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September 13, 2018 by

As a Male Rabbi, I Plan to “Lean In” to Childcare

This year will be a year of profound change in my life – and the opportunity for my spouse, Mirah, and me to change minhag, the customs of our people. It is no secret that clergy in committed relationships often crater their partner’s careers. I have seen colleagues use holy words as pretense to ignore their partner’s needs – and at my worst, might have done so myself. It is narcissism wrapped in the language of Torah.

We denigrate both ourselves and our tradition when we demean the people to whom we father daughter beachshould be most committed – especially when we do it in the name of God. When people decry organized religion, it is our hypocrisy as clergy that gives them legitimacy.

I enter this Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, filled with trepidation about what I might do, or fail to do, when a new baby enters our lives. We both plan to continue working and will do our best to co-parent. But I fear that my failure to lean into parenting will ruin Mirah’s career. 

I can just imagine the conversations. “I can’t do the midnight feeding – I have an important sermon to give tomorrow.” “I can’t pick them up from daycare – I have a board meeting that night.” “I can’t take them to the doctor – I need to plan my adult education class.” And on and on and on. Until I wind up not doing enough in my child’s life – and Mirah is unable to sustain her career while working a second shift so intense.

All of us can do more to change gender norms, especially around parenting—especially men.

I frequently see fathers praised for the bare minimum of parenting, while mothers pull off everyday miracles and get nothing but criticism. We undervalue or even denigrate the contributions of parents who stay at home or work part-time. 

When new mothers go back to work, they are penalized for motherhood by receiving lower pay for the same work, while men receive a salary bump when they become fathers.

That is, unless men openly show an interest in parenting. The moment that men do, they get lower evaluations from supervisors, miss out on promotions, receive smaller raises, and face precipitous declines in their earning potential.

Our society treats men who embrace fatherhood like mothers, and it treats mothers with disdain. And yet– it treats people who do not or choose not to have children in a different, but also toxic way. 

These are widespread, systemic injustices, but they are enacted moment to moment by people just like us. Instead of waiting for change to come down from above, it is on us to begin to fix the problem.

We don’t just confess our roles in communal and societal wrongdoings during the High Holy Days. The kind of tshuvah, of change that we need, requires fundamentally altering the way we interact in the world. 

At social events, ask men about their children and women about their vocations. Start talking about women’s ideas and stop talking about their appearance. Do not assume that a person has a romantic partner or what their partner’s gender identity might be. Have regular conversations with the people you love about how you allocate household tasks. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. If you’ve never changed a diaper, my family may soon be able to provide you with opportunities to practice.

As much as I fear for the well-being of our country and will join in fighting for justice in the public square, I also fear for the well-being of my home life and will spend the coming year fighting for justice in a most personal way.

There may be evenings when my child sleeps in the corner of a Board Meeting because we could not find backup childcare. There may be mornings when I FaceTime with congregants, because my child is sick, and I need to stay home with them. There may be afternoons when I am so bleary because of a sleepless night that I say something clueless. And there will be a couple of months this spring when my community may not hear from me at all – as I take parental leave to bond with my child and enable my spouse to go back to work.

This year will test my ability to practice what I preach. It will be a hard, messy, moment-by-moment process of change that comes at a genuine cost. But it will be worth it.  Not just for my family, but also for our community. 

You can’t make justice in the world without making it in your community. And you can’t make it in your community without making it in your day-to-day life as an individual.

700 years ago, Rabbi Nissim of Girona sped up the democratization of religious authority. He proclaimed, “Minhagan shel Yisrael Torah hi” – “The customs of the Jewish people are Torah.”  Not just those of scholars. Or of people with lots of money. Or of people with fame and fancy titles. When ordinary Jews change social norms for reasons of justice, love, or necessity, they too are living out Torah.

Mihagan shel yisrael torah hi means that we can’t just be passive recipients of Torah. We all have to be actively engaged in the iterative process of working it out – day after day, generation after generation.

Minhagan shel Yisrael Torah hi. The customs of Jews are Torah. This is our time to set new customs, refine our self-understanding, and bring new Torah into the world. 

May we each do so with intention in this New Year.

This article was adapted from the Rosh Hashanah sermon that Rabbi Stanton gave at East End Temple on Monday, September 10, 2018.