The ‘rebbetz-him’ is the new rebbetzin


Husbands of female rabbis speak candidly about what it’s like to play a supporting role when their wives’ careers come first

On a wet weekday morning, three men sat together in the Roher Library at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto comparing notes on marriage, children and careers.

The men are members of a growing, but rather exclusive group – they are husbands of rabbis.

Adam Roberts, a bank program manager and spouse of Rabbi Debra Landsberg of Temple Emanu-El; Adam Sol, a poet and English professor and husband of Rabbi Yael Splansky, senior rabbi of Holy Blossom; and Baruch Sienna, a graphic designer, author and educator who is married to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, founding rabbi of City Shul, all spoke candidly about playing supporting roles in marriages where their wives’ careers must often come first.

Back in 1983, Rabbi Goldstein was the only female rabbi in Canada. Today there are about 25 female rabbis across the country, and most of them have male partners.

The wife of a rabbi is known as a rebbetzin, but when the men were asked what to call the husband of a rabbi, Sienna laughed. “After you’ve been asked 1,000 times, you know when that question is coming.”

Baruch Sienna, right, and Rabbi Goldstein
Baruch Sienna, right, and Rabbi Goldstein

Sol, who’s credited with coining the terms “rebbetzer” and “rebbetz-him,” said he has also been referred to as the rabbi’s chief baby carrier.

Indeed, he has had a greater caregiving role than his wife in looking after their three sons, aged nine, 12 and 15, because the rabbi’s work responsibilities have taken precedence over his own career, he said. “My job is not the most important job in the household. I’m doing the work that helps her do the good work she does.”

The couple had initially planned to take turns giving priority to each other’s professional goals, he said. “But her career in Toronto grew and grew. I have had an opportunity [in Toronto] to do a lot of amazing things.”

He pointed out that as an academic, his schedule is flexible and he can do most of the school pickups, recreational activities and homework.

Across the country in Vancouver, Sol’s words were later echoed by Gregg Gardner, who holds the Diamond Chair of Jewish Law and Ethics at the University of British Columbia and is married to Rabbi Carey Brown, the associate rabbi of Temple Sholom there.

Gardner said with his flexible academic schedule, he can support his wife’s career by looking after their seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. “It allows her to be the best rabbi she can be, and it makes me feel good that I can contribute in that way.”

He said he’s grateful for the opportunities that he and Rabbi Brown have had in Vancouver. “We’re extremely fortunate that our careers worked out.”

But some rabbis’ husbands have had to put their own professional aspirations on hold.

For instance, Sienna was a stay-at-home father for two years. His and Rabbi Goldstein’s three sons are now aged  23, 25 and 26.

However, when she was the spiritual leader of a small congregation in Boston in the early ’90s, Sienna became the full-time caregiver for his two oldest sons.

Until Noam, our eldest, was two, I was really Mr. Mom,” he recounted.I was a novelty in the playground and the supermarket, and I was the only father at Gymboree.”

Rabbi Avi Finegold also looked after his children full time when his wife, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, became the first female clergy member at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. (Maharat is the modern Orthodox equivalent to a female rabbi.)

Rabbi Avi and Maharat Rachel Finegold
Rabbi Avi and Maharat Rachel Finegold

“We had a month-old child and there was not a lot of infancy day care,” Rabbi Finegold, a teacher and adult educator, recalled.

He said the couple moved from Chicago three years ago, when Maharat Kohl Finegold was offered the position in Montreal, his hometown.

The proximity to his family sweetened what was an excellent job offer, he added.

Today, Rabbi Finegold heads the Board of Jewish Rabbis in Montreal and he is founder of the Jewish Learning Lab, an adult education centre. His schedule allows him to take on extra child-care responsibilities for his three young daughters aged three, four and six.

“We always said we had mutual careers, and our life would not just be based on one career.”

His statement would certainly apply to the marriage of Jonathan Leo, an environmental law consultant and Rabbi Teri Appleby. Until last month, she served as the interim rabbi of Temple B’nai Tikvah in Calgary.

The couple met in law school in California and married in 1977. Rabbi Appleby gave up law in 1985 to become a full-time mother to the couple’s two sons. During that time, her interest in Judaism grew significantly.

When she became a rabbinical student in 2002, Leo took a sabbatical year from his consultation work in California to accompany her to Jerusalem for her first year at Hebrew Union College (HUC).

