High Holy Days Rabbis

Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year

The truth is, I don’t know. These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends. I’m not certain I’ll ever know. The view from where I stand is foggy at best.

I was ordained eight years ago in a beautiful and sacred ceremony.  Standing on the bimah before our beloved Rosh Yeshivah, bordered on the transcendental.  When he blessed me, I cried.  It was a moment I will carry with me always.

But my ordination marked more than the beginning of my rabbinate.  It also marked the beginning of my motherhood too.  Just three weeks prior to ordination, I had my first child, a baby boy.  My first taste of motherhood was unlike anything I could ever have predicted or imagined. My emotions were fierce and turbulent, and my attachment immediate and unwavering.

My ordination was the first time I had ever left my son, and I was a wreck.  Those early post-postpartum days wreak havoc on the mind and body, and I was feeling the strain of excess hormones, total exhaustion, and round-the-clock milk production.

I remember bringing my hand pump with me to ordination, in fact. I stashed it beneath my seat, and dashed to the bathroom when I couldn’t stand the pressure a single second more. I remember standing in the bathroom, robe open, shirt unceremoniously un-tucked and unbuttoned, trying desperately to collect as much milk as I could with this irritatingly inefficient apparatus.

I was sweating, worried on one hand that I was missing my ordination, but on the other that I was neither collecting enough milk nor relieving the pressure that was building steadily in my chest.  I hated the fact that my ordination ceremony was happening while I was stuck in the bathroom, but I hated even more that I had left my three week old at home. I was overwhelmed by this emotional face-off, and unnerved by my inability to mitigate this internal strife.

I was a new mother and a new rabbi at the very same time.  Two paths, some would say divergent, others, perhaps not, and two very separate worlds of responsibility and meaning.  These two worlds appeared simultaneously, with little signage and no GPS in sight.  How would my rabbinate pave the way for motherhood?  Or rather, how would motherhood pave the way for my rabbinate?  I set out in search of balance, a way to honor these two parts of my life.

Eight years and three more children later, I am still searching.  I have worked part-time and part-part time.  I have prioritized here and prioritized there, working nights so I could have days, and days so I could have nights.  I have wiggled and jiggled and maneuvered in more ways than I can count.  And while every way had its merit, no way was perfect.  I wonder if I stumbled upon the best way to achieve said balance or if some path has eluded me as of yet.  It remains to be seen.

These days, I am home, with no work to put a claim on my time besides the work I create for myself.  And yet, the personal versus professional dichotomy still remains. In between the diaper duty and the laundry and the dishes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the rabbinate, and how it fits in to the crumby corners of domestic life, and how it spills over from the lofty, dignified walls of the synagogue into the messy, sticky, soggy world of a family. What does it mean to be a rabbi when you are stuck cleaning a toilet?  Or changing a diaper?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when you’re carrying a baby, along with two backpacks and a lunch bag to boot?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when all signifiers of esteem and import and formality have been stripped away?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when the title you use most is “mommy”?  Where does “rabbi” fit in to this picture?

The truth is, I don’t know.  These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends.  I’m not certain I’ll ever know.  The view from where I stand is foggy at best.

I know I am not the first or the last to ask these kinds of questions. And I know my struggle to define my identity is not unique to me, or to mothers in the rabbinate, or even to mothers in general. But each of us speaks from a place that is unique, and each of us adds our own voice to the conversation.  In the New Year, I want to add to this conversation.  I want to be a part of this conversation.  I want to start a conversation.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.

8 replies on “Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year”

I hope that those of us male rabbis who shared in the child rearing, changing diapers, doing the laundry, sharing household chores, etc etc will join in the conversations as well (even those of us who were doing this in the late 60’s and early 70’s before it became the expectation today). I believe that there is much to learn from each other. Sara, thank you for raising this. I hope others will join these conversations. I look forward to participating. Shana tova. Shelly Zimmerman

Dear Shelly, Thank you so much for this thoughtful reply. I am so appreciative that you read my piece and so glad it resonated with you. Though all professionals must negotiate the way we weave our home and professional lives, I think it is especially unique (challenging but also enriching) for rabbis. It’s true that this is a conversation for all of us–men and women. As we move ahead, I would love to continue discussing how we continue to choreograph this dance, in order to include all of our rabbinic fleet and to maximize all of our talent. Wishing you a G’mar Chatima Tova and a wonderful, blessed New Year!

Dear Rabbi,
Thank you so much for these beautiful comments. May you be blessed with health, happiness and peace in the New Year as well.

Dear Sara: I was moved by your thoughtful and earnest posting. It sounds like you have been coping and serving and loving with beautiful flexibility and selflessness. Of course, family matters a great deal in Judaism, whether family of clergy or laypeople. I can’t imagine anyone criticizing you for your choices. However, you have, I would suggest, been dealt a needlessly difficult hand by American society, which lags far behind other developed nations in its support for working families. Also, I myself feel that the synagogue community and the CCAR should have been and be working even harder to develop models for rabbinic and cantorial service that accommodate children better than what’s current in most settings. When I was at HUC-NY back in the 80s as a second-career mother of 2 older children, I saw clearly that the complaints and worries of my female classmates were unlikely to go anywhere unless our male classmates took a strong stand for egalitarian rabbinic service and child rearing. That has largely continued not to happen. And so female clergy are left to pick up all the pieces. I loved nursing my kids and believe strongly in this, and so far only women can do it; but that does not mean that the total weighty package of running a family with children needs to fall on women, be they clergy or lawyers or accountants. Shanah tovah to everyone reading this, of whatever gender and family setting. Susan Laemmle (NY87),

Great piece. All working moms feel this tension – always feeling like we are being torn between two worlds and never giving enough to either so there is always guilt. It’s so hard to set boundaries and just try to focus on one thing at a time, whether work or family, without the nagging feeling we should be doing the other. It’s a continuous struggle to balance both in a way that is fulfilling and personally gratifying and that helps us grow and succeed as mothers and in our professional lives.

The 2 are 1. A Mommy is a teacher and a way and a Rabbi is a teacher and a way. That you can know poo in Hebrew and English is helpful. That the tasks of the Mother are the tasks of the Rabbi become more obvious with Time, though the group size may differ. Weaving the 2 jobs into a garment of your life will be your unfolding Self, which must be a full blown version of what God wants for each of us. Good Luck.

Sarah – I just saw your piece. I resonate. What does it mean to be a rabbi? Is Rabbi a job or a part of your identity? Who is our kahal? I feel that it is just as important for me to transmit knowledge and a love of Torah and Jewish heritage to my children as it is to any kahal. They are my most important kahal. I feel that we as mother rabbis can be great examples of Judaism as a family experience – holding a child in your arms as you lead the service (provided he is not screaming, of course 🙂 ) Involving kids in rituals. Making the synagogue family friendly. Rabbi work can also full of “poo” – fundraising, setting up chairs, hiring and firing, in some cases. Our job – which I also have to remind myself constantly – is to find the sacred in the mundane. To give it meaning and purpose.

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