September 20, 2019

David Light: ‘It’s a tricky balancing act’

It’s Friday night at IKAR, and David Light can’t pray.

On this hot and sticky Shabbat, a few hundred people pack the Westside Jewish Community Center auditorium, davening with fierce intensity to the deep patter of drumbeats. Light sits in the second row, watching his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, welcome the Sabbath with a chant from Psalms.

“Lechu neranena l’Adonai, Naria letzur yisheinu (come let us sing to God, let us call out to the rock of our redemption)…” she sings.

Light scans the room, smiling and nodding in various degrees of delight to the inner circle who regularly come to pray here each Shabbat, a carefree contrast to his rabbi wife’s dignified solemnity.

By the third verse of the prayer, however, Light has disappeared. When he returns to his seat, he has his arm wrapped around his 2 year-old daughter, Sami, her blond, curly hair bobbing as she gently strokes his face. It’s an adorable post-feminist moment, but it makes davening difficult for him. Before he can say, “Amen,” the child wriggles from his grasp and runs up to the podium, where her mother is leading prayer. Light again abandons his prayer book, retrieves his daughter from the pulpit and carries her outside.

As the husband of a groundbreaking female rabbi who earlier this year was named among the most influential rabbis in the country by Newsweek, Light isn’t threatened by reverse gender roles. His wife is the primary breadwinner, and he the primary caregiver. On any given Shabbat, he is never far from a stroller or a child. And while his wife waxes poetic on social justice, he can be found kibitzing at the back of the room. But he’s also an aspiring Hollywood writer, with a sense of humor about his unusual circumstances. As he puts it, “Sharon was going to save the soul of the Jewish world, and I was bent on corrupting it.”

They weren’t always on such divergent paths. Light was admitted to the rabbinic program at the Jewish Theological Seminary alongside his wife — “the one girl in college who found my knowing all the words to the kiddush incredibly sexy,” he said — but he chose not to go when he realized he’d been more excited by the process of applying to the school than by becoming a rabbi, or even marrying one, though he said it wasn’t that she would become a rabbi that bothered him: “My real doubts were that I didn’t plan on falling in love with the woman I would marry so young.”

Because Brous and her community have created IKAR from the ground up, she had to invest her rabbinate with just about everything she had to give. Her husband, however, despite his strong Judaic background, opted to stay somewhat out of the fray. Present, but not a presence.

“My success or failure as a rebbetzin all rests on whether my kids can break free of my iron-clad grasp and run up to Sharon and yell something inappropriate into the microphone,” he said wryly.

It’s true that their two daughters, Eva, 4, and Sami, are fond of approaching their mother when she’s on the pulpit. And although Brous has fostered a kid-friendly community and welcomes the affection, she has a role that won’t allow for many such distractions. So Light is responsible for making sure they’re disciplined.

“Really truly for me, as a male, we’re lucky that what we do is viewed as additive. We don’t have as many pressures,” he said, extolling the virtue of IKAR as a place that is less rigid and formal than many synagogues. He celebrates the fact that his daughters can pray next to their mother at the podium, but said, “There’s always that moment in services when one of my kids is throwing a tantrum, and I have to eject them from the service.”

Throughout IKAR’s four-year history, Brous has rarely taken a day off.

“It was hard for Sharon when she started,” Light said of the tug between work and family. “It’s a thoroughly exhausting job, and it never ends. There’s always more to do.”

As he talks about it, he vacillates between showing pride at what she’s accomplished and regret at the challenges they face as a result of her successes. Especially when, even after selling a few pilot scripts to major networks, Light is still waiting to see his own career come to fruition on screen.

“I feel like I’m at the beginning of [my career], and Sharon is closer to realizing her goals,” he said.

He gushes over Brous’ achievements and lauds her for creating the kind of community he wants to be a part of. But still, “It’s hard in terms of self-actualization. I love what I do,” he says “but would like to be doing it on a high level.”

As do many writers, Light likes to draw on personal experience, but he has to temper that urge to protect the public side of his family’s position. “I’m drawing on my personal experience and some of the randomness and quirky things that happen in our lives. And I have to be conscious more and more that we’re no longer just a scrappy start-up, and my most inappropriate stories are not appropriate anymore. There has to be a filter.”

As his wife’s accomplishments continue to rise, Light says it has also become more and more difficult to carve out private family time. It’s harder still to nurture their marriage. There’s no “date night” yet, he said, not to mention Brous’s strict adherence to kashrut prohibits much dining out. At least for now, it’s once-a-year vacations and Shabbat afternoons.

“It’s hard — it’s a tricky balancing act. Shabbat is amazing time with family. It’s just that Sharon is also working so it’s not…” he stops himself. “Because we love IKAR, it makes the longing less desperate, I guess.”

And he says that every now and then they enjoy a “sabbatical Shabbat.”

“We wish we had more time with Sharon, and yet we know she’s doing great work, bringing more people to Judaism and making their Jewish lives more meaningful,” he said. “People find my being a comedy writer infinitely boring, but the fact that I’m married to a rabbi — that’s juicy — that has legs to it.”

All the rabbi spouse stories on one page