When rabbis wed, home chores and sermons are up for grabs

When Noa Kushner entered rabbinical school, she thought there was no way she wanted to marry another rabbi.

The daughter of noted writer Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and the niece of a rabbi, she thought there were already "too many rabbis" in her family. Plus the 31-year-old Stanford Hillel rabbi feared that any married rabbinic couple looking for a job in the same city would be committing "professional suicide."

But the rabbinical seminaries in America put a group of people about the same age together, and the inevitable happens. They date, fall in love and get married.

Kushner married Michael Lezak, 32, a colleague one class behind her, who is now assistant rabbi of San Mateo's Peninsula Temple Beth El. They are one of four rabbinic couples in the Bay Area.

"Once we got to know each other, it felt silly to say, 'I'm not going to be with him because he's a rabbi,'" said Kushner, who is expecting their first child.

Their story is not so uncommon. In fact, rabbis marry rabbis with surprising frequency. There's even a name used to distinguish such couples: dual-rabbinic spouses.

As women now make up a large percentage of rabbinic students, "there are more and more rabbinic couples; it's less of a novelty," said Rabbi Richard Winer, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore. Winer's wife, Laura Novak Winer, is the regional director of youth and informal education for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement.

"We were one of the few couples that met and were engaged before we even went to rabbinical school," said Winer, who has been married 11 years. "Because of the intense year in Israel, that's when most people pair up; it became very common."

Sheldon Marder, the rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, said that since there was only one woman in his rabbinical school class, marrying another rabbi was the farthest thing from his mind. But his wife Janet's class two years later was the first to have a significant number of women. Janet Marder is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

The couple lives in Palo Alto and will celebrate their 22nd anniversary on Sunday.

For a period of five years, the Marders both held pulpits in the Los Angeles area.

"When I look back on it, I don't know how we did what we did," said Sheldon Marder. Once the couple had two children, "we tried very hard to work part time in order to raise our kids as equally and directly as we could without hiring people, both spending time with them as babies. But the work increased and increased."

At one point, the Marders both left congregation life "for the sake of the family," he said. "At that time, it seemed like the best thing to leave it."

For Kushner, so far her fears of "professional suicide" have been unfounded. Her career path was flexible, as she wasn't committed to having a pulpit. "I've just always wanted to be in a place where I could grow," she said.

She and Lezak, who have been married three years and live in Burlingame, decided to move to the Bay Area when he was offered a congregational job. But then she heard about the opening at Stanford one day later. She had already been a Hillel rabbi, at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

"When [the job] came through for him, I felt I could find something meaningful here," said Kushner. "We consider ourselves really blessed to both have found jobs here."

Another area rabbinic couple, Michael and Aliza Berk, have always managed to find jobs near one another during their 24-year marriage.

Neither heads a congregation now: He is the regional director of the UAHC; she works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. But in the early years of their marriage, they both were congregational rabbis.

"Before we had children, we led very busy lives," she said. In addition to holding a pulpit, she was studying for a master's degree in family counseling, and teaching college students about Judaism.

But once they had children, "it became very clear to me that it would be difficult for us to fulfill our job responsibilities and be the type of parents we wanted to be."

Berk began working part time. "While I was going through it, I was wondering how it would affect my career, but family came first," she said.

Richard Winer said that his and his wife's job situations perhaps make it easier to raise their two sons than it would be if both were heading congregations.

"We've carved out a situation for ourselves that is very nice," he said.

With both of them in a "profession that tends to be difficult on marriages," the fact that his wife has never been a pulpit rabbi makes things easier, Winer added. "I'm in a small congregation that is not over-demanding of my time, and Laura works mostly out of our home."

On the East Coast, Morty Schwartz, another rabbi married to a rabbi, is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His wife, Esther Reed, is the assistant director of Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

There were three other dual-rabbinic marriages at the seminary when he and Reed were ordained recently.

Schwartz and Reed agree that their marriage thus far has been idyllic, but they acknowledge that under different circumstances things could have been stickier.

"The fact that I'm pursuing an academic career allows me to go where she goes," Schwartz said.

"My wife always wanted to work in Hillel. I always was academically inclined. I didn't know what direction it would take, but it's all worked out for the best.

Not long after marrying, Rabbi Shira Stern and Rabbi Donald Weber periodically attended an informal support group for dual-rabbinic spouses.

Stern, director of chaplaincy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County in New Jersey and daughter of renowned violinist Isaac Stern, has been married to pulpit rabbi Weber for 18 years.

For 14 years, they both held pulpits at New Jersey synagogues only a few miles apart.

"There was a time when there were very few of us, and we sort of learned from one another," Stern said.

Now "there are a lot more of us who have married colleagues."

Rabbi couples say any negatives pale in comparison to all the benefits.

"Usually, two rabbis have two big egos, so that can be a challenge," said Aliza Berk. But it was a small one compared with the benefits. "We really understand each other's interests, and when issues come up for either one of us, the other person is a wonderful resource."

Additionally, Berk said that their shared love of Judaism and spirituality "really has helped us, whatever issues and challenges that have come up, personally and professionally."

Kushner agrees. "There's an implicit understanding about some of the major projects of your life," she said.

Occasionally, said Sheldon Marder, someone will confide that he doesn't understand what his spouse does, or just isn't interested in it. "That's hard for me to fathom. It's the farthest thing from our minds. We both have a passionate interest in what the other does, and we identify with each other's work tremendously. We are a big support for each other."

Schwartz shared similar thoughts. "I think advantages are shared values, shared world-view," he said. "In the world of the Conservative rabbinate, I've seen people who are married to non-rabbinic spouses who struggle with issues of religiosity, who are more religious than their spouses, and that raises conflict."

In general, home life for dual-rabbinic couples differs little from that of typical married professionals.

"I think we have a more egalitarian model than other couples we know," said Reed, who does the baking and washes the dishes. Her husband cooks and does the shopping.

Each week, Reed or Schwartz makes Kiddush while the other makes Havdallah. The next week they switch.

Marder said that being the spouse of a rabbi can often be difficult, since a rabbi's time commitment is so great. But since he and his wife are both rabbis, they are more likely to understand.

"We're able to manage and cope probably as well as anyone could, because we're both rabbis and we can really empathize," he said. "We're both in it because we love the work, and if there's something that Janet needs to do for her congregation, and it takes her away for something from the family, I understand it.

"I understand her congregants the way a rabbi understands them, and that's why I'm able to share her as fully as she needs to be shared," Marder said.

For many of the dual-rabbinic spouses, especially those who have individual pulpits, when Shabbat rolls around each week and the High Holy Days arrive each year, they can't help but be reminded of what they're missing: time with their spouse and family.

Back when Stern had a pulpit, her household — with sons now ages 12, 14 and 16 — could get tense during the High Holy Day season when both parents were rushing to finish writing their sermons.

"September, early October, is always interesting in our house," she said. "The tension is high for both of us when we both have a lot to do," so "the holidays are always anxiety-provoking."

Kushner said that she and her husband have found ways to celebrate Shabbat together.

"You have to be creative," she said. "We've had amazing Shabbats together; we just change what that means."

Sometimes Lezak will have Shabbat dinner at Stanford or Kushner will catch the tail end of the services at Temple Beth El. "Or, we'll have a dinner with guests that starts at 9 o'clock, although I don't know if we'll do that when the baby comes."

For Marder's part, he said, "I really like being the congregant in her synagogue and the rabbi where I work."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."