The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

July 14, 2011 by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer

Being Ima on and off the Bima

Cross-posted with 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.

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’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 fever…so 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 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.