June 21, 2001
Thirty-five years ago, when Elliot and Marlynn Dorff got married, he was a rabbinical student and she was a recent college graduate with a degree in French. She also was fluent in Hebrew, and had augmented her secular studies at Barnard with coursework at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But because four children were quickly born to the young couple, Marlynn Dorff never planned on a professional career. She continued her Jewish studies mostly because she "needed something outside of the house," she says.
Once the Dorffs moved to Los Angeles, where Elliot joined the philosophy department of the University of Judaism (UJ), Marlynn accepted part-time posts as a religious school teacher. After she earned UJ graduate degrees in education and Judaic studies, her professional status grew, culminating in a 16-year stint as the Bureau of Jewish Education's (BJE) day school specialist.
Marlynn Dorff is typical of local rabbis' wives who have made their names in the field of Jewish education. (Some rabbis' husbands -- like Michael Zeldin of Hebrew Union College, whose wife is Rabbi Leah Kroll -- have done the same.) Dorff's interest in Judaica predates her marriage by many years. She is passionate about spreading Jewish knowledge to future generations. Viewing her husband as her best resource, she hardly feels threatened by his career success.
Still, especially given Elliot Dorff's international stature as rabbi and scholar, at times, she says, "It's harder to have my own identity in the field."
Once, when Marlynn traveled to Israel for a grant-writing project, a professor introduced her as "Elliot Dorff's wife" -- completely omitting her own name and credentials. But for Marlynn, prestige is less important than personal satisfaction. That's why she's leaving her BJE administrative post to return to the classroom.
Most rabbis' wives who are career educators must juggle their professional roles with their obligations to their husbands' congregations. "Maybe if I had been a man I would have gone into the rabbinate," said Lois Rothblum. Instead, she married Moshe Rothblum, who, for 30 years, has occupied the pulpit at Adat Ari El.
Lois currently holds a trio of UJ positions: director of the educational resources center, coordinator of the Hebrew department, director of teacher education. Through a teaching gig in Adat Ari El's religious school many years ago, she found her own niche in Moshe's congregation: "I could meet the congregants on my own terms, not as an appendage of my husband."
Like Rothblum, Sharene Johnson feels no pressure to be an old-fashioned rebbetzin who spends her days toiling without pay on behalf of her husband's congregation. Her spouse, Rabbi Gershon Johnson, heads Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills. "Because it's a new congregation, we're setting the tradition," Sharene says. As the full-time Judaic studies coordinator of Kadima Academy, she contributes after-hours to Beth Haverim by leading a book club and women's study group.
"I don't think it's an obligation. It's just a nice thing to do to make our community grow and be strong," she says.
The way she divides her time could be far trickier in a small town, where issues of loyalty and competition would inevitably surface. "I would feel awkward being the educator at the nearest Conservative synagogue to my husband," she admits.
As the Judaic studies principal of Heschel Day School in Northridge for the past three years, Judy Taff flies home to Sacramento every weekend in time to serve Shabbat dinner to her family. Her husband, Reuven, has served as rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento for six years.
This arrangement developed unexpectedly, because the Taffs were seeking a Jewish education for their son beyond what Sacramento could provide. Judy upholds her place in her home congregation by hosting youth sleepovers, holiday parties and a Shabbat afternoon backyard basketball league. During Passover, 50 guests attend seders at the Taff table.
There are weekends, however, when special school events keep her in Northridge. Taff insists, "If you have a good attitude and you want it to work, it will work. This just brings another beautiful dimension into our lives."
Even today, some trained educators are so committed to husband and family that they work sporadically, or not at all. Matty Bryski, whose husband, Moshe, leads Chabad of Conejo, teaches part time, but feels her first responsibility is to her seven children. Robin Shulman, whose spouse Ron is the rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, saves her teaching skills for her home congregation and summer programs at Camp Ramah.
In some cases, the role of rebbetzin/eductor proves especially enduring. Miriam Wise, whose late husband, Aaron, was Adat Ari El's head rabbi from 1947 until his retirement in 1978, cherishes the title of rebbetzin emeritus. In the congregation's early years, she taught women's study groups without pay. She still enjoys teaching in various settings while continuing her nurturing role within the Adat Ari El family. As she puts it, "Every woman wants to give what she can to promote what her husband is doing -- if she thinks it's important."
Wise's self-image underwent a shift circa 1960, when she earned a California teaching credential from Cal State Northridge. Though she had always loved basking in her husband's glory, at CSUN, "I almost felt I was becoming a whole person again. I proved to myself that I could make it on my own."