A few days had passed since I’d left my job at the synagogue, and I was overcome with emotion. I can remember standing in my kitchen and staring, just gazing at my cabinets for what seemed like a very long time. I had taken the leap and I was home. And while part of me felt like I had landed exactly where I was supposed to be, another part of me felt like I was still floating, suspended in this vast open field of space and time, with no clear markers of where to touch down.
In that moment, I felt the weight and the wonder of my own autonomy. I had made a decision to change my life, and I had followed it through. But what did it mean for me, and where would I go from here?
Leaving my rabbinical position wasn’t easy. I loved the community and loved my work. It was stimulating and satisfying and meaningful, and I found great joy in the relationships I formed with colleagues and congregants. But, it was also incredibly consuming. I could always think of a reason to do more, to give more, and to be more available. I had a hard time modulating my enthusiasm for work with my desire to be present for my children. And as my family grew, this negotiation only became more difficult.
After many months of reflection and consideration regarding the very real professional, personal, and financial implications of leaving, I decided to take the risk and step away.
It’s been more than three years since I left (even as I write this I marvel at how quickly the time has passed). And in these three years, I’ve spent a long time wondering what it means to be a rabbi who stays home with her kids. Or rather, what it means to be a professional woman in a domestic environment—because really, you could swap out rabbi for teacher or doctor or lawyer, banker, baker, or candlestick maker, and the question remains the same: Where does my professional identity begin and where does it end? Is it part and parcel of who I am, or is it separate from this world I now occupy, a world of chaos and coloring books and half-eaten snacks strewn across strollers? Do we surrender our professional identities when we decide to stay home with our children?
I have struggled a lot with this question in the years I’ve been home. And I have often wondered if the “rabbi” side of me has been subsumed by the “mommy” side, and if the polished, suit-wearing, (Jewish) text-talking woman has now been permanently replaced by her grungier, frumpier, and much less put-together twin. It’s been hard to maintain my rabbinic sense of self amidst the very messy, very unstructured, very informal world of child-rearing. It’s been challenging to figure out where “rabbi” fits in among the grocery runs and the diaper changes, the pick-ups and the drop-offs, the homework and the housework. Even as I try to hold on to my title, I worry it will get lost in the sofa cushions (along with everything else), or that it will dissolve in the dryer with the tissues I accidentally left in my kids’ pants pockets.
Ironically, Jewish tradition teaches that we are supposed to carry two slips of paper in our pockets. On one slip of paper it reads, “For my sake the world was created.” On the other it says, “I am but dust and ashes.” Life is always lived in balance between these two poles. Veering too far to one side or the other will upend the whole endeavor.
When I worked, I used to say, “I’m a rabbi, but I’m also a mom.” Now I usually say, “I’m a mom, but I’m also a rabbi.” The two poles of my identity have switched places. My frame of reference has changed. The way I interact with my family and my friends and my colleagues has changed. The way I dress and carry myself, and even the way I speak, has changed. And yet, none of these changes erase who I am.
It’s true, I may not feel very rabbinic when I’m at drop-off, clad in yoga pants and an old, stained t-shirt. I may not feel very rabbinic when I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing the bathroom floor. I may not feel very rabbinic when I’m schlepping the kids from school to soccer to baseball to piano and back again. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a rabbi. It doesn’t mean I checked that part of my soul when I decided to come home full-time. It doesn’t mean that I abandoned my path or my aspiration or my ambition. I retain the rights to keep all of that, even as I focus on raising my kids and running my home. I earned it, after all.
I am a mother. I am a rabbi. And every day I’m discovering what it means to reside in the balance between.