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Pulpit Plus One: Putting All His Chips In

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.

Justin is a 32-year-old adjunct mathematics professor, who grew up Protestant and is a convert to Judaism. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Lisa and their eight-month-old daughter. Lisa works seven days a week on the rabbinic team of a very large Reform synagogue.

When you were dating, what was it like for you when your partner decided she wanted to be a pulpit rabbi?

It’s weird now that I think about it years later: it wasn’t anything that came up. In my Jewish journey I was so into Judaism and into learning, that it wasn’t like: “Why would you want to do that?”, it was: “This is awesome!” It just kind of happened, that she was going to go to rabbinical school, and everything was going to be fine.

How was being in Israel for the first year of your wife’s rabbinical program?

Well, it was awesome because we got married. I couldn’t get a job because we were only going to be there eleven months (they see that on your visa and they’re like, “I’m not going to train you to leave in ten months”) so I got to study at the yeshiva, and I babysat, and I learned to cook.

One of the things that HUC — that’s the Reform rabbinical school — did that was really nice: the spouses had their own listserv. So every other week we would meet up, where it was just us, and have lunch or a Shabbat picnic, or something. It was almost like a support group, because we were all giving up something to be with our spouses for this year in Israel: we couldn’t really work, we couldn’t do anything, we were just kind of floating there. Trying to figure out, you know, “Hey, what are you up to? Oh, you’re studying there, is that any good, do you like it?”

How did you feel about being the spouse of a rabbi, going into it?

Going into it I hoped it was everything that my wife and I thought it would be, that it would be fulfilling, and that in the end she would get a job that she really enjoyed. Because for me it was kind of putting all my chips in. I was moving to Israel, getting married, and after that, the next four years were in Cincinnati — and for my career, there were no real jobs in Cincinnati.

And I was wondering if I could actually do it! You know: find a job, find something that I love, find new friends…all those things. Luckily, she loves her job here, but if it was more like the experiences of other rabbi-friends that we have, we’d be moving either this year or in a couple years. That would mean I’d be reinventing myself for the fourth or fifth time — I was really scared about that. It’s hard enough trying to figure out what you want to do for a living, but to try and figure out what to do for a living multiple times is a scary proposition.

What’s been challenging, and what’s been rewarding?

It’s challenging sometimes to deal with the expectations that people have of me. I’m not a trained rabbi, and yet people come up to me and ask rabbinic-type questions, with the understanding that I should know the answer — and if I don’t, maybe it’s a representation that they don’t need to know it. So it’s like this weight of Judaism that I feel is on my shoulders, that I’m not trained to deal with. I struggle with that.

At the same time, we have these bumper stickers that have our temple’s logo, [and] it’s hard having the bumper sticker on the back of my car. When I’m driving, I’m thinking that all these people could be congregants, and if I cut someone off, or if I’m speeding — that could reflect badly on my family and on my wife, which is nuts. And it seems nuts, but I’ve actually had congregants text me pictures of me in the car, saying, “Hey, where are you going?” But I leave [the bumper sticker] on my car because I think it’s a good reminder for me to consider all these things and try to be a better person.

So that’s what’s hard. What’s really rewarding is just being a part of this great, massive community, having these endless resources, and the weird thing is — being a spouse, these people who are complete strangers, somehow they let you into their world, without even knowing you!

I know intimate things [about] some of these people, and they come and talk to me about it. I have to remember to ask them, “Does my wife know about this?” because they’ll make the assumption that I’m going to tell her (and I want them to tell her because that’s not my role) — but it’s amazing to be so close with so many people.

Do you feel like you’re “on” all the time? Are there any times where you feel like you can be “off”?

If there’s a time where we want to be off, we have to go outside of our immediate area. The congregation is just kind of everywhere. Like if you go to the Target down the street, you’re going to run into ten people; if you want to drive twenty minutes to the other Target, you may see less people.

We have these few restaurants that we don’t tell anyone about. They’re hole-in-the-walls, the food is okay, but the main thing is that my wife and I can sit and have a nice (not that it wouldn’t be nice otherwise, but) just have a different experience than when she’s on, and when I feel like I’m on.

What effects has this role had on your relationship, or on your family?

Our whole life revolves around this job. I don’t know how if you didn’t enjoy or like Judaism, how you could do it it’s just so tough to put so much into it. And the reason that it works for our marriage is that I believe my wife is completely grateful and knows everything that I do, and [that] if I said it was enough, she would drop her dream job, and move to a small congregation, or whatever I wanted.

That’s the toughest thing: the amount of time it takes her away from our family. I had this misconception before we had a child that I would bring her to all the services, and I would bring her to all the youth group events, and all the meetings — we could make it work, and I would be there as much as possible.

[laughs] But in reality, anything past six o’clock, she is just a ticking time bomb! So it’s been kind of hard for me — because I love going to services and I love doing all the stuff — to not be able to.

Do you have any advice for other partners of pulpit rabbis?

You learn the number one thing is [to say] “It’s so nice to see you” instead of “It’s so nice to meet you.” Just because, you know, people get offended if you don’t remember them. Some people at the congregation are really great; they’ll be like, “Oh, I know you have so many congregants, my name is blah-blah, we met this time and this time” — that’s how they introduce themselves every time, and it’s really helpful.

And other people…the number one advice I can give is to use that line instead of “nice to meet you.” Every time, just say: “It’s so nice to see you.”

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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