Tuesday, The Rabbi Went Out
Tue, 12/07/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

There’s probably not another profession, outside of royalty, where the spouse gains a title upon marriage. Even if the traditional role of the rabbi’s spouse, or rebbetzin, has changed considerably in this generation, there’s still recognition of the supporting role a spouse might play, publicly and privately. (And there’s no name yet for the husband of a female rabbi, but plenty of playful attempts like rebbitz-sir).

Rabbis without spouses are in the minority. But with more women entering the rabbinate, trends in the general population of people marrying later, the increasing challenges of finding a spouse, and increasing rates of divorce, there’s a significant number of rabbis, in all denominations, who are not married.

Many single rabbis were interviewed for this story — men and women; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — some of whom preferred to be nameless as they feared for their rabbinic careers as well as their dating lives. All would be happy to change their single status soon. Most acknowledge the benefits of being independent and able to devote full energy to their jobs, which entail long and demanding days. But they miss having someone with whom to share the trials of those days.

While there are differences about dating norms and practices between the denominations, all agree that being single can have an impact on the way they do their job, and that being a rabbi influences the way they date.

“It’s probably safe to say that a single rabbi can be considered a little unusual,” says Rabbi Joshua Katzan, a Conservative rabbi who has been serving at Congregation Habonim in Manhattan for just over two years.

Another rabbi told of having congregants who want to introduce him to their daughters, other members who come for advice about their own marital infidelities, and younger congregants who make subtle and less subtle advances. In a previous pulpit, he was warned that he’d lose his job if he dated anyone in the congregation.

This is largely unspoken-of territory. In rabbinical schools, there’s some conversation in professional workshops, but not much time is spent helping rabbis chart the course of being unmarried in their jobs, and there’s not much support for single rabbis out in the field. Some women rabbis — and there appear to be more single female than single male rabbis — talk about the challenges of dating with female rabbinic colleagues and even enjoy sharing the details of bad dates or no dates, as many female friends do. But there are few single role models for rabbis.

Being a single rabbi isn’t what most of them planned. Many of their colleagues married while still in rabbinical school or soon after, and have started families.

“Dating as a rabbi is very hard, for a number of reasons. It can be hard for men to date a rabbi, and you need to find a special guy who’s able to be with a woman who may be in a position of power. Observance also narrows the pool,” Rabbi Jan Uhrbach says. “Some men are oddly attracted to clergy and power. Once you’re in the role of rabbi, it can be hard to get out of that role. It’s hard even in some friendships.”

Rabbi Uhrbach, who is in her 40s and rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, a member of the Wexner Heritage Faculty and a teacher of Torah now developing a new model for community learning, adds, “This is particularly true when you’re in a congregational role. It’s very hard to shift out of it.”

For Rabbi Joshua Yuter, 33, of the Stanton Street Synagogue in Lower Manhattan, meeting someone is difficult because of his restricted social network. An Orthodox rabbi, he explains, “As a matter of personal policy, I decided not to date anyone in the community. It would be too awkward, too complicated; it would interfere with doing my job.”

“Some rabbis have steadfast rules,” says Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, 44, associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has worked as a pulpit rabbi while serving as dean. “Much of my own social life revolves around the communities where I work as a rabbi. I don’t say I won’t date anyone, but I make sure not to be a position of counseling a person, or asking them to do something on behalf of the community, so as not to be seen using my power in inappropriate way.”

“I find it very challenging to take off the rabbi hat — my personal and professional lives are intricately intertwined,” says Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who is Orthodox and 29. The founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, he recently moved to Los Angeles to serve as senior Jewish educator at UCLA. Categorically, he would not date a student, even though UCLA is likely the most dynamic Jewish singles scene in the city.

“I’m extraordinarily cautious in my dating life. Those dating encounters are always traveling with me, and can affect relationships on a broader level. I really feel inhibited to meet people as frequently and casually as I would like to,” he says.

Men and women face many of the same challenges. Some rabbis leave their immediate community in order to date (and that could entail getting on a plane), some check JDate listings between meetings. While some rabbis are anxious about all of the potential complications, others are confident that they’ll meet someone before too long.

For some, the rabbi label gets in the way. Rabbi Katzan says, “Being a rabbi can be, for most people in the dating world, like garlic to a vampire. It’s kind of challenging — people project all kinds of stuff about what a rabbi is, what a rabbi does or needs to be, and it can be difficult to relate to the other as a normal human being.”

