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Focus on Issues: Rabbi-rabbi Couples; One Says Kiddush, the Other Makes Havdalah

Morty Schwartz and Esther Reed started dating a few months into graduate school. They fell in love, were engaged 10 months later, and got hitched less than a year after that.

It’s a typical story with one detail that many might find unusual — they’re both rabbis.

But as it turns out, 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.

Schwartz, currently enrolled in the doctoral program at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, says there were three other dual- rabbinic marriages at the school when he and his wife recently graduated.

Of course, college students at nonreligious schools routinely fall in love and marry one another. And what better place to find a mate than one where hundreds of peers convene to work toward similar goals.

“We live lives that are pretty similar to the lives of our peers — doctors, lawyers, other professionals,” says Schwartz.

He and his wife agree that their marriage thus far has been idyllic, but 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 says of Reed, who is the assistant director of Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “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.

“I guess for people who are planning on going into the pulpit world, it creates difficulty because pulpit jobs are in different parts of the country,” he says.

But for Reform movement pulpit rabbis Philip and Laurie Rice, who recently graduated together from Hebrew Union College, finding a job in the same city wasn’t difficult. There were more openings than there were rabbis, and a number of cities where they could have found jobs.

They chose Seattle, where he is now the assistant rabbi at one synagogue and his wife the head rabbi at another just outside the city.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg-Sasso shares a pulpit with her husband, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, at an Indianapolis synagogue affiliated with both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Reconstructionist movement. She says she wasn’t concerned about the challenges of being married to another rabbi.

“We weren’t really thinking about it at the time,” she says. “Probably a bigger issue was how I would be accepted as a woman rabbi.”

Eisenberg-Sasso was the second woman ever ordained in the United States and her congregation became the first to hire a female rabbi. The couple has been an integral part of their Indianapolis community for close to 25 years.

Rabbi Shira 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 Donald Weber for 18 years. For 14 years, they both held pulpits at New Jersey synagogues only a few miles apart.

Not long after getting married, Stern and Weber periodically attended an informal support group for dual-rabbinical spouses.

“There was a time when there were very few of us, and we sort of learned from one another,” Stern says. Now “there are a lot more of us who have married colleagues.”

For these couples, marriage to a rabbi can be a mixed bag, but they say the negatives pale in comparison to all the benefits.

“I think advantages are shared values, shared world view,” Schwartz says. “In the world of the Conservative rabbinate, I’ve seen people who are married to nonrabbinic spouses who struggle with issues of religiosity, who are more religious than their spouses, and that raises conflict.”

Stern says: “I cannot fathom living the life I’ve lived for the past 18 years” with a person “for whom a 9-to-5 job was the norm.”

Reed takes advantage of having a rabbi husband by seeking assurance that she is making morally sound decisions in her own job.

“If I have a doubt in something I did as a rabbi, before I go and ask another rabbi, I can call my husband,” she says.

For many of the dual-rabbinical spouses, especially those who have individual pulpits, when Shabbat rolls around each week and the High Holidays arrive each year, they can’t help being reminded what they’re missing by being married to a person of the same profession: their spouse and family.

Philip Rice, after a moment of contemplation, says, “Here’s a problem: We don’t get to share Shabbat together. And we’ve never been together for the High Holidays.”

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

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

But 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,” says 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 Havdalah. The next week they switch.

Above all, dual-rabbinic spouses know that despite the weight being a rabbi carries with it, family comes before career.

“The truth is that it’s all been pretty positive so far, but we’re both willing to make sacrifices to make our marriage work,” says Rice. “I knew that I was ready to get married when becoming a rabbi became secondary to being married to my wife Laurie.”

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