September 17, 2019

Bruce Ellman: ‘Her work is so meaningful’

“Any public figure has to deal with being exposed in all parts of their life,” Bruce Ellman said, to explain why he felt nervous talking about his marriage to Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, who is beginning her 13th year as associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a long-established congregation of more than 900 families. The challenge of maintaining privacy while in a public position has been a concern for the couple since they met.

“What I didn’t realize was that for Michelle, dating in a public arena as a young woman was complicated,” he said of when they first met.

At the time, Missaghieh was the new hire at the temple, and was working hard to establish herself, and he wasnt looking to date a rabbi. But when he surprised her by showing up at her installation ceremony, Ellman was thunderstruck.

“She was this little 29-year-old and had this commanding presence on the bimah, and it was exciting and attractive,” said Ellman, 46, who is five years older than his wife of ten years.

Increasingly disenchanted with his career in finance, his new love interest opened new avenues for emotion, but there could be no public displays of affection.

“We dated for a year, and then when we were engaged, I became public,” Ellman said. “Before that time, I was a friend, and nobody in the community knew that we were dating.”

Ellman’s early lesson that romance with a rabbi is all about privacy would echo deep into their marriage. And he has learned that once you’re married and have children — they have three, two girls, 8 and 6, and a toddler son — the desire for personal privacy increases — somewhat ironically — in direct proportion to how hard it is to achieve. So Ellman is ever cautious when it comes to revealing details about his family life.

All of which has not stopped him from becoming involved in the synagogue. In fact, he was so inspired by his wife’s professional passion, he changed careers to study psychology and now teaches at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and maintains a private practice. Ellman also became involved with the temple’s day school, where the girls are currently enrolled. He has helped train the school educators about emotional development issues in children and taught a class on psychoanalytic approaches to Torah. But it’s not always easy to be the rabbi’s spouse, and he’s found on occasion that his contributions aren’t welcome: One time, he said, he was not allowed to be a member of a committee he was interested in because participation was viewed as a conflict of interest.

“Whatever you say carries weight that is not the same as if you were just a congregant, Ellman said.

He’s careful not to be critical as the result of an experience in a focus group when he was asked by leadership to refrain from such remarks.

“It’s not my career I’m talking about; it’s my wife’s,” he said regarding the group’s concern that his input might reflect his wife’s opinion. “We’re talking about the world of emotions. It’s not linear, it’s not logical and it’s not rational. It’s feelings.”

What Ellman does or says, or even how their children behave, can be a reflection on the rabbi. There’s a risk in being completely open with people, Ellman said, as there’s always a possibility for distortion.

Rabbis, on the other hand, often share personal details about their spouses in their sermons.

“Earlier on in our marriage, I would hear myself being talked about from the bimah without my knowing it — and start cringing and hiding under my seat,” Ellman recalled.

Over time, he said he grew more comfortable when his wife shared her personal experiences as a wife and mother, and she now consults with him beforehand, so he knows what to expect.

The benefit, Ellman said, is that he also learns about his wife through her sermons, since her expression is so personal and passionate. But on Friday nights when she’s usually working and he’s caring for their three children, he misses her. He said he takes care to create a Shabbat experience for the kids, whether their mother is home or not.

“If I could design this differently, I would prefer to have her with me on Shabbat, but her work is so meaningful to her; I don’t resent it,” he said, adding that the support of the community helps him manage the parenting while his wife is working.

“In many ways, it’s easier for husbands than wives. Being a man, there is this expectation that I have my own career, and that I am not there solely as her spouse.”

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