When Leaning In is Not Enough: Women Rabbis in the Pulpit
Editors Note: This article was first published by Kveller on July 28, 2020
I recently left my job as a congregational rabbi. I loved the community — a dynamic, 50-year-old congregation with some 135 families that’s affiliated with the Humanistic Judaism movement. The place, and its people, have a lot of heart, and I felt I was doing good work there.
My reason for resigning from this dream job? I found it impossible to juggle the responsibilities of my job alongside caring for my children during Covid-19 — the strain had become untenable. Rabbinic work is emotionally demanding and, oftentimes, extremely time-sensitive. I was finding it increasingly difficult to speak to congregants about their anxieties, funeral planning, and ways to navigate social distancing at their son’s bar mitzvah, while my two young children, ages 6 and 4, were (literally) banging at my door. Many times, a congregant needs a rabbi’s full attention, and their problems do not wait until after bedtime. The rabbi also needs the emotional and mental bandwidth to be able to sit and be fully present with others during their times of stress.
While Covid-19 is having devastating impacts in many, many areas of life — and there are many other stories of women giving up work during this time — I am becoming increasingly concerned about the pandemic’s impact on Jewish life. While others are worrying about declining membership dues or engagement, I am worrying about something else: Is it possible to be both a rabbi and a mother during these unprecedented and challenging times?
Given that we spent decades fighting for women to gain access to the rabbinate, this is an important question to ask — especially as we are still fighting battles against of sexist discrimination, harassment and assault,and pay inequity. And now, faced with a sudden return to having full-time childcare responsibilities as well as full-time rabbinic obligations, it occurs to me that women in the rabbinate are going to be significantly set back. Of course, not all women rabbis are mothers, nor are they in straight relationships. But for the many who are, I am worried.
My decision to leave my rabbinic position was complex, but there is no question that gender played a role, specifically a phenomenon I have come to know as “dadulation.” I have a wonderful spouse, who does more of the housework and childcare than most men. And, yet, he experiences “dadulation”— the phenomenon of men getting applause for doing things moms typically get zero credit for — and it keeps things unequal in our house.
Here’s what dadulation looks like: When my husband took parental leave, or when he takes our kids to the park, or when he tells friends he has to go cook dinner, people fawn all over him as though he is the messiah. He hears, over and over again, what a wonderful dad/partner/person he is. And he is! Our household is much more equal than almost all others, but the truth is that the bar is woefully low.
And so, while my husband is being congratulated and dadulated for doing stuff that should be expected of all men who are spouses/parents, I am struggling to balance work and home responsibilities that are still unfairly weighted in his favor. Yes, he cooks, he cleans, he takes the kids outside. But throughout our time as a couple, and certainly as parents, I am the one who is in charge of most of the unseen and thankless tasks that maintain our lives, like making, remembering, and keeping appointments. We now have terms for this: mental load and emotional labor.
I am the parent who is scheduling activities, ensuring we are seeing family members, planning birthday parties, and keeping straight the bajillion other birthday parties we attend — or, at least, used to attend, prior to the pandemic. I am somehow also the one who handles all of our finances and does the meal planning. Once Covid hit I was setting up Zoom playdates, connecting our kids with their teachers online, and communicating with our childcare providers about the coming weeks and months.
Not once has someone commented on what a great mother I am for doing all of this. No one ever notices that I manage to work full-time and also take my kids to the park. In fact, while dadulation thrives, mom guilt reigns supreme.
While we are congratulating dads for doing (what is usually still not) equal work in the home, we are forgetting to combat the continuing gender oppression in our Jewish spaces. There is still so much work to do, but it is hard to convince men to get on with the intersectional, feminist, anti-oppression work in Jewish spaces while people are falling over themselves to congratulate and dadulate them.
This spring, when coronavirus shuttered nearly every aspect of our lives, my husband and I were both working from home. He is a teacher to students with multiple disabilities. I was rabbi to two communities — in person and online — and I was also teaching university full-time. He was mandated to work five hours a week. My work, doing the bare minimum to keep things going, amounted to approximately 30 hours a week.
And yet, somehow, I was suddenly in charge of homeschooling our daughter. I was squeezing my work around a schedule that he created for himself, maximizing prime work time when our youngest was napping. If we had virtual meetings at the same time, he hid in our basement office and I was the one to multitask being in the meeting while managing our kids. We never discussed that this is how it would go, but like so many couples, we settled into familiar dynamics: He takes what he needs in order to do what he needs to do, and I accommodate and work around him. If one of us is to multitask, it is me. Why is this the dynamic? There are multiple and complex factors, but we agree that our respective gendered socializations play a significant role.
By June, I was angry and exhausted. I couldn’t keep going. I was losing patience with the staff and congregants in my community. I was grouchy with my kids, and ultimately they had to come first. I had to leave my job, my beloved community, work that mattered to me, in order to be the parent I want to be and to feel like myself again.
Why am I airing my dirty laundry in public? Because one of the reasons that these gendered dynamics are so pernicious is that we never talk about them. I know many women who are with male partners who are trying their best to be good partners and fathers. They show up; they do the work. But because the bar for so many men is so low, women often feel unable to complain or speak up when things feel unfair. We are so trapped in a perpetual “it could be so much worse” mindset that we forget that it could also be a whole lot better.
If we care about gender equality within and beyond our Jewish spaces, we need to check in with women juggling multiple responsibilities, redesign workplaces so that they are more family friendly and, please, stop with the dadulation already.
As for me, even though I left my congregational position, I continue to serve as rabbi to my online community, teach a new generation of teachers, and parent during these uncertain times. I’m grateful for all that I have and get to do. But the juggle, and the struggle, is real.
Rabbi Denise Handlarski, based in Toronto, is the creator and spiritual leader of Secular Synagogue, an online Jewish community for cultural Jews. She is also a Jewish Doula and a university professor at the Trent School of Education in Peterborough, Ontario.