Where Does the Ex-Rebbetzin Daven on Yom Kippur?

By Shoshanna R. Schechter

It is often said that when a rabbi leaves a pulpit, it is best practice not to stay in the community. Whether a pulpit is left because of retirement or because of “board politics” – in rabbinical school you are taught that it is best to “not hang around,” so as to allow for the new rabbi to assume their role and build their relationship with the congregation. This is especially true of “smaller” communities.

But – what about the rabbi’s ex-wife? Better yet, what about the rabbi’s ex-wife who is also a Jewish community professional that has worked in almost every Jewish institution in town, is deeply involved in and outspoken about the the #GamAni (Jewish #MeToo) world, and the former CEO of a national Jewish organization? And, let’s not forget, she also recently came out publicly that she is dating a non-Jewish man while waiting for her Get (Jewish divorce document), despite being civilly divorced. Where does she daven (pray) with her daughters?

In April 2015, I was interviewed by Forward blogger Julie Sugar for an anonymous series on rabbis’ partners called “Pulpit Plus One.” In my piece, titled “I Built My Own Castle,” I speak freely on the struggles my marriage faced regarding how involved my ex wanted me to be involved in his various congregations. Reading that piece now, almost 4 years later, it is quite clear that my choice to focus my energy on other community professional activities, so as to avoid marriage power dynamic struggles, was really only a band-aid on an unsalvageable relationship. What also comes through is my love for my community. While my ex leads a congregation 7 hours away, after a year away from my beloved Richmond, Virginia at a congregation in the southwest that clearly ripped open any wounds that the “band aids” were trying to mask, I chose to return and raise my three daughters here.

Needless to say, returning to a former community is always hard, but to be fair, I was also returning to Richmond for a new full time position at a small Methodist liberal arts college that I have passionately loved working with for over seven years. I was returning to my close knit group of girlfriends and iron clad support system, and would only be a short two hour drive from family in the DC suburbs, where I was raised. The choice seemed sensible and obvious.

What I did not expect was the extreme cold shoulder that I received and in many cases continue to receive from the bulk of my local Jewish community – from my local Jewish day school, where I continue to send two of my children and used to be a well-respected executive board member, to my Federation, synagogues, JCC, etc. I have been “mistakenly” left off invitation lists for community events, disinvited from committees that I used to lead, told that donor tables at galas that had always included me in the past were suddenly “full.” Most noticeably, despite the fact that I am in my final year of a prestigious Jewish Education executive doctoral program for field practitioners, have not been asked to teach or speak for almost any Jewish organization or institution in town. In contrast, my ex, who is infrequently in town, remains to be asked to speak and teach here. Despite the fact that it is widely known that he has yet to provide me with a Jewish divorce, something that is widely frowned upon by the Jewish world writ large, my ex has even received aliyot, synagogue honors, at a local Orthodox shul. When my loyal girlfriends stood up for me and took the rabbi to task, he responded by calling me and chastising me for their behavior, “You know, this won’t help your case.”

Dont look now, but your sexism is showing.

As is frequently taught in the world of Gender Studies, the female experience can be used in research as the “canary in the coal mine.” That is, if the overall society has a larger issue, it can first be seen through how women are treated or react to a community change or problem. While divorce is a sad and often highly traumatic experience, there is no question that it is fully allowed by Jewish law, from actual Biblical text itself (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) through the vast lexicon of rabbinic literature.

Why then, is the Jewish community so uncomfortable with the idea of a divorced woman? Why is she discluded from the “open tent?” Why is her voice silenced and moreover, why is her educated opinion suddenly more threatening when she no longer has “Mrs.” next to her name? Why is it that when I moved back to town a little over a year ago, only one rabbi in town, ironically from our former “rival” Conservative synagogue, made a point to reach out and let me know that I would be welcome in his congregation with open arms? Why can I see the discomfort in your eyes when I attempt to make small talk after services? I promise, I’m not trying to steal your husband.

I’m just here as a Jew, on Yom Kippur, trying to pray and reflect like the rest of you – and, I will not let you take that 3,000 year old right away from me.

Shoshanna R. Schechter, MA, is the Director of Jewish Campus Life at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. She is currently pursuing her doctorate (Ed.D) in Jewish Education at the William Davidson School Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.