Leaning In, and Out, As A Rabbi


I’m not completely sure why I remember this particular episode of my childhood quite so clearly, but I do…

One day, when I was in third grade, I went to the supermarket with my mother. While there, we happened upon my English teacher from the Yeshiva where I studied. I remember staring at her, completely uncomprehending of how she could possibly be in the supermarket. After all, I never, ever saw her outside of our classroom, and insofar as my third grade brain was concerned, that was where she always was. She was completely out of place in the supermarket, and again- I’m not sure I even realized that she got hungry, or ate, because I never saw her do that. David Copperfield could not have accomplished a greater illusion for me. I was thoroughly amazed.

Since assuming the role of a pulpit rabbi more than thirty years ago, I have seen variations of my own childhood look of utter amazement on the faces of countless children of our synagogue’s Nursery and Religious Schools when we run into each other in a supermarket or other public venue. Basically, what their faces are saying is “what are you doing here???” On one particularly memorable day at a beach club that my family and I used to vacation at, a prominent doctor from our community, also a synagogue member and a friend, happened to be at the beach, and we were spending some time together. I happened upon a not-quite-so-young student from one of our schools who, without missing a beat, said to me “What a day! I’ve seen my doctor and my rabbi in a bathing suit!” Gee, I thought to myself…. You have got to get out more!

The issue is, of course, that we are all conditioned to see people in certain contexts, and when they show up “out of context,” as it were, it throws our sense of equilibrium off. I understand the point perfectly well, and fall victim to it myself sometimes, even as an adult. My only question is, why should it surprise anyone to see me in a supermarket?

The reason why I ask the question has to do with the recent to-do over the publication of Leaning In, written by Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg. Her basic thesis is that the relative scarcity of women in the top echelons of the corporate world owes to them sabotaging themselves by buying in to the idea that they can’t have both family and career and succeed at both. Women have to lean in- that is, push harder, much harder, to achieve ultimate success in the corporate world, and push their partners to carry an equal share of responsibility at home, with shopping, laundry, childcare, etc.

I have to smile when I read all the ink devoted to people either yelling at Ms. Sandberg for being out of touch with the economic reality of most women, or applauding her wildly as a new feminist hero. The truth is that what she is espousing is not only an issue for achieving superstardom in the corporate world. It’s also irreducibly important for most modern families when both parents (assuming there are two parents- by far not always the case) are working outside the home, and there are children to care for and a household to manage.

My wife works full-time, on a fixed schedule, in Manhattan. She lives in Queens. I also work full-time, in some ways 24/7, but ironically, my schedule is much more flexible than hers. I work three or four blocks from our home here in Forest Hills, and I don’t work on a fixed schedule, which I like to think of as the tradeoff for always being on call. I make my own schedule. The result is that often, but certainly not always, I have considerably more flexibility in my days than she does. So- shopping, laundry, and a lot of the little responsibilities that are part and parcel of running a home tend to fall to me. It’s not a matter of being heroic, or particularly special; it’s just how we manage our lives. If there’s a repairperson who needs to come to the house, or a furniture delivery- I can work out of my home office as effectively as in my synagogue, and wait there for whomever is due to show up.

Basically, I’m all with Ms. Sandberg on the sharing of responsibility. But I’m not at all convinced that either a man or a woman can have it all without making some sacrifices that will inevitably hurt. It is equally true that a man whose corporate life is so demanding that it constantly pulls him away from his family is also losing out– in the same way that a woman would– on some of the most precious times of his children’s growing up. Sadly, society still tends to hold women more accountable than men for missing out on those times, as if they are somehow morally deficient for being willing to forego the traditional home life for corporate success. From there flows the guilt that Ms. Sandberg wants women to ignore. But men miss out, too, and at least in my line of work, most of them know it. Somewhere, somehow, something has to give. When both spouses are fully engaged in “leaning in,” as Ms. Sandberg would have women do, even the best of coverage at home is not the same as the presence of a parent.

As is always the case, my wife and I made our initial, epic shopping excursion for Passover together– an annual ritual. There was, despite our best efforts, much left to be bought when we were done.

It happened this year that, on my second or third trip to a particular supermarket in Queens for all that was left to shop for on our pages-long list, I encountered– for the second consecutive time– the rabbi of a large, neighboring Orthodox synagogue in Nassau Country. I chuckled, and so did he. “There must be a drasha (sermon) in this,” he said as we stood on the checkout line. Yes, I thought to myself. The point of the drasha would be that it doesn’t matter who does the shopping. It matters that the shopping gets done. My titles matters not a whit when it comes to managing our household. Rabbi of a large congregation, president of the Rabbinical Assembly… all of that is nice. But when the day is done, they are not titles that I wear at home. All that matters at home is whether or not I found the ingredients that we needed for those incredible Passover brownies, or the right brand of matza, or all the other things on that mythical list…

Chag Sameach!