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Introducing ‘Pulpit Plus One’

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

I moved to Nashville in July with my husband Aaron, when he was hired as an assistant rabbi and teacher. “Have you met Julie, the new rabbi’s wife?” is how I’m commonly introduced.

It’s interesting to be in a position that’s not a position at all. I wasn’t hired, and I wasn’t technically interviewed — and yet of course I was interviewed! When Aaron was flown out for interview weekends, I was flown out too.

At one particularly intense interview weekend, when we were still engaged, a congregant asked me if I was going to wear a sheitel after getting married. “No, I don’t think so,” I replied, not wanting to dismiss the idea entirely, but also knowing it was very unlikely. “We’ve never had a rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] who doesn’t wear a sheitel,” replied the congregant. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said…because I didn’t.

We landed in a great place, and I feel very lucky. I also am utterly fascinated by the role — real and perceived — of the “rabbi’s wife”, or husband, or partner. Because it can be invested with expectations, and because the role is quite new for me personally, I’m curious to explore what it means (and doesn’t mean) for others in a similar situation.

Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives will be, I hope, an honest and lively look at communal leadership from the leaders who are often neither hired or compensated. The interviews will also include those who have opted-out of the very idea of being leaders by association.

In this Sisterhood series, I plan to profile a wide diversity of individuals who are partnered to pulpit rabbis. Diversity includes denominations, genders, orientations, types of relationships (married, engaged, partnered), and also attitudes towards the whole lifestyle: love it, hate it, “meh” it.

By doing so I hope to illuminate a role that is complex by definition. It’s not that I want to shatter expectations or impressions, but rather show the nuances of the role and the variety of approaches to it.

Overall, it’s been wonderful — and complicated, and funny, and occasionally heart-breaking — connecting with those I’ve already interviewed. Please be in touch if you’d like to be involved. And I hope you all feel as I do: that these normally untold stories are important to share.

Someone here recently asked if I’ve had to change my behavior in any way because of my public role in the Jewish community. The answer is yes — in ways big and small, though mostly neither unpleasant or unanticipated. But at the time, sitting at a coffee shop on a wintry morning, my mind whirred as I tried to think of an answer that was both true and didn’t have any teeth.

“Well, I curse a lot less,” I said.

Julie Sugar is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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