Jessica Cavanagh-Melhado and Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez are the authors of Redefining Rebbetzin.com, a blog featuring the perspectives and experiences of both women as they make the journey “from wives to rabbis’ wives.”
In the blog, they are confronting the stereotypes and expecations that come with the title of rebbetzins, and they write on a variety of Jewish subjects, especially issues surrounding feminism and women’s issues. Scholten-Gutierrez is a social worker, educator, writer, mentor and mikveh advocate. Cavanagh-Melhado is currently pursuing a double master’s in non-profit and public administration and Jewish studies at New York University.
Chanel Dubofsky: What concept of rebbetzin are you interested in exploring/dispelling?
Melissa: There is this old stereotype of a rebbetzin being a frumpy woman who stays at home, cooking with kids hanging from her skirt — and one look at our blog will tell you that that is far from who we are! A big part of what we’re exploring is how people view contemporary rebbetzins and contrast that with this Old World sterotype. I don’t think we could have dreamed it would be in the place it is not just a year and a half into it!
Jessica: There’s the new phenomenon in the traditional world of women leaders in congregations, and having to figure out the role of their spouses. Those two things together I think formed the kernel of this idea. There is a lot of ground between what women and men out there are experiencing and what the traditional notion is, and that’s really interesting. The dynamic of two friends ending up married to two guys who want to be rabbis seemed a little unlikely, given our backgrounds. It really compelled us to share our stories.
What’s your definition of feminism? Is this a feminist project?
Melissa: Feminism is about empowering women to be whoever they are, wherever they are, in a way which is fulfilling to them. It’s not about being “equal” to men; that implies that women are inherently less than men and we have to do things in a more masculine way to be the best women we can be. Choosing to be a religious working woman who dreams of being able to both work to support her family and to be able to spend the formative years of her (future) children’s lives with them is embracing feminism.
Jessica: We’re married women living in religious communities that are struggling with the role of women. This is somewhat of a feminist project, since it gives us a platform to grapple with community norms and halachic issues. Child-rearing is a feminist issue; we can’t talk about advancing women in positions of power if we don’t talk about the lack of affordable child care and helping women create balance in their home lives.
How do you think that your unique Jewish journeys will impact your role as rebbetzins?
Melissa: I know what it’s like to struggle to make the “right” choice about the next steps, and how it feels to leave behind what you know for what you know is better for your soul. If I had one hope for myself as a rebbetzin, it would be to guide women to find meaningful ways of embracing tzniut, kisui rosh, and taharat hamishpacha. I strongly believe that it is up to women to learn and discuss them so we can all make the most educated and meaningful decisions about our observance of them.
Jessica: Like Mel, coming from a less traditionally observant household impacts the way I approach Judaism as a whole. I’m not as concerned with the length of your sleeves as I am with the idea that you dress your body respectfully, or whether you keep perfect kashrut but are doing something that is consistent and makes you think about food as part of your Jewish experience. There are precedents in our tradition for accepting anyone into a community, as long as they’re respectful, whether or not they observe exactly as you do.
Can you comment on the idea that when women marry rabbis, they’re seeking someone holier, smarter, stronger than they are?
Melissa: Most of the rebbetzins I know are pretty holy, smart, strong women themselves! It takes a strong woman to be able to be a rebbetzin, especially one who chooses to embrace the role and serve her community well. One of my favorite rebbetzins told me that she is often asked more questions than her husband by some members of their community because she is perceived to be more accessible. While my husband is definitely smarter than I am about some things, I have a leg-up on him in others. Our combined holy-smart-strong team will be what gets us through as a rabbinic couple, not either of us alone.
Jessica: There are women who are interested in marrying rabbis for reason. There are women who aren’t interested in marrying rabbis for that reason as well. You have to be strong enough yourself to deal with both what he has committed to and what that commits you to as well. They have a special name for the role of rabbi’s wife - that says it all. I think it gets worse in a congregational setting as well, since, as Ben Stiller says in “Keeping the Faith,” there’s a reason pandas don’t mate in captivity.
Women who marry rabbis are often strong, smart, holy women themselves and that’s part of what brings the couple together. For me, it was intimidating when Raif decided to become a rabbi. We were so young when we got together that neither of us really had a clear career goal. The fact that I came before the idea of becoming a rabbi meant that what I felt about it had a lot of influence. In the end, it was clear that this was the right path for him and for us. We’ve grown into it and we will continue to grow into it together.