Reconsidering the rabbi-rebbetzin leadership dynamic

No matter what your relationship is to football or pop music, you likely have at least some peripheral awareness of the evolving romance between mega-pop star Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end and 2024 Super Bowl champion Travis Kelce. Photos and video from this year’s Super Bowl in Los Vegas captured Swift in the crowd that night, vigorously cheering on Kelce and his team and then meeting him for an embrace on the field after the Chiefs’ victory. The fact is that Swift had immediately hopped on a plane after wrapping up the last performance of the Tokyo leg of her super-popular Eras Tour and jetted to Las Vegas to support Kelce; and once his season ended, Kelce in turn joined Swift on tour and has been documented doing his own share of effusive cheering in the audience. Now that’s a power couple.

Though a Super Bowl championship is nothing to sniff at, let’s face it: Taylor Swift is certainly the much more prominent public figure in their relationship. This dynamic speaks to an evolving broader cultural conversation about gender roles in marriage and competitive careers among couples. As the less famous partner, Kelce is gracefully showing the world how he as a man can support his girlfriend, one of the most well-known celebrities in the world. The traditional model of single-income marriages wherein the man has typically been the sole breadwinner is giving way to a new landscape populated with dual-career couples

As a rabbi-in-training who is sussing out the job market — I graduate from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in June — I constantly receive feedback from communities with their own predisposed notions of what the rabbi-rebbetzin partnership should look like. It’s true that when applying for rabbinic positions, many view the role of rabbi as the man who is traditionally at the front of the room with his loyal wife pulling strings behind the scenes, but my wife, Shalhevet Cahana, has already been serving as a visible leader in her world for the better part of a decade, and I love it. We have found fulfillment in supporting each other, celebrating our successes as shared victories and embracing the complexity of our roles with joy and gratitude.

Shalhevet presently teaches Talmud and Halacha at Manhattan Day School and serves as community scholar for Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Calif., and she has taught Torah in over 60 synagogues and campuses across North America. She has taught more than 70 bat mitzvah students, she is a certified kallah teacher for a dozen couples and she has organized north of 20 Shabbaton retreats. Shalhevet is someone who dreams to make a difference in the world and is a bundle of Pollyanna-ish joy. She walks through this world with purpose and when she speaks, people listen. 

In some ways our challenges are the same as those of Kelce and Swift: Rabbis and rebbetzins live a visible life, where their private worlds are public-facing and vulnerable to scrutiny. A stark difference, however, is that our professional pursuits are very much entwined with one another. Where historically the role of the rebbetzin was in the shadow of her husband’s community position, Shalhevet stands out in ways that give me beaming pride. She is in every way a leader within our joint team. Her natural inclination towards community service and her intuitive leadership have made her an indispensable figure and disseminator of Torah knowledge in every community she’s been a part of. (When she was a student at Stern College, people would joke that she minored in Jewish studies and majored in student life, as she organized more than 50 panels and lectures in her time there.) Today we live in the Washington Heights community in New York City, and on weekends that we are home, you’d better bet that we are likely hosting 15-20 souls around our Shabbos table in our cozy one-bedroom apartment. Folks come to her with their worries and they leave with the hug of her unrelenting support. 

I have been inspired by Shalhevet since our dating days — I felt I was in the presence of a born changemaker when we met — but at the time she would try to downplay her amazing work, burying the lead on her outstanding accomplishments. It was so perplexing to me. Often in dating, people try to present the best versions of themselves, but she eventually shared that in her experience many men found her go-getter spirit intimidating. When she was presenting herself in the Modern Orthodox community, other men had expressed concern about her focusing so much on her career that she wouldn’t have enough time for them or their future family. I felt frustrated on her behalf to learn that this had been her experience.

This past year I have had the fortune to participate in Atra’s Fellowship for Rabbinical Entrepreneurship. It is a program that invites us to flip the models of yore on their heads and reconstruct models of community building that reflect the changing populations of the Jewish world. Of our 11 fellows, only three are male-identifying. Atra’s team is filled with female visionaries and leaders, women whom I view as role models. While the demography of the Jewish people continues to make shifts, so too is the demography of our leaders. 

As I finish rabbinical school, my wife and I are in the midst of a job search process together. The journey of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, paralleled by our own, illustrates the beauty of partnership in the pursuit of individual and shared dreams. It underscores the importance of mutual support, understanding and the willingness to dream big together. This week I get to watch Shalhevet shine at Congregation Bnai David Judea in Los Angeles, and in two weeks she will be an attendee at my Jewish hip-hop retreat through Rappers and Rabbis. The experiences of ambitious couples everywhere remind us that love, when intertwined with ambition, can elevate both partners, creating a symphony of success that resonates far beyond personal achievement.

Dvir Cahana is the founder of the Amen Institute and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y.