One woman, who has been serving in the rabbinate for about five years, finds that men use dates with her as opportunities to analyze all of their own problems with Judaism. A man told of reaching out in the dark of a movie theater to hold the hand of the woman he was dating — she pulled away and later admitted that she couldn’t get past seeing him as the rabbi.

Through experience, some have learned not to mention their profession when they first meet people. Some are getting used to being told by potential partners that they don’t want to marry a rabbi. And some hear whispers in the congregation that they are gay.

“I hear from people, even from Jews: Are rabbis even allowed to be married?” Rabbi Peretz says.

Lifestyle issues also pose challenges for the single rabbi.

“Loneliness on Shabbat is a big issue, not just for single rabbis, but for observant single women,” says Rabbi Julia Andelman, a conservative rabbi who is director of adult education and programming at Park Avenue Synagogue. Previously the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zedek, she got married last summer.

“As a single rabbi, you’re working on Shabbat for a good part of the day, and then you’re by yourself for the rest. That’s a strange thing about the rabbinate — you go into it because you love being Jewish and Shabbat is a central element of religious life. But then it becomes something of a joke as far as a day of rest goes, because it’s the height of your work time. Because of that intensity, I did come to really appreciate the alone time afterwards, but it was a different nature of Shabbat experience.”

One rabbi, who preferred that her name not be used, said that she found the experience of being a single woman rabbi so lonely that she began watching television on Shabbat — she didn’t like the deathly quiet and couldn’t call anyone. She didn’t feel particularly good about watching television, but it felt better than everything being silent.

At Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, Rabbi Felicia Sol is one of three rabbis serving the large congregation. “I’m different in so many ways than my rabbinic colleagues — I’m a woman, I’m younger, I’m born in America. I’m not sure that my being single is any more prominent a difference,” she says.

“There are so many single women in the congregation, in so many age ranges. People feel like I know that path and the challenges that come with it,” says Rabbi Sol, a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Sol is now the proud mother of a 9-month-old son. “A lot of people told me that I was a role model for them. Some felt that they missed out on the opportunity to have children, or felt that the decision might be in their future. Some said that my decision highlighted for them that you don’t have to be held back by being single.” She remains open to dating.

Rabbi Uhrbach recalls hosting Betty Friedan as a Shabbat guest in her Sag Harbor home several years ago. “We were a small group of women sitting around the table talking about women in the rabbinate. Betty Friedan looked at me and said, ‘If you were a single male rabbi, the congregation would hire help for you to entertain on Friday nights.’”

Even for the male rabbis interviewed, that doesn’t happen, although all agreed it would be a good idea.

“Part of the role of rabbi is to model meaningful Jewish life and living. A great way to do that is by having people over for Shabbat meals. It happens to be one of my favorite things to do,” says Rabbi Katzan, who frequently hosts guests in his home. “Around the table — that’s where the real rabbinic work can happen. It’s empowering to see how Jewish life is natural and not ‘other.’”

Rabbi Sol says, “Religious life and community places a profound importance on marriage as well as on building a family. People who choose not to be on that path or for whatever reason have not been able to find a partner or have children are often understood as “other” within the Jewish community. And in the very place that should be there to provide the community and home, individuals can sometimes feel like failures or ostracized. It is a challenge to the Jewish community to create as many avenues for people to find partners and be supportive of all kinds of families, but it is just as important to be inclusive to those who are single.

“Finally, as a religious person, dealing with visions of what my life would be, and how that reality has shaped out, to be single has been a spiritual search for me — a struggle with God and my own purpose in life, the essence of my being as to how I am called to live out the life with the reality that is, the choices that I have, still knowing the search is never over,” she says.

When asked about how rabbinical schools might be more helpful to single rabbis, Rabbi Yanklowitz suggests that schools should put more thought into where they send single rabbis for their first jobs.

Rabbi Uhrbach says, “I don’t know if the Seminary could do more; I think we could do more to change the culture where marriage is the highest value.”

Another woman admits to feeling some resentment; she doesn’t think that her male colleagues or seminary officials understand how very hard it is to be single and to date and have a pulpit, yet she doesn’t know how the schools could help. “This is a cultural shift in the process of happening.”