Let’s Schmooze!
Like Me, Pretty Please!
Subscribe to the Tribe!

Enter your e-mail address to get Mishegas of Motherhood in your Inbox:


Imas on the Bima Seeks To Balance Personal and Professional Lives

As hard as they may try, moms who are rabbis or cantors can’t leave their work at the office. It’s impossible. These St. Louis Imas on the bima are so fully dedicated to both their clergy life and family life that their cup runneth over, literally, and hopefully the blessings that they bestow come back to them tenfold.

After all, these working moms redefine multitasking by what they can accomplish in one day, such as run a full marathon in the morning, officiate a funeral in the afternoon, read a story to their children at bedtime, write a sermon at night, and blog about it the next day. If it wasn’t for their supportive husbands, yoga sessions, silent meditations, and out-of-town retreats at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, their hectic schedules that require them to lead a Shabbat service on Friday, conduct a bar or bat mitzvah on Saturday, and teach religious school on Sunday, would be their demise instead of their destiny.

Obviously, they don’t get weekends off, either. After devoting so many years to religious studies and helping people, it seems only fair that they be recognized for a job well done.

Maybe this Mother’s Day they’ll get to sleep in.

“I can’t remember the last day I slept in. If I can sleep until 8 a.m. it’s a golden day,” said Joanna Dulkin, the cantor at Shaare Zedek and mother to two boys, Zac, 8 ½ and Jesse, 6. “I’d also enjoy a bowl of granola—that’s what they could cook for me.”

Breakfast in bed is a luxury, especially for a rabbi who dedicates her life to serving others. Being a rabbi and a mom can be exhausting and exhilarating, just ask Andrea Goldstein, who has officiated for 13 years at Congregation Shaare Emeth, the same place she became a bat mitzvah in 1983. She is the mother of Macey, 12, Eli, 10, and Lila, 6.

“I never feel that I’m doing my best in either realm (work or family) because, in many ways, I feel torn between two worlds. My biggest challenge is to remain present in whatever realm I’m in,” said Goldstein, 42, who remembers giving her children a pinkie wave on the bima when they were younger. “When I’m at work, I try to really be present with the tasks that I’m completing and with the people I’m working with. And when I’m at home, I try to really be present when I’m eating dinner with my family, playing outside, reading books before bed, and even being present for the mundane tasks, like doing the dishes or folding the laundry.”

For 37-year-old guitar-strumming Dulkin, being a working mom is music to her ears.

“Who I am as a cantor and who I am as a mom is not two different people. It’s the fullness of who I am. I’ve always been a working mom and couldn’t imagine not being a working mom. When you’re clergy you’re always on, and when you’re a mom you’re always on,” said the native Californian, whose husband Ryan is a rabbi and adjunct professor at Eden Theological Seminary and Washington University.

“My role as a cantor is very similar to a rabbi in terms of pastoral work. I stay up late recording Torah portions and try to limit my evening meetings. I usually forgo daily minyan so that I can be home in the morning to help with breakfast and get my kids out the door,” she said.

For this dual clergy family, life is anything but ordinary.

“We don’t have a full weekend the way other families do. For example, if there’s a stone dedication or a funeral, our family plans have to be adjusted because the community needs me. If there’s a funeral, I drop everything because that’s what I do,” said Dulkin.

Despite these sacrifices, the accomplished singer songwriter wouldn’t change a thing. Her goal is to create a comfortable, homey atmosphere for parents and their children at shul.

“I tell people I have the best job in the world,” said Dulkin, who drinks Starbucks dark roast coffee to boost her energy and trains for marathons to clear her mind. “What brought me to synagogue life was being able to make a difference in the community. I get to work with all ages in all stages of life, doing really holy work and just being present in life cycle events, including birth, bris, kindergarten graduation, bar mitzvah, and beyond, and that’s very powerful.”

As a woman in a male-dominated Conservative sector, Dulkin has her work cut out for her.

