Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Being Ima on and off the Bima

Last night, I noticed a tweet from Rabbi Jason Miller, sharing with me an article written on the Forward's Sisterhood blog.

I read it at about 5am, while nursing the baby. A little ironic, no?

It struck me particularly hard, since I have had a little bit of a difficult week in terms of balance. Let me explain.

I'm currently serving on faculty at camp, as you may know. With me at camp are my husband and three children (the oldest is a camper, so I'm not only not responsible for him, I don't even get to see him very much!), and we are accompanied by a teenage babysitter. The babysitter generally shepherds the two older kids to their activities, while my dear husband spends his time with the baby. Often, the baby accompanies me to programming as well, since he likes very much to be the center of attention! Camp is a great place for my family - everyone has something that they enjoy doing, and we fall into a nice routine of sharing our lives with our friends at camp.

For various reasons, my husband kindly agreed to go along on a 3 day camping trip with one of the older units. He left early Monday morning. On Monday, my babysitter started to feel a little ill and began to run a she went home, ideally just overnight, to speed up her recuperation (she is fine and will be back soon, I hope!). So...I was left all alone with my kids AND my responsibilities to camp. So far, so good. I've weathered this minor storm, my friends have helped out and pitched in, and it's been fine. I am definitely looking forward to both of them returning to share the work, but I am not overly upset about how this has gone. But it's definitely on my mind, making sure that everyone gets what they need from me.

Yesterday morning and this morning, the three kids accompanied me to morning tefillah (prayer). The older two sat quietly during the service (You've got to love the outdoor chapel that makes a little bug hunting during tefillah possible) and the little one was snug in the sling. (I got Sammy to snap this picture for me right before tefillah began, because this blog post was ruminating around in my brain since I had read the article at 5am.)
Note the camp attire (flip flops), baby sling, and tallit. Just another day as the ima on the bima...well, not so much bima at camp. More like tree stump!
I do not know the writer of this article. And I do not actually feel that her post was, in fact, an appropriate response to the post that she cites, a post about young mothers in the rabbinate. Instead, I feel that Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is trying very much to attack other mothers while justifying her own choices. This is remarkably common and prevalent on the internet - there are so many "mommy bloggers" who want to judge, rebuke, comment upon, and generally dismiss anyone who makes choices different from their own. The comments that I received when I posted this article on Facebook helped me to feel a little less alone when reading Chasya-Uriel's post - it was definitely a case of "I thought it was just me." But I was relieved to know that I am not the only one insulted by her simultaneous dismissal of my rabbinate and parenthood.

She writes:
"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."
Wow. This is quite a statement, Chasya-Uriel. There are some truly remarkable jobs (not just the rabbinate) held by mothers of young children. Do you also feel that mothers should not be doctors, lawyers, professors, social workers, teachers, artists....? And are you honestly telling me that fathers cannot be full-time caregivers of their children, if that is what works for the family? (Oh, and by the way, that IS what works for my family.)

Chasya-Uriel continues: "I do think that ima eventually belongs on the bima."

Ouch. "Eventually"????

And then:
"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."
Oh my goodness.

I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I'm more ima. Some days I'm more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I'm trying to make it all work. But I don't think I'm doing it wrong. I just know that I'm doing it. I've created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when. My children do not play multiple sports or attend a lot of extra programs. I do serve in small ways on the PTA but I'm not in the classroom helping out. I don't "do it all" but I do what I do. I try to do it all as well as I can, with as much love and attention and energy as possible. My children are washed and fed and cared for and loved by their parents. Most of their care is done by my husband or by me, or by Grandma or Bubbie & Zeyde, or some of our wonderful team of babysitters and friends who help us out. My congregation never fails to share my delight when my oldest sings in the Junior Choir or the baby accompanies me to Torah Study on Shabbat morning. I am often scolded for not having them around, since many people feel love and "ownership" of my children. I feel so lucky and blessed to have so many people who care about the well-being of my children and my family.

There is absolutely no question that I would be a different rabbi if I did not have children. Would it be better for my children? Would it be better for my career? Would it be better for my congregation? Would it be better for the Jewish people?

I strongly believe that the answer to all of these questions is NO.

Dear Chasya-Uriel,
Please enjoy the time that you are spending with your daughter. Cherish every moment. Please know that many people (women and men) who came before you have enabled you to spend that time and make that choice.

Please know that many others have made choices different from yours. I do not judge you for your choice. Please do not dare to judge me for mine. I am intensely proud of the life I lead. I work incredibly hard at all that I do, trying to be the most fulfilled person that I can be - while loving and growing and raising my family. I respect and admire my friends in all forms of their rabbinate - women and men who are juggling and balancing and maintaining remarkable families, careers, lives.

Our choices change over time, we make new decisions based on the situations in which we find ourselves. Lives change. Goals change. Purposes change. Focus changes.

Please remember that like the rabbinate, motherhood comes in all styles.

Enjoy yours.

I am most definitely enjoying mine.


Mrs Belogski said...

Women rabbis is not something that I want to get into, but given that you're doing it, as you say - if you stop mothers from doing it, then that means no mothers having any kind of profession. From reading your blog you seem to be combining raising a happy family very well with your job, and I'm sure that the interplay between the two makes you better at both. No-one has the right to attack someone else's life choices publicly - way to go, Ima on the Bima!

Leigh Ann said...

