Avital’s Story: The Writer, The Rebbetzin
“I don’t know if I thought very deeply about the communal responsibilities that often come with being a rabbi’s wife, beforehand.
My husband was very explicit in describing life in the rabbinate, when we were dating — I remember him confirming with me several times: “Do you realize what it means?” He would watch me carefully, waiting for my response.
But I was in some romantic daze and didn’t really internalize then what it means to live in a public eye — an eye that is even more scrutinizing than the one turned on a writer.
I think it helped to come from a baal teshuva background; I came in with a lot of idealism, eyes sparkling with dreams rather than cynicism.
I was only thinking about the opportunities, the principle of the matter, the rabbi as one who helps others, the leader who serves the community by inspiring them with words, stories, language — I was enamored by how beautiful it was, how much I wanted to be part of that, to be fully immersed in a partnership devoted to the community.
The question was how to do that while maintaining my integrity as a writer. A writer is a loner by definition, an observer standing somewhere on the margins, while a rabbi’s wife is very much at the heart of the community. How could one be both?”
“While other reporters may choose to write about whomever they want and however they want to — I have to reckon with the fact that if I write something critical about such and such Jewish organization, I may have to sit next to the president of that very organization that week in shul or at a wedding.
It’s complicated, and has caused its own good amount of paranoia. Case by case, I have to determine what is important, what my motives really are as a journalist, and whether my hesitation to writing about a certain subject are tied in any way to social relationships or to fear of ruffling the wrong feathers.
But I find that interplay of community and writing essential, because it challenges me to constantly remember the power of words.
Writing on the Orthodox and on the wider Jewish community has toughened me. It’s what happens when you’re the recipient of enough hate mail and public shaming on social media for your very beliefs. Perhaps it’s more painful because my readers are so close to me, as we all live in the same global shtetl. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve become the target of ad hominem attacks — for even daring to state a political opinion. (I can’t help but wonder if it would be as bad if I were a man.) And much as I try my best to look poised and flippant, it’s not easy to ignore. Long ago, I adopted a policy of never reading comments on my articles.
And funny enough, this has been a sort of extreme training for the life of a rebbetzin. ‘Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide,’ Eleanor Roosevelt once said.
It’s an endless sequence of social faux pas; sometimes you wonder if you’ve become a character in a comedy film, and sometimes you become the address for tireless personal comments. And the comments are further compounded when you’re someone who has the occasional public opinion. It’s not just my shoes people will comment on — it’s also my stances, my ideas.
But you have to swallow it all and smile through it.
My husband often reminds me of the verse in Esther: ‘And Mordechai the Jew was held in high esteem by most of his brethren.’ By most of his brethren — not all. Because a true leader will never please everyone.”
“At our engagement party, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds upon hundreds of names I had to now learn. Who were all these smiling warm people coming over, wanting to wish me mazal tov?
Those first Shabbatot after our wedding, I was moved by the warmth the community showed me. One by one, over dinners out or over the Shabbat table, I got to know people.
And those relationships deepened — it‘s not just small-talk anymore. We exchange meaningful conversations, share our troubles, celebrate our joys together.
Over the years, I’ve found a big, bustling family here. We rarely get to spend Shabbat with family – so the community has become our family, and the synagogue our second home. My 18-month old son tries to hop out of his stroller the moment I step into the building; this is his turf.”
“People ask me all the time how I juggle everything. To be honest – I’m pretty sure I’m failing this balance of work, family and communal obligations. Or perhaps it doesn’t exist? Because it seems impossible. It’s a myth, the modern superwoman.
I rely heavily on babysitters, which means that my ambitions can come at a high cost to family time. (For which I can’t seem to forgive myself.)
I try to think of prioritizing as juggling glass and rubber balls, and knowing which balls I can drop and which I can’t. But I always feel that I am behind – in every aspect of life. My inbox, my social obligations, my list of Shabbat guests I have to invite. There’s not much room for error, the stakes always seem so high to me.
We are trying to set time aside for regular date nights; and we don’t host Shabbat lunches, try to protect those few afternoon hours as quiet family time. Women sometimes tell me about the importance of “self-care”, whether it’s a massage or a weekend getaway, which makes me laugh because the whole idea seems so preposterously distant from my life right now. I rarely see girlfriends anymore — the luxury of long lazy coffee dates is a thing of the past, or perhaps something just on pause for now, while I’m in this stage of life.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote in his biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (which I reviewed for Haaretz in 2014) about a letter Steinsaltz wrote to the rebbe, asking for advice on how to juggle three full-time jobs. The Rebbe responded typically: “Continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.” The rebbe had no tolerance for what he saw as idleness: He was determined to change human nature itself, to stretch one life to its full, sleepless capacity.
I try to emulate that. I just pray to God for the energy to do everything, in a universe where our days consist of only 24 hours.”
