Work-life balance is especially hard for members of the rabbinate.
The Talmud teaches, "That which goes out from the heart, enters through the heart." It is with that sentiment and many others in mind that I submit this piece of writing.
I am a rabbi with a wife and a toddler. Not only am I in the office typically from nine to five, four out of every five weekdays, but since I have a pulpit position I also work every Friday evening and Saturday morning. I also work often on Saturday afternoons, maybe even evenings. Also Sunday mornings and sometimes afternoons as well. That's a prime time for families to meet for bar mitzvah lessons, Hebrew school programs, and youth group activities. And that doesn't include all the times when I'm on-call for a death or emergency in the congregation, which could happen at any time. I recall one moment when I was called away from a Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner with friends and family to visit someone dying in the hospital. I recall a similar story of a friend whose father is also a rabbi, who got called away from most of Thanksgiving activities with his family to care for a family that had just experienced a suicide. And I speak regularly with a friend and colleague in a small congregation who is frequently stressed out, exhausted and neglectful of his own personal life because his solo pulpit demands so much of his time. (By the way, none of these stories are new for pulpit rabbis.)
It's ironic because I chose the rabbinate not only because I felt it as a calling, but also because I wanted to be part of a family-centric faith in an important way. Judaism is rife with images of families and lessons to be learned regarding them. Teachers are often seen as parents because of the strong relationships they have with their students. And rabbis mentioned in the Talmud and other rabbinic writings are often referred to by their father's name as well to demonstrate lineage. Let's also not forget about the strong images of families found in the Torah.
Yet given the responsibilities of the modern pulpit rabbinate there is not so much that allows for focused time with the family. In school I heard two difficult statements made by different teachers. One claimed that the pulpit was "toxic" to family life. Another said, "You can be a great father and husband, or you can be a great rabbi, but you can't be both." I'm trying to challenge both those assumptions but I'm finding it very tough.
If I don't stay long enough after services to meet and greet congregants, I'm not seen as friendly or outgoing. And if I don't make it to a bedside or funeral I'm seen as not caring for my congregants. Forget about the fact that some of those times are moments I could be spending with my own family. Assistant rabbis usually have additional clergy with whom they share responsibilities. Can you imagine what this is like for a solo rabbi who doesn't have anyone to share their responsibilities with?
I'm still very committed to my family, but I spend most of my time in the office. Our kid is rushed off to preschool in the morning and picked up in the late afternoon. My wife (who also has a full-time job) and I take turns with pick up and drop off. And yet at the end of the day, we maybe get two hours with him before he goes to sleep—just enough for dinner and a bath, maybe a little play. Some of those nights I'm taken away because the community requests classes and a rabbi is also a teacher. Saturday afternoon tends to be the most concentrated time I can spend with my wife and child. That truly gets to be what Rabbi A.J. Heschel considers Shabbat as, "a moment to share in the things that are eternal in time."
I had a teacher in school who told me to fight for weekday meetings with families between nine and five. If they argue and say "we have jobs" my compassionate response should be, "So do I, and this is just like going to the doctor or the dentist in the middle of the day. This, too, requires your attention." I've thought about that and have tried initiating that conversation. But such an approach is a departure from the standards set by the generation that came before me. Reactions to my request for business-hours meetings range from shock to outright refusal.
As a rabbi I feel it is my duty to live Judaism in order to teach it to my students. And yet, I find that the job prevents me from living all those aspects of Jewish life which are vital and central. How then can I truly teach my students about valuing family time when my job precludes me from doing so?
Sure, I could get out of the pulpit and find another rabbinic jobs, but this is the one that suits my interests and desires the best. I love teaching, leading, preaching, and offering pastoral care. But I also love being a husband and father. Can't I, too, have it all? Rabbis are supposed to be there for people when they need them the most. To hold, guide, and teach them. But should that come at the cost of holding, guiding, and teaching my own family? Should I neglect my obligations to my family; obligations that the Torah teaches in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6, verses 5-9) to "Diligently teach my (own) children" about Judaism and life in exchange to teach other people's children?
The fact is the modern pulpit dynamic is in some ways flawed. If synagogues are meant to be communal gathering places then the responsibility to build a vibrant community must fall on the shoulders of all the community members from the head rabbi to the youngest child. Synagogues with multiple clergy members should strive to share all responsibilities equally and value each other's time as holy. The same goes for congregants. Rabbis can serve as a resource and educator and still empower congregants to build and support the community themselves. The Talmud goes into great detail to explain to parents how the responsibilities for educating their children first fall on themselves.
Often times it's a "teach us, Rabbi" model, but that model should be "let's teach each other." Congregants should be obligated, as part of synagogue membership, to focus their energy on one particular topic/approach in Judaism and to teach that topic to fellow congregants. Students further pay for their classes and memberships by mastering other topics and paying their education forward. Given the communal nature of prayer every congregant should be capable of leading a minyan (a group of ten people) in prayer or at least mourner's kaddish—the prayer bereaved people are obligated to recite for 11 months and often the only reason why people come to daily services. This, too, could be a way to solidify membership in the community. These commandments to teach and lead were never solely deemed for the rabbi. Rabbinic codes like the Mishnah (from around 200 C.E.) always envisioned literate lay-people who could lead the community in any number of ways.
Yes, the obstacle course of everyday life is always there. From bar-mitzvah lessons, to dentist appointments, to school projects, bake sales, piano recitals and football games the list is ever increasing. Is it really possible to ask one more thing of our congregants? Why not? Isn't it true that many hands make light work? And can we not adopt a Kennedian philosophy of "ask not what your synagogue can do for you, but what you can do for your synagogue"? Isn't part of the work-family balance about everyone helping to make that balance possible?
In an attempt to stay centered in my work-life approach I often refer to a story from the Talmud for guidance. The story speaks of a rabbi who was so engaged with his studies he spent all of his time at the study hall, away from his home and family, and would only return home on the eve of Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year). The story continues that on the eve of one particular Yom Kippur this particular rabbi forgets to come home. His wife, noticing his absence, spends her time looking out the window asking, "Is he coming? Is he coming?" At one point she becomes so depressed that she begins to cry. The text concludes by telling us that as her tears began to fall the roof of the study hall caves in on her husband and he dies. A cautionary tale to say the least, one that's got me thinking about my own work-life balance.
I teach a class for parents in the community about involving Jewish values in family life. I'm very much looking forward to the time when I can teach them about the value of "holy time," how Shabbat can be catalyst for understanding how important it is to spend time together as a family during non-Sabbath moments. But I still long for the flexibility in my schedule to focus more energy on my family. I long for the moment when a congregant says to me, "You know, Rabbi, you spend an awful lot of time with your kids and wife." To which I'd like to respond, "I know, and I love it!"
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