Oh, Phyllis. I think the collective women's rabbinate was staring at the screen with jaws on desks at this article yesterday.

It was inexcusable, both on Chasya's part and on the Forward's for even printing it in the first place.

Everyone is a yechidah. Everyone is doing her best for herself, for her family, for her people. If we don't hold each other up, we'll all fall down.

I'm so glad your blog is a place where everyone is held up.

Sara said...

A-men. This is a big deal in Christian circles, too. I chose to stay home and give up a lawyer career but that does not make me a better mom than someone who didn't. It doesn't make me a better Christian; it's what works for my family and that is what's important. I would never pretend to know what works for someone else's family; it's such an individualized thing. I'm jealous of your children having such an extended family through your work. That is an amazing gift you're giving them.

Jean said...

I don't know you. But, after reading your blog, I would certainly like to! Thank you for your truth and for sharing your journey with us!

faith717 said...

Kol Hakavod,

thank you for your beautiful response...I too am an ima on the bima with three young children and a fourth on the way ... I found Chasya's article to be offensive on many levels -- being that my kids have a stay at home aba who loves, nurtures and supports them all of the time ...

For(e)mothers: The True Confessions of a Jewish Feminist Mother said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Great post Ima! I'm going to write about this as well (from a father's perspective). I also think that Chasya went overboard. She is likely trying to justify her own decision, but in actuality is setting the progress women in the rabbinate have made back about two or three decades.

If there's one thing that I've witnessed, it is that there are many many very capable and talented women in the rabbinate who are able to balance marriage and motherhood with their rabbinic career. If Chasya feels that's something that she would not be able to balance in her life, then kol hakavod for making that choice. However, it is certainly doable and no woman rabbi should feel she is neglecting her children (or spouse).

Paula P. said...

Thank you for this piece. I also think that she's working through the choice she made; I found it unfortunate that she had to criticize my choices to do it. I also think her assessment of why congregations didn't hire women this season is bizarre.

Anonymous said...

I agree that mothers in all professions do the best they can to love, care and tend to their children while holding down responsible positions. How dare anyone question working mother's devotion to their children. I have been a working mother for thirty years and my "children" (now grown and parents themselves) are well adjusted members of the community and dedicated parents. Ironically one of my children is a rabbi, married to a rabbi. I do not think my working swayed them to be either or bad people; it was the attention and love they received. They watched their parents work together as a team to make it work and they learned the importance of pulling together to help each other. These are important lessons. I am not saying that your choice is wrong...obviously it is right for you. But DO NOT assume that your choice is the only one that produces healthy, well adjusted children. Let's try pulling together instead of being critical which only pulls us apart.

Jill said...

Thank you for your response. As the author of "Making Room for Ima on the Bima", I really appreciated what you said about the articles and just hearing more about your story. I hope to meet you in person one day.

Robin said...

I'm not a rabbi and my kids are rapidly reaching the not little stage (sniff) but I too was incredibly offended by the whole tone of the diatribe, I can only imagine how much worse it must have been for you.

What a self-righteous, self-important, short-sighted piece of garbage. There are as many paths to take to the same destination as there are wonderfully diverse people to take them. The author has apparently not evolved personally to the extent that she's comfortable enough in her own skin to meet us mere mortals where we are in ours.


My photography is available for purchase - visit Around the Island Photography and bring home something beautiful today!

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Here's a link to my response to the Forward op-ed:

Motherhood and the Rabbinate: A Male Rabbi Responds

Rabbi Jason Miller

Batya said...

I'm a mother of 5 who spent my kids' childhoods in lots of other roles. My daughter is a mother of 4 and a lawyer who nurses her kids for well over a year each.

I think you're balancing things just great and a good role model.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog through various links around the net and I read this piece with my mouth open. I read the original piece by Jill Levy, and wrote a piece about it for my blog (here:, but I hadn't read the second piece until I read your blog post and it struck me as ridiculous. She feels some pressure to work and raise children - as though it were the only option to be a liberated woman. The real liberation though, is to be able to choose. I'm not there yet, so I'm not sure yet if I'll be a full-time working mom, a part-time working mom, a work-at-home mom or something else - but the point is, we can choose - and short of neglect, no one should judge those choices.

PS - enjoy camp! It looks lovely!!

The Duchess said...

The irony! I was just reading the article above it where you describe the arrangement at camp, and thinking how awesome to be able to do that, and have your family with you, and be able to do that with the baby etc etc
When Ben was maybe 2-3, Maddie was going to Nicolet and I was going to work in their office up there, and to bring Ben. Steve would have to stay in HP to work in Chicago. It turned out to be so logistically difficult I did not get to go (nor did Ben!) I read your post with a touch of envy because it sounds idyllic, and the video of the singing proves it's the perfect summer plan (not that anyone needs the proof)

Never mind those women who don't 'get' we can scratch our heads and rub our tummies at the same time without skipping a beat in motherhood or healthy family design. They don't get it. You do, and thanks for responding with such grace and articulation!
Go get 'em, Ima!

Anonymous said...

"I ... trying to be the most fulfilled person that I can be."

And I thought there was more to life than self fulfillment and ego. In hasidut, the goal is "bitul" or nullification of self for God. In classical Jewish thought, being an "oved hashem" takes the central role. But you have enlitened me to (the dying) Conservative goal -- me. I

guess that is why you chose to blog how great you are. Give it a break. Learn some Torah.