More than 40 years after the Reform movement ordained the first American woman rabbi, the majority of US Jews have come to accept women as members of the clergy. Like most women today, these rabbis tend to wear many hats and juggle multiple identities, often that of clergy, wife and mother.
Increasingly, however, some female rabbis are remaining single, but still donning the mantle of motherhood. And they make no apologies for doing so.
“There is nothing wrong with how I live my life,” says Rabbi Lisa Gelber, one of the subjects of “All Of The Above,” a new documentary film about women rabbis who have become single mothers by choice that will air on ABC affiliates nationwide beginning on March 23.
Gelber, associate dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, appears in the hour-long program together with two other rabbis and a cantorial student who all have made the decision to build a family without marrying first.
The journey to motherhood is different for each of the women, but they all agree that it is important for the public to hear their stories, and hopefully come to realize that there are different ways to legitimately live a Jewish life.
“The Jewish world still thinks of family through a very particular lens,” reflects Gelber. “I want us to move past the ‘non-traditional’ label that is still affixed to my family.”
The idea for “All Of The Above” (a reference to ticking a survey’s status boxes) came to filmmaker Debra Gonsher Vinik as she interviewed Gelber for a different documentary, a 2010 film about the responses to domestic violence within different faith communities.
As Gonsher Vinik interviewed Gelber, 46, she told the director that she’d like to see someone make a documentary telling the stories of women who, like her, are rabbis or Jewish educators choosing to build families without husbands.
Although the director agreed with Gelber the subject would make for an interesting film, Gonsher Vinik was surprised to learn Jewish funders demurred. Despite extensive efforts, she could not find a Jewish funder willing to help produce a documentary.
“I couldn’t get funding for this. It was shocking,” Gonsher Vinik recounts. “I ended up having to go it alone. I learned something very unappealing about the Jewish community. I learned that this was not a subject that people were willing to highlight or hold up as an example.”
When she was ready to make “All Of The Above,” Gonsher Vinik returned to Gelber, and also reached out to three other women with similar family situations living in the greater New York area. Some of them had reservations about sharing their stories, but they all ultimately agreed to participate.
“I had some ambivalence about doing this, because this is my life,” says Rabbi Felicia Sol, who leads B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side together with two rabbinic colleagues. “Of course, I am public about my family situation, but I had never before publicly shared the internal processes of what I went through. Even my parents, who I am close with, are going to learn new things from watching this film.”
‘This is another layer of the challenges faced by women rabbis, especially those in the pulpit’
In the end, Sol, 42, decided to be interviewed in order to demystify her choices and open up possibilities for other women. She also welcomed the particular focus on female clergy. “This is another layer of the challenges faced by women rabbis, especially those in the pulpit,” she says.
She and Gelber speak candidly in the film about making the difficult decision to stop hoping for the right man to come along, and to address the ticking biological clock. “Even if you have faith, there are lots of bumps in the road,” explains Sol. “It was a very spiritual process for me.”
Sol was successful in having two biological children. Gelber became a mother through the domestic adoption of her daughter (her initial hopes to adopt an Ethiopian child were dashed when that country closed its doors to single parents).
While the pain of giving up on finding a husband before having children figures prominently in these two women rabbis’ journeys, it doesn’t even come up at all in Rabbi Julie Greenberg’s account of her becoming a single parent.
“I felt like the outlier in this film. It was not a big angst-filled decision for me. There was no mourning over what could have been and never happened,” shares Greenberg, 57, who is probably the first woman rabbi to be an unwed mother.
She had her first daughter and son (now in their mid-twenties and graduates of Brown and Yale Universities) while still a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She went on to raise a total of five children (three biological and two adopted) as a single parent.
“I always planned on being a single mother, so doing this was not Plan B for me. It was Plan A,” says Greenberg, who now leads Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir in Philadelphia. She recently published a book, “Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time,” about how she parented her five children within a web of relationships that included donor dads, a gay male parenting partner, birth parents, multiracial children, women lovers and former lovers in addition to her strong and loving family of origin.
The fourth woman in the film, Basya Schechter, is a popular and critically acclaimed singer and performer of Jewish world music, and a cantorial student at Aleph: Alliance For Jewish Renewal. She has yet to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother.
The raw emotion with which Schechter, who hails from a large ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn (though she left that way of life many years ago), shares her disappointment in not finding the right man to marry is gut wrenching. It is hard not to cry along with her as she speaks about the toll that many rounds of IVF have taken on her physically, emotionally and financially.
‘She touches things so deep inside a woman’
“I’ve seen the film 700 times already and I still cry. She touches things so deep inside a woman,” Gonsher Vinik says of Schechter, who is the music director at Romemu, a progressive, egalitarian Jewish spiritual community in Manhattan.
The director could not envision the film without Schechter, who has recently begun exploring adoption options.
Ultimately, Schechter, who will not reveal her age, agreed to be interviewed in front of the camera when she realized that her story could serve as a wake-up call for other women to start thinking about these things sooner.
“Having someone feel that my story is so important helped me step outside my own trauma,” she says.
Gonsher Vinik convinced Schechter to tell her story by sharing with her another one. That story was the director’s own life journey, which, because of historical timing, ended up differently that those of the women in the film.
Gonsher Vinik, who is now 60, was married and divorced when she was a young woman. Sixteen years passed before she married again.
“I was single for all those years. Like the women I interviewed for the film, I had to go through that mourning, that giving up on the idea of growing old with a husband,” she reflects. “I had to let it go.”
Six months after she finally let go, she met the man who would become her second husband. But by then, she was 40. She has been happily married for twenty years, but she has no children.
Gonsher Vinik regrets that during her fertile and single years, the kinds of information and insights presented in “All Of The Above” were not publicly shared. She wishes she had known the choices that are now available to Jewish women, including rabbis and cantors.
“I wanted to make a film that young women can see and think, ‘It’s possible. I have a choice that can be made, and it’s a valid one,’” she says.
Read about Rabbi Gelber’s journey in her blog post, A singular path to parenthood.