“I get plenty of frowns for working at a liberal newspaper. (Not that this is new for me — previously I was writing for Haaretz.)
But every time someone gave me trouble for it, I looked back at them and asked: Where do you want me to go? Who will publish free-thinking ideas, and by a woman no less? While I respect the work that some Orthodox publications do within their niche communities — I couldn’t work for one. My parents are from the Soviet Union; I know how ‘Pravda’ works. And I couldn’t work in a publication that would refuse to print a picture of my female subjects.
So I have found alternative platforms. And I’ve been happy there, truly able to write unencumbered by ideologies and agendas; I have always been treated with respect and given freedom to write as I please.
I wish the Jewish community wasn’t so afraid and vindictive of the media (though granted, it has its flaws). Part of it is the political climate we live in now: It doesn’t help that both the American president and the Israeli prime minister have chosen journalists as their number one enemies — in total ignorance of the role of free media as a watchdog, a very founding principle of this country.
I probably cite this on a weekly basis, because it’s really become my mantra, after a reader pointed it out to me — Isaiah Berlin once wrote, citing Chekhov, ‘A writer’s business is not to provide solutions, only to describe a situation so truthfully, do such justice to all sides of the question, that the reader could no longer evade it.’ That’s what I try to do.
I wish the Jewish community was less afraid of its own shadow; less vitriolic towards those who air their dirty laundry and more concerned with those who dirty that laundry in the first place.
I sometimes get emails from friends in the community, upset at me for publicly criticizing a certain organization’s clear misstep, that I shouldn’t have brought it to light. I always ask them: Why are you emailing me? Did you email the organization or leader at fault, to clarify why it made that mistake? Shouldn’t you be concerned with the original chilul Hashem? What are you doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
It’s much easier to express outrage at a reporter, or post something defamatory about a certain publication on social media, than it is to go back to one’s own shtetl and change something, say something, do something.”
“One of the most fulfilling parts of communal involvement, for me, is hosting guests for Shabbat dinner. It’s a dream that my husband and I shared and discussed when we were dating, something we really wanted our home to be centered on: Hospitality, warmth, inclusion.
And it’s not easy, when you’re a working mother — two weeks ago, I arrived home an hour before candle lighting — but the moment our guests are sitting around the table, the wine is poured, the challahs hot, the salads chopped, I take a deep breath and note how happy I am that I pushed myself to do it. And hours later, when the apartment is quiet again and the dining room table is littered with wine glasses, soft echoes of laughter still lingering, I’m exhausted but thrilled, as if I just ran a marathon.
I really believe that nothing amounts to the power of a warm Shabbat table with elevated conversation.
Perhaps the biggest blessing of all is seeing how much my son loves it, seeing how he runs to greet the guests as they come in, how he reaches for a sip of the kiddush cup, how he watches with wide eyes as we sing.
I love seeing the Jewish holidays through a child’s eyes. Our festivals suddenly come to life with renewed sparkle — something of our own childhoods, as well as something different, this adrenaline rush knowing that this is my unique opportunity to pass on our rich tradition.
It’s all the more important to me because, coming from the Soviet Union, it was a long journey for my family back to traditional Judaism. A few weeks ago, my grandparents came to us on Sukkot. My grandfather stood in the back of the synagogue, and as he watched the cantor sing, whispered to me in Russian, leaning over the mechitzah: “They robbed this from us.” I was surprised to hear tears in his voice. “We had none of this.”
Seventy years later, from Kiev to New York, imparting Jewish traditions to my son is not just an everyday part of life. It’s a reclamation of my Judaism.”
“I have several projects simmering on the back burner.
For one, I feel forever under-educated in my own religious texts, and at the same time, compelled to teach more within my community. The two go hand-in-hand, because every time I give a lecture on Torah, I am compelled to spend days immersed in study and thought. It’s the best way to study things deeper — by forcing oneself to teach.
My female friends who are studying for various communal positions as scholars and leaders have spent years mastering the texts, and are leagues ahead in Torah study — while here I am, merely married to my title with no degree in religious study to speak of, and yet I’m accorded some sort of respect (as a “rebbetzin”) which I feel is undeserved.
But I look at this as a challenge in self-education. It challenges me to step up to the plate. I’m trying to find more time to study Torah — I admire how my husband finds themes that are brilliantly current in the ancient and medieval texts, and how he presents them in his sermons.
And another ambitious project, rather daunting at times: I’m forever working on fiction writing. (In all my spare time!) Because sometimes it takes fiction to tell the truths that we can’t even tell in journalism.
Whatever it is — I hope it’s projects like these that can perhaps, a tiny bit, encourage other religious women to speak up. Our daughters need to hear more religious, educated Jewish women’s voices in public spaces — beyond the convenience of Facebook threads. It’s why I teach journalism. If I can give anything to my students, it’s the confidence to put a pen to paper and let their words run free.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.