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Be Ima — The Bima Can Wait

I don’t have time to write this blog because I have an infant on my lap. But I am driven to write because I do not hear my voice represented in the discussions about motherhood and the rabbinate.

Recently Rabbi Jill Levy, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote on The Sisterhood about how reluctant many congregations are to hire female rabbis, especially those with young children.

I greatly suspect that during rabbinic job interviews when Rabbi Levy and other mothers are asked how they plan to manage motherhood along with the demands of being a rabbi that the real question being asked is this: Why are you choosing a career in the rabbinate over being with your baby?

I don’t think congregations are concerned with how motherhood might interfere with a mother’s ability to do the job as rabbi; rather, I suspect congregations are concerned with hiring someone who is obviously allowing a rabbinic job to interfere with motherhood. And I have to agree. I would rather see at least one parent at home full-time with her/his baby or toddler — ideally the birth mother, unless the child is adopted. This is what is best for the baby.

I do think that ima eventually belongs on the bima.

But what I am witnessing are my colleagues attempting to do it all at the same time. They are “choosing” to place their babies in the care of others so that they can continue with work and school. It is the Super Mom-syndrome now cloaked as the Super Ima-Rabbi syndrome.

While some women may salute Rabbi Levy for her heroic efforts to graduate on time and maintain an “A” average all the while having two children within two years, I question her expectation that being a woman/mother would not interfere with her ambition to serve as rabbi. Having two children within two years should interfere with attending graduate/rabbinic school full-time and graduating on time, maintaining part-time or full-time work while attending school and maintaining a perfect “A” average.

The impossible model of those who exercise the choice to work, attend school, and have children has a larger effect on all women, albeit unintentionally. For example, I am constantly asked, pressured even — by top administrators, professors, and my colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) when I will return to school. I have “chosen” to take a leave of absence to raise my baby.

I want us to question why we allow our lives to be set up in such ways where we feel that they have no choice but to work or attend school and thus leave our babies in the care of others. I also question why Jewish institutions do not provide full- or even part-time daycare for its students’ children. Moreover, financial aid is set up so that students must take at least six credits; that means a new parent must take on three or more classes in order to qualify for financial aid.

Overall, the crux of the problem is labeling this feminist issue as one about choice. When the need to stay home to raise one’s child is understood as a choice, then it is easy to point to stay-at-home as having made the wrong choice.

And let’s be frank: I could not do what Rabbi Levy did and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. Something would have to give: perhaps my health, my relationship with my spouse or, I suspect, my relationship with my baby.

I agree with Rabbi Levy that all women, mothers or not, should be given the same chance to serve the Jewish community as their male counterparts. But women and men who are parents should be prioritizing serving their babies and toddlers before they prioritize serving the Jewish community. We also need to honor the unique relationship a new mother has with her baby. The attachment formed, especially when breastfeeding, is unparallel to that of the second parents, whether a father or another mother.

We need to allow what rabbinic work we have accomplished up until now to be put on hold, trusting that we will be much better mothers because of our earlier experience as rabbis. If we have set up our lives in which we tell ourselves that we “have” to work or attend school while having a baby, perhaps it is time to reexamine our lives and reprioritize so that we can find a way to be with our children.

My spouse and I have purposefully limited our expenses so that we can afford to live off of one income so that I can be home with our baby. This important stage of three or more years will only happen once and quickly. Be ima … the bima can wait.

Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, who is on leave from rabbinical school at JTS, is the mother of an infant daughter.

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