September 20, 2019

The Rabbis Schuldenfrei: ‘It’s about sharing’

The Rabbis Schuldenfrei arrived for lunch on their day off.

It was a sunny afternoon in late February, and the young couple out-glowed the sunshine of Manhattan Beach. They strolled closely together, holding hands and laughing, acting as if they shared a secret the rest of us might like to know. They couldn’t have known then how their world would soon change; how their words would pulse with new meaning by the time they would appear on this page.

Deborah was frank about their beginnings.

“I did not want to meet, date or marry a rabbi,” said the 30-year-old rabbi, who when we spoke was assistant rabbi at Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Orange County. “I thought that being a rabbi myself, it would just be too complicated of a life. I guess in a way, I wanted that to be my special thing.”

She turned to her husband Brian, 33, rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“I just thought she was really cute, so I wanted to go on a date with her,” he said with a laugh. “I basically sent a squadron of people to get her phone number.”

“I think by the second or third date, we just felt totally in synch, in the way that our families had described meeting their partners,” Deborah said. “But I do remember the first time you brought me to the temple….”

“Right! It was the Sinai Akiba dinner date. I was a single male, and then all of a sudden, I was bringing my girlfriend. When I R.S.V.P.’d for ‘two,’ that was the first time I had ever done that.” Brian said. “I already heard whispers.”

Although it might seem that being both rabbis and rabbis’ spouses would be the most challenging role of all, the Schuldenfreis have found a collegiality in their home that, had they married anyone else, they would miss.

“A lot of rabbis are privately very lonely, because how they’re spending the majority of their time is unlike any of their friends,” Brian explained.

As rabbis, Brian and Deborah understand all the dimensions of one another’s jobs, most of all, that being a rabbi is much more than just a job. They understand, perhaps better than anyone else, why people are so interested in the spouse of a rabbi and how that pairing represents nothing less than Judaism itself to the rest of the community. And like all two-career couples, they contend with the challenges that long hours and busy schedules bring, but what they gain is a deepened understanding of each other.

“When you are a bridge between people and their God, there is a mystification that happens with that. When people forget that the rabbi is just a person, there’s a lot that they’ll want to know about who is the woman or man behind the curtain,” Deborah said.

“Speaking from a pulpit, you can be personal and intimate with thousands of people without actually having a relationship with them. People feel close to you, even though they don’t know you — that’s the L.A. celebrity effect.”

Yet unlike movie stars or politicians, members of the Jewish community are allowed personal access to their rabbis, and they depend on rabbis during the most important moments of their lives.

“Look, we are intensely personal with people.” Brian said. “We’re telling people how we think they should live — ethically, ritually, religiously, and telling them about their relationship with God. Of course, they want to have that same window into [our] life. It’s about sharing.”

When they started dating, Brian was already a pulpit rabbi and Deborah was finishing rabbinical school, and they knew there would be a natural curiosity surrounding their partnership. Brian was careful to distinguish between their dates and visits to the synagogue together, when they would mingle with congregants. Six months after they married, when Deborah was hired to a pulpit position — for a congregation almost 50 miles away — the couple had to renegotiate both their public appearances together, as well as their entire private life.

During the first two years of marriage, they both were rabbis at large, highly programmed synagogues, where they were intimately involved with every aspect of congregational life. Friday night Shabbat was never together. They rarely visited each other’s synagogues. Even though they made sharing Shabbat lunch a priority, other demands sometimes interfered, and they certainly didn’t have the luxury of opening their home to friends.

“Some of it is trial and error, but we’ve needed to become really organized with our time,” Brian said about how they support each other with so many other commitments.

They arranged to have the same day off and instituted “date night,” “no BlackBerry days” and have tried to limit the talmudic pillow talk. But the thing that brings them closest together is a little rabbinic competition. When it comes to sermon writing, programming ideas and conflict resolution, the Schuldenfreis are each other’s greatest resource.

“We’ve had to figure out what stage of problem solving we’re in: Are you in the I-just-need-to-vent-about-it stage? Are you asking for advice? Are you asking for new possibilities or are you asking for me to just support you and say, ‘That’s great’?” Deborah explained about how they’ve learned to support each other without offending one another.

“If Deborah is calling me 45 minutes before a speech, I’m not going to say, ‘I actually think your whole premise is off,'” Brian added. “In general, I’ve become a better rabbi because of Deborah, and I’d like to think that Deborah has become a better rabbi because of me.”

If the past two years have been about their life as a rabbi/rabbi couple, all of that is changing, however.

“We knew this would have a limited shelf life,” Brian said before Deborah announced she was pregnant.

She did not renew her contract with Shir Ha-Ma’alot when it came time to renegotiate last June.

“We’ve been very open to doing things one step at a time and not plan too much and get ahead of ourselves and create unrealistic expectations for what our lives should be,” Deborah said. “Ultimately, we’d like to have job compatibility, where we can see each other, where we can have Shabbat together as a family, where we can celebrate holidays.”

On Aug. 4, Deborah gave birth to their first child, Heshel Max. For now, Deborah said her ambitions are to be a full-time mother and a full-time rebbetzin:”I think we both have an open understanding of the potential of what a rabbi can be and what kind of jobs a rabbi can take, and they can be meaningful jobs as rabbis, even if they’re not pulpit rabbis. I think we both feel that way.”

Brian just smiled.

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