In Israel, Leo, who had already been singing classical music, became interested in cantorial work. He joined a community choir and he sang with HUC’s cantorial students studying in Jerusalem. “I was transfixed by nusach [the liturgical style] and chanting.”

By the time the couple left Israel, Leo had learned enough prayers to become a cantorial soloist.

When the couple returned to California, where Rabbi Appleby attended HUC’s Los Angeles campus, Leo resumed his consulting.

Their children were already independent in 2007, when Rabbi Appleby was ordained, and since Leo could do much of his work from a remote office, the couple could live wherever the rabbi found a position.

Rabbi Terri Appleby and Jonathan Leo
Rabbi Terri Appleby and Jonathan Leo

He was also able to do cantorial work at some of these congregations. “It was absolutely thrilling to work with Teri.”

However, Leo had to put his career on hold again during the 2-1/2 years Rabbi Appleby worked in Canada, because as a U.S.-trained lawyer, he could not practise law in this country.

This challenge has not dampened Leo’s enthusiasm for being a rabbi’s husband. “When Teri decided to go to rabbinical school, I knew it was going to change my life. That year in Jerusalem was a life-transforming experience for me.

“Her career change has been spiritually enriching for me personally and for our marriage.”

Adam Roberts and Rabbi Landsberg, may have to juggle their busy schedules to look after their 10-year-old triplets. However, they did not have to worry about relocating for their careers or making professional sacrifices for each other, because they were already established in Toronto, when they first met.

The London-born Roberts said he was not aware women could be rabbis until Rabbi Ed Elkin of the First Narayever Congregation fixed him up with Rabbi Landsberg. “I didn’t know from female rabbis. I was intrigued.

“If I had known in advance that the rabbi’s role is so all-consuming, it might have given me pause,” he joked.

Sol met Rabbi Splansky at a youth convention when they were both teenagers. “I knew Yael at 14. The intimidation issue was not a factor.”

Sienna, who has a background in Jewish studies, education and sign language, recalled how he tried to meet Rabbi Goldstein, after reading a CJN article about her. She was leading the first-ever tour of Israel for a group of deaf Jewish U.S. and Canadian residents.

The rabbi turned down Sienna’s initial overtures to meet her. But three years later, when she moved to Toronto for the rabbinical position at Holy Blossom, Sienna had friends introduce them.

He remembered feeling like “a goldfish in a bowl,” at the temple when they first began dating.

But he said the official demands of being the rabbi’s spouse have actually been minimal throughout most of his wife’s varied career. After Rabbi Goldstein’s five-year stint in Boston, the family returned to Toronto, where she headed Kolel: the Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

“Because it was not a congregational position, there was no social pressure to meet and greet,” Sienna explained.

“When we started City Shul, the role of the rabbi’s spouse wasn’t filled. Overall, I’ve had it very easy.”

Sol said he was lucky to have Sienna precede him at Holy Blossom. “I benefited from Baruch. I didn’t have to deal with the newness of being the rabbi’s husband…

“When I came, there was not an expectation that I was going to host teas.”

Before he and Rabbi Splansky had children, he was involved in Holy Blossom’s amateur theatre company. “It was a really convenient way for me to talk to congregants. I created my own presence.”

Adam Sol and Rabbi Yael Splansky
Adam Sol and Rabbi Yael Splansky

Roberts said through his marriage he has become immersed in congregational life at Temple Emanu-El.

“Before I met Debra, I was an anonymous Jew in the pew, and now I am a fully fledged member of the kehillah,” he said. “So many people have goodwill towards me because of Debra… Through no merit of my own, I have this relationship with people.”

While Roberts pointed to the social benefits of being the rabbi’s spouse, he also spoke about the emotional demands of this role during the High Holiday period. “It’s the toughest time of the year. I’m so tense throughout the chaggim. Debra is as cool as a cucumber.

“I go into empathy stress. I cannot relax. When the chaggim are over, I feel a sigh of relief.”

Sol said he also finds that time of year trying. “Yael is stressed. It’s like performing. There’s choreography. She’s standing in front of hundreds of people.

“You want them to be riveted by her words. But there are different levels of community engagement.

“I get insulted on her behalf.

“One year I put the kids in a group and I snuck back into the sanctuary to hear Yael’s sermon. The guy next to me was falling asleep. I almost slugged him.”