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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

Rabbinic Boundaries: Putting Work Before Family

This is installment 2 of a series I'm going to do about boundaries in the rabbinate. Over the last few years in my wonderful job, I've realized how much my years in seminary both made me grow and indoctrinated me into some of the most unhealthy cultural aspects of the rabbinate - things like:

  • constant availabilty

  • having too many balls in the air at the same time

  • putting my work before my family

  • overperforming

  • coddling toxic people

  • hiding myself to look "professional"

I'm using this series to break these items down, because not all of them are readily apparent.

In Seminary

Seminaries are designed for able-bodied 20-somethings fresh out of undergraduate. These students are single or in a long-term relationship with another able-bodied 20-something with a flexible job. They have no children, or if they do, they have retired grandparents locally to provide 24/7 childcare at the drop of a hat.

Your spouse will be expected at evening dinners and your children will not. Your children will be expected at services, however, dressed up and behaving under your spouse's gentle and attentive care (unless you're a woman in a heterosexual relationship, in which case you're expected to both do your rabbinic duties and your childcare duties without letting one affect the other, while your male spouse should be dressed appropriately and present). When your grandparents die, you will have one day, the day of their funeral, to make your family obligations. Then you're expected back in class. If you get sick - well, don't get sick. Before you know it, you're falling quickly behind and you've run out of goodwill from your professors.

Seminary teaches us early on three big rules about work and family that we take with us into the rabbinate. First, it teaches us that our bodies are our enemies. Bodies need sleep and fuel, rest and pleasure. You can only read for so long until you're toast. You can only stay awake for so long until you have to rest. And if you get sick, like everyone eventually does, you can only push so hard before you make everything worse.

Next, it teaches us that our work and family are diametrically opposed beyond a certain point. When our families are healthy and quiet and well and typical, families are a huge boon to the rabbi - as long as they're seen and never a distraction from the job. But when we get divorced? When our loved ones have a long-term illness? When our children get in trouble? When we need leave (but don't want to leave entirely) because we simply cannot do the job and take care of those who depend on us? When that happens, it frequently becomes a case of congregants feeling abandoned and let down by their clergy, when in reality, we simply need the same help we often extend to our congregants.

Third, by the time we leave the grueling schedule of the seminary, we learn the lie that we can do it all and should do it all. For five years, we struggle and juggle family, student pulpits, internships, applications, social lives (lol), and schoolwork. We go nearly insane (some of us with the therapy, diagnoses, and inpatient bills to go with it) with all the things we have to juggle, and then we are let go into the world and told "Look! Now all you have to do is manage a congregation." We think to ourselves how much easier it will be than all the things we've done while in school, and when everything falls apart, we forget: now we *are* the support network for everyone else, and when *we* fall apart, more than just our lives will collapse.

Synagogue Structure

Especially in small congregations, if something happens to the rabbi, the congregation stumbles along. The Board of Trustees will put things on hold, services will be lay-led for a while, or another (retired?) clergy person will fill in for one or two things and the rest will have to wait. But what happens when something happens to the rabbi's spouse or child? The rabbi is still there, still able to come into the office, but - and hear me out - the rabbi should NOT be in the office.

The reason they shouldn't be in the office is because while they may be physically present, they are absolutely not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually present. And that matters deeply for a rabbi's work. You cannot counsel well, write well, advise well, or work well when your whole being is worried about those you love. You can't do this job in-between daily doctor's appointments or hourly insurance calls. You can't study and write good divrei Torah in the waiting room when your beloved is sitting in chemo or your child is in physical therapy instead of at school.

And yet, especially in small congregations, we see rabbis do it all the time, practicing what they learned so well from seminary. Not only do we have to do it all, we have to keep supporting everyone even when our supports have been knocked out from under us. This is the end game of the three lessons we learn in seminary. We continue to push our bodies past their limits, we try to have families in-between the work, and we lean in to having it all.

The reality is that our families suffer as much as we do from all of this.


Rabbis, we're not going to like this part because it feels counter-intuitive. But I'm speaking here from my very recent experience of my husband and co-rabbi's severe bicycle accident, so hear me out.

Your family must come first. No matter what.

What this looks like is that you stop asking: "do I do X family thing or Y work thing?" This question is a lie of a binary that you learned in seminary, and you must break it now. You aren't making that choice, because if there is a family thing you feel you should do, then the rabbi isn't available for the work thing. Other, more important obligations exist. And just like we can say "sorry, I'm in a meeting at that time" when someone tries to double-book a meeting, we need to be able to do the same when work infringes on our family time.

This requires changing our perspective, keeping track of our work time, and being neutrally consistent with our employers. Let me explain each.

Instead of "Oh no, Youngest band's concert is on the same day as the Open House. Do I do the Open House or the concert?" we need to train ourselves to say "I'm going to the band concert for Youngest, which was just scheduled. Do we need to move the Open House, or can you make do without me?"

The question is never whether you can do your family thing. Instead, it's how does the congregation and your family get what they need from you in a way that is sustainable for both? Then you figure it out, hopefully with the help of your leadership, but even without it, you choose your family. Your leadership will get used to it and be happy for your transparency and family loyalty, or you'll find a better place to work that won't leave you regretting the time you couldn't be with your family.

This is much harder when emergencies come up. You get the call from the school that Oldest broke their arm and you need to meet them at the ER. It's relatively easy to drop things for a day, send your regrets, and then go back to the office when they go back to school. But what happens when your Oldest has leukemia? When you need to fly to the Mayo Clinic with your spouse? When your mother's prolonged mental health battle over months means your attention is divided between her and your obligations at work? How do you make that work when rehab or caretaking is involved?

This is where our third seminary lie comes in. You shouldn't be doing all of it. When a long-term situation happens that needs more of your attention than it previously did, you call a meeting of the executive committee of your board (or whoever your boss is) and you lay down your limits.

When it became clear that my husband wasn't going back to work in a few days and that it would be months of recovery, I sat down and wrote out all the things I was doing well and all the things that were falling apart. I brainstormed people who could help, shifted things around when there wasn't someone who could do it for me, and walked into that board meeting with a document that showed them the things I needed to keep doing, the things that needed to be delegated, and the things that needed to be dropped (unless the board wanted to take responsibility for them).

It wasn't a negotiation. It wasn't a request. It was a simple statement of my limits. "I can't do it all, but I can do this much with your help." We ended up shuffling a few things around after their input (my board frequently thinks of things creatively, which is such a gift), but I walked away with a realistic workload, they walked away knowing and being included in what was going on, and the exercise was empowering for the whole congregation.

Did people grumble? Of course. Did things drop that shouldn't have? Also yes. But my congregation and I were partners in dealing with my husband's care, and that drew us all closer. Six months later, they still ask after his welfare regularly, and some are surprised to see him looking so well. I remind them that it's easy to get better when you have a whole community supporting you in getting the best care.

Our bodies are not our enemies.

Our families don't take us away from our work.

We were never meant to do it all.

If you ask a congregant "would you be mad if the rabbi skipped doing your dad's funeral because of their kid's softball game?" the answer would likely be yes. But if you ask that same person "would you be willing to adjust the time of your dad's funeral so the rabbi can be there and also go to their kid's softball game?" the answer would likely also be yes.

It's time to stop suffering in silence and to be open and joyful about what we do with our families and in our free time. After all, our congregants are looking at us to lead by example. We won't be able to counsel them to be present with their families if we can't manage it ourselves.

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