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The View from the Fishbowl

Gila Arnold

Think of the qualities associated with public service for the community. What adjectives come to mind? Selfless, perhaps. Idealistic. Giving. Devoted and focused on the big picture are also apt descriptions of public service. The blurring of boundaries between work and home is something every working person juggles. But those boundaries become even blurrier when you have a highly prominent position in your community. How do you face your neighbor at the grocery store when you're advising her dying mother?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

There is no question that starring front and center in the community are the shul rav and rebbetzin. Every aspect of their behavior, and their children's behavior, is subject to public scrutiny. As Rabbi Emanuel Feldman puts it in his book, Tales Out of Shul (ArtScroll), “Rabbis try to create observant Jews among their flock, not realizing that the flock is already quite observant.” (He humorously describes being approached on a given Shabbos in shul by two members, one who is concerned that the rabbi has lost weight, another commenting that he has gained.)

“The rabbi's family is supposed to be perfect,” says Shira Romm, whose husband, Rabbi Zvi Romm, is the rav of the historic Bialystoker shul on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “People look at us as the model of the happy Jewish home. The rebbetzin is seen as this tzadeikes who never yells at her children, whose children always behave.” However, she adds, having been the rav and rebbetzin of the shul for eight years already, “my community has learned that this is not true!”

She describes what it feels like to be such a prominent member of the community. “For better or for worse, every time you walk outside, people notice. If you go to the pizza store or the hairdresser -- you just have to come to terms with the fact that you're one of those people that others will notice, and keep that in mind. Hopefully, as a Jew and a bas Yisrael you feel that anyway, but yes, this takes it to a different level.”

The loneliness inherent in the role of rabbi and rebbetzin is a real issue. “Although we are friendly with the people in our shul, I don't think it's an equal friendship, because as the rav and rebbetzin there are things that you just can't share with a shul member, even though they will share those same things with you. The average woman can ask her next-door neighbor for help or advice if she's going through a tough time, but I can't always do that.”

As a result, a very important part of her social life is networking with other shul rebbetzins.

“Yeshiva University has an annual conference for rebbetzins that they've been running for six years now. I've gone ever since they started, and always come back feeling freed up from whatever situation I was dealing with at the time.”

But, most important of all, the rabbi and rebbetzin have each other. “A positive outgrowth of the limited social aspect in the community is that the rav and rebbetzin have to become each other's best friends. Because we have no one else to talk to about a lot of issues, we tend to turn to each other more.”


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