Over the last eight years, I have heard this same story countless times: When a congregational meeting was held at my synagogue to approve the Board’s decision to hire me, a female rabbi, one voice yelled out, “What happens if the rabbi gets in the family way?
Another person responded, “Well, then I will babysit.”
That voice came from a male member of my community. While he has not babysat yet, he is known around my house as Uncle Steve, and my little girl loves to hold his hand and walk together with him.
I applaud my synagogue, the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, in Queens, New York, for setting the gold standard in finding space for their rabbi to navigate and integrate pregnancy and early motherhood into the rabbinate. When morning sickness made it nearly impossible for me to participate in our 6:30 a.m. morning weekday minyan, not a single person made a comment to me when I stopped attending.
When my daughter’s simchat bat, Hebrew baby naming, was held during the blizzard of Purim 2015, and our New Jersey-based family could not drive to Queens, our synagogue family shoveled themselves out in order to watch my daughter join the covenant of the Jewish people.
When my daughter refused to take a bottle, which meant she came to visit me three or four times a day at work to breastfeed, people did not get angry. Instead, people began to ask where she was when she wasn’t even there. People would knock softly on the door and ask me if the baby was sleeping, even when she was at home, where I assumed she was supposed to be.
Being that I am a congregational rabbi, Shabbat is usually my big day at synagogue. For months I excused myself during Haftarah chanting in order to nurse my daughter. If she was really hungry and nursed for longer than I anticipated, a very special congregant nonchalantly walked on to the bima and announced the page for the next prayer instead of me.
In addition to formal maternity leave, my synagogue granted me enormous leeway during my daughter’s first 18 months on this planet. Time after time, I publicly thanked them in numerous sermons, meetings, and bulletin articles.
Last week, I wanted to thank my community just one more time. Having just reached the milestone of no longer breastfeeding my daughter, I quoted a verse from Genesis 21 during Shabbat morning announcements: “The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” And then I encouraged members of my congregation to come to Sunday morning minyan as I was going to bring in a breakfast, just like Abraham’s feast.
On Sunday morning, I recited the Shehecheyanu and prayed to God with more kavannah (sincere intention) than I have had for a while. Following minyan, while my community ate the spread I brought in from the local kosher Dunkin Donuts, they all said mazel tov to me. We all knew the transformative power of that moment—and how we got there together.