“I’ve been the first woman at almost every synagogue job I’ve had. I was the first female clergy person at Shaare Zedek, first at my congregation before that, and first in student pulpits as well. Egalitarianism has become a defining characteristic of Conservative Judaism. When I first got here I received comments along the lines of, ‘I didn’t think I would like a woman cantor, but I really like you.’ It was a compliment, not meant to be a dig. In the world of cantors, and then the world of women cantors, those walls are breaking down slowly and subtly.”

These career moms believe that parenthood and the pulpit go hand in hand. And while their jobs are uplifting, their kids keep them grounded. In fact, often their children teach them.

“When my kids come to understand something for the first time, I bring that reflection to my work as a bridge that helps me connect with members of the congregation. The sermons and articles that I write come to life through my kids. Their understanding something for the first time illuminates the text that I hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a blessing,” said Goldstein.

Another gift that children give to parents is the opportunity to help adults appreciate the holiness in the ordinary.

“Kids are uncomplicated and make us see things with fresh eyes, such as when they are little and recognize a rainbow for the first time. They make us say, ‘Wow, that’s awesome!,” said Elizabeth Hersh, 45, who is the chaplain at Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS). She is also the visiting rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham, in DeCatur, Illinois, and occasionally conducts services at B’nai El in St. Louis.
“When my son Noah started asking questions about God he was three years old. I went into rabbi mode and started to give him my intellectual answer. It wasn’t what he needed to hear. Now that he’s older, he mixes the science and the God and wants to know what was there before the big bang theory. That was a real lesson for me,” said Hersh, who was the first woman rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation where she served from 1994 to 2004. In June 2004, she moved to her husband’s homeland Australia with their 10-week-old son. She led liberal congregations in Sydney and Perth, as well as ran the religious school and adult education program for a few years.
“It’s hard to stay away from something that you’re passionate about, which is why I was pulled back into work as a rabbi when my son was only a few months old. Being a rabbi is not a job, it’s a way of life,” said Hersh.
She also believes being a mom makes her a better rabbi.

“Parenting is very humbling, and I think as a mom going through pregnancy, I was able to see more and feel more greatly. My heart became larger when I became a mom. Whether I’m feeling pain, happiness, or love, it’s a greater intensity of those emotions because my heart has opened to boundaries that I ever thought possible. I transfer that to my work. When someone tells me something about their children, my heart opens. I’m with them every step of the way,” said Hersh, whose son Noah, now 8, still loves doing the ticklish Hora-like Shabbat dance that his family started when he was a baby.

Bottom line, these career moms want to be a positive role model to their children.

“I hope they learn from me the value of work, of being independent and finding a way to earn a living by being involved in something that you love,” said Goldstein. “I also hope I teach them, through example, the importance of being connected to a community who will surround them when they have joys to share and uplift them when they fall to sorrow.”

And finally, “I hope I make them proud.”


Sally Priesand, First Woman Rabbi, Makes History in Judaism
Indeed, women have played a central role in Jewish religious life throughout history. The matriarch Rachel, for example, stands out as the loving parent of her children for generations. However, not until 1972 when Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female rabbi in America (second in the world) did women make such an impact in Judaism.
Today, all Jewish denominations aside from Orthodox Judaism now ordain women as rabbis and cantors. In fact, women comprise about half of the students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
“As women rabbis, we stand on the shoulders of such giants as Sally Priesand who went and did it first. If you’re going to be a role model, you have to be really good,” said Hersh.
Family has always been the focus of Judaism, and unlike Priesand, who chose not to marry or have children, many of today’s women clergy have embraced their role as a working mom.

“Things have changed dramatically since Rabbi Priesand made the decision not to be married because she didn’t think it was possible to commit to a family and a congregation at the same time,” said Goldstein.
“Women don’t always have the same need that male rabbis have traditionally had of moving on to larger and larger congregations as a measure of their success. Today many women rabbis are staying in long-term positions at their congregations,” said Goldstein. “The emphasis that women have placed on balancing their job and their families has inspired many of my male colleagues to do the same. The men who were ordained with me spend much more time in the day-to-day lives of their children than male rabbis did decades earlier. I believe this change is a result of women entering and succeeding in all fields of the workforce.”