.

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

Do you feel like you have to be “on” all the time?

I used to. If you had asked me this ten years ago, when I was learning how to be a rebbetzin, I would say, “Yeah, of course I have to be at every service, of course I have to be at every project or program — of course.” And I don’t feel that pressure anymore.

Also, I’m such an all-or-nothing person, that it was my personality to completely throw myself into the community. At first, that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. [But] as the years have gone on, I have felt that it’s a healthier choice for me to build my own career. It’s a healthier choice for our marriage, it’s a healthier choice for me, it’s a healthier choice for our family.

Obviously you’re familiar with the term “rebbetzin”. How do you feel about that title?

My colleagues know they can get my goat by saying “the rebbetzin” something — they know that I hate it. I don’t think I exhibit any of those characteristics. I have a girlfriend who, when she has congregants who get sick, she brings them chicken soup. That’s not Tamar. I won’t know if people are sick. I probably won’t even know their names.

So you’re a little hands-off.

I’m not a little hands-off, I’m a lot hands-off [laughs]. At this shul, I got the impression that they did not want me to be involved.

Also, my husband does not like it when I’m that involved in the shul. I have a strong personality, I have a career in my own right, and it’s healthier for our relationship if I’m not. We haven’t figured out how to balance it; I’m sure other people have figured it out a lot better than us. We didn’t have good boundaries between ourselves, and I would say sometimes we still don’t have good boundaries.

It’s also caused tension because I’m not sure that the community we’re currently at is a community that I would choose as a spiritual place for myself.

Can you say more about that?

Meaning that in my own spirituality, I have felt very lacking in the last ten years. I have felt like I don’t have the luxury of exploring a shul for myself, I don’t have the luxury of thinking about what would be best for my kids, for myself, for what I think I would like…I don’t even know what I would want at this point, to be honest, because I’ve been sort of forced to be part of communities.

One thing…the community we were at in Connecticut was not egalitarian. However the ritual director and a lot of the “important” people would go to McDonald’s after services every single Saturday. But I mean, God forbid a woman gets up on the bima [platform where Torah is read].

For me, that was offensive! It was just flat-out offensive that I had to be a part of this community that, for whatever their own reasons, wouldn’t let women on the bima, but then they eat treyf [non-kosher food].

And I had to be part of things like that, that I didn’t like, and so at that point: do I have a shul? Do I not have a shul? What can I do to enhance myself spiritually? I had little kids, so I guess I ignored it at the time. But now that my kids are older, it’s a bigger issue for me, and my husband and I are exploring what that means, and what that means for my spirituality, and my life.

What advice would you give to a rabbinic search committee regarding the role of a spouse or partner?

If you have expectations, make them clear. Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that of course she’s going to do X, Y, and Z. And be clear with what you want, because there are shuls who definitely do want the rebbetzin, and that’s fine, but they need to be clear about that. And then there are shuls like my husband’s shul right now, who did not want the rebbetzin.

My shul now sees me as an asset because I’m out in the community. That’s what they see as my contribution: I’m active in Federation, and active in the day school, and active “out there”. They’re very happy that I’m doing that.

But you know, do some sort of cheshbon nefesh [soul-searching] with your search committee about do you want a rabbinic couple? Does the family matter for you? And don’t be shy — I feel like a lot of times [search committees think] “Oh no, we can’t discriminate!” No, you need to figure out what you want.

Maybe the reason things worked out so well here is because we understood their expectations. I was able to find a career that I wanted; I was able to build my own castle here that has nothing to do with him. So maybe that’s why we’ve been so happy here.

Identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity. This interview has also been edited for length.

Julie Sugar is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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