Wearing Many Hats: The Balancing Act of Today's Rebbetzin

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Guest Post by Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg

Recently, when I mentioned to someone that I was attending this year’s annual Rebbetzin Conference hosted by Yeshiva University, she mockingly asked, “What do you do there, exchange potato kugel recipes?”

Historically, a Rebbetzin had no particular role and there were no real expectations of her.  She gained her title simply by virtue of being married to the Rabbi.  Indeed, as far back as the Talmud, our rabbis say (Shavuos 30b) אשת חבר כחבר, the wife of a Torah scholar is due the same respect and honor as her husband.  It is told that when Rav Boruch Ber’s Rebbetzin entered the room, the Chafetz Chaim stood up to show her honor. 

Not every woman married to a Rabbi wants to be a Rebbetzin.   But for those who do, our role, along with its expectations and opportunities, has changed dramatically, and not from potato kugel to yerushalmi. 

It was a true privilege and pleasure to join over one hundred amazing, devoted, selfless and talented women for the annual conference this week. Participants spanned the spectrum of age, background, experience and location but share a commitment to the primacy of Torah, the authority of our mesorah, and a profound dedication to serve our people.  Many were from the New York metropolitan area, but some traveled from as far as California and Canada to partake in this special opportunity.

We spent two consecutive days engaged in sessions that addressed diverse and timely topics, such as what we can do during times of communal tragedy and individual suffering. For example, we considered whether it is appropriate for the rabbi to share with his Rebbetzin when someone is going through a crisis or hard time.  Should she assume her reaching out or getting involved would be welcomed?  What meaningful role is she positioned to uniquely play and what difference and impact can she make?

We heard from Sivan Rahav-Meir (who will be visiting BRS later this year) about what it’s like to be a Torah-observant journalist in today’s day and age. With her trademark wit and wisdom, she painted a picture of the daily struggle as a woman trying to balance drive and ambition with a commitment to tradition and modesty. 

The panel on “singling out singles” was eye-opening and jarring.  Hearing personal examples of what it was like to be an “older” single trying to find a place in the orthodox community and some of the insensitive policies and people they have had to navigate was startling.  Certainly, we need to be both more accommodating and more sensitive to this important demographic in all of our communities.  Hearing the challenges in the shidduch and dating system moved us to put together a Rebbetzin Shidduch WhatsApp group to leverage our relationships to network and share ideas for shidduchim.

Other sessions dealt with rise of anxiety in teenagers, tips to teach our chossons and kallahs, the importance of self-care, and raising children who may not be following our “derech.” There were talks on navigating all the relationships in our lives, balancing the many roles we play, and how to be the best partner and source of support to our husbands. These sessions were interspersed with high-level shiurim taught by world-renowned Talmidei Chachamim and scholars. 

The roundtable Rebbitzen’s Cafe discussions are always a highlight of the conference for me.  Meeting other Rebbetzins committed to the same cause, and often struggling with the same issues, is a source of great chizuk and support.  I had the responsibility of moderating a lively discussion on “communal expectations and responsibilities when you are not the one being hired.”  Some pointed out how unfair it feels to be in a position that brings pressure to meet the great expectations of the Rebbetzin, yet not be compensated for her time, energy or expertise.  Others shared their struggle to balance wanting to and being expected to “show up” for simchas, shiva calls, events and programs with responsibilities at home.  Still others discussed the balance between community and career. 

We all agreed that as difficult as these balancing acts and tensions are, it is a great privilege and honor to be in our roles and to enjoy the special relationships and special opportunities that being a Rebbetzin provides.  Many of us were inclined to be involved, volunteer and be active in Jewish communal life, no matter who we married.  Being a Rebbetzin enables and empowers us to do what we are predisposed towards and love in even bigger, more impactful ways.  In the end, we can’t do everything all the time, but what we do is not a job, it is our calling and our passion and we are grateful for the opportunity and the ways it enriches our lives. 

When the angels approach Avraham, they ask איה שרה אשתך, where is your wife Sarah, to which Avraham responds, הנה באהל, she is in the tent.  Rabbi Soloveitchik writes (Family Redeemed pp. 111-112):

"These travelers were not ordinary people whose eyes see only the surface.  They were the angels of God.  Their glimpse penetrated and apprehended the image of the true leader, teacher, prophetess, to whom everything should be credit.  Nonchalantly they remarked, where is Sarah, your wife?  Without her, you could not play the part that God assigned to you.  Where is she?  Why do people not know the truth?  Why has she been trailing behind you?  Why does she not march in front of you?  After all, the covenant cannot and will not be realized without her.

Avraham answered tersely, in the tent.  Indeed, she is enveloped in mystery.  Sarah, the Biblical woman, is modest, humble self-effacing.  She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves softly by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of an audience which is hardly aware of her.  She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat.  Only sensitive people know the truth."

Rebbetzins don’t sit on the bimah, our names most often don’t appear on the Shul letterhead and while there are opportunities to teach or speak, we are for the most part not front and center.  I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.  Like our matriarch and role model Sarah Imeinu, the world’s first Rebbetzin, we don’t measure our meaning or establish our value by our public persona, our presence on the pulpit, but by the partnership we share with our husbands and the work we do to positively impact and influence our families, our communities and Hashem’s world.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that while Sarah was described as staying in the tent, literally or figuratively, she was the driving force behind their success.

"It is interesting that although Avraham survived Sarah by 38 years, his historical role came to an end with Sarah’s passing.  Yitzchak leaves the stage together with Rivkah.  Yaakov relinquishes his role to Yosef with the untimely death of Rachel.  Without Sarah there would be no Avraham; no Yitzchak if not for Rivkah; no Yaakov without Rachel." 

I am proud to count myself among this cohort of Rebbetzins who carved the time to learn more about a position that is not official or part of our Shul’s budgets.  Indeed many of the participants at the conference do their Rebbitzen “job” at the same time as mothering and working as mental health professionals, teachers, administrators, lawyers, businesswomen, journalists, medical professionals or more.  That Yeshiva University invests in what we do, that over one hundred busy women took off the time to attend, and that our husbands enabled us to do so, is itself testament to the importance and impact of what we do.

Throughout the conference I was filled with a sense of pride. Pride in the bright futures we have with these women at the helm.  I found today’s Rebbetzins are strong, smart, hardworking, caring, competent and beautiful on the inside and out. They are classy and chic while modest and understated. Their sincerity and genuine desire to grow in their relationship with Hashem shines through in everything they do. It was clear from the discussions and questions that came up that their Judaism and their families will always be paramount in their lives.  Throughout the conference, I was so inspired by what shining examples my fellow Rebbetzins are in their communities and that with their leadership and impact, our future is indeed bright. 

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And yes, there was a Rebbetzins cookbook produced from our recipes and distributed at the conference, but having a killer potato kugel is part of what we do and we won’t apologize for it!

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