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They also serve:  Rabbis’ spouses prove as diverse as roles they fill

by Danielle Berrin

September 11, 2008 | 2:15 am

(L-R) David Light, married to Rabbi Sharon Brous, <br />
and Dr. Bruce Ellman, married to Rabbi Michelle <br />
Missaghieh. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

(L-R) David Light, married to Rabbi Sharon Brous,
and Dr. Bruce Ellman, married to Rabbi Michelle
Missaghieh. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations -- inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.

At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.

"He's amazing," several said.

"Brilliant."

"I love him!"

That's when the cantor's wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.

"You know," she whispered under the din of temple chatter. "I'm waiting for the story about what it's like to be married to someone in the clergy."

That's when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don't just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.

For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.

Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they're no longer all women. They're no longer always hovering in the background; they're not even always a different gender from their partner.

Modern rabbis' spouses don't fit into any single mold.

Peni Bouskila is a major player in helping her overburdened husband run their synagogue; David Light balances comedy writing with care of his two daughters; Rachel Bookstein partners with her husband to reinvigorate Jewish life on a college campus; Bruce Ellman brings his psychology training to benefit his temple; Marjorie Pressman served as a fiery force throughout her now-retired husband's pulpit career; and Brian and Deborah Schuldenfrei share the title of "Rabbi Schuldenfrei."

They all share their spouses' life of public service. They are all subject to public scrutiny and have to protect their privacy. And at the most family-oriented moments of the Jewish calendar, they have to share their spouses with the rest of the community, as much on Shabbat as holidays. Most days, they cannot expect their lives to proceed without interruption: Rabbis are on call for emergencies at all times.

Even as I did my research over the past year, lives changed: Peni Bouskila's kids got older. The rabbis Schuldenfrei gave birth to their first child and Rabbi Sharon Brous became pregnant with her third. And, along the way, I became involved with a rabbi of my own, because as it turns out, God is not without a sense of irony.

The night the man I am now seeing was ordained, he asked me whether I could see myself marrying a rabbi. I hesitated to answer. I didn't think I could bear missing someone so much. I wondered whether a rabbi could ever love their spouse as much as they love their work -- a tough choice when your business partner is God.

But if I found any truth in the writing of this, it's that none of these people chose to marry a lifestyle. As Marjorie Pressman put it, "I didn't marry a rabbi. I married the man I fell in love with."

And that's the thread that binds these seven people together.

At the heart of all these stories and all their struggles, are simple, powerful love stories.



All the rabbi spouse stories on one page

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