Yael’s Story: The Modern Rebbetzin
The Beis Community is a pretty wonderful place. In some ways, we’re a traditional Orthodox shul; each week, we do standard mechitza davening (services with a partition). But a core part of our mission is being radically inclusive to every individual. Our slogan is “All are welcome, always”, and we try to have the culture and atmosphere reflect that. Newcomers are welcomed in shul, Torah learning is made accessible to everyone, regardless of background, and you definitely don’t have to dress a certain way, act a certain way, or consider yourself Orthodox to be embraced. We attract a lot of people who feel marginalized or out of the loop in other Orthodox spaces, whether they’re LGBTQ+, Jews of color, converts, baalei teshuva (new to observance), people who just don’t have the standard Orthodox social capital (didn’t go to the schools or camps or gap year programs that everyone else did), or people who are just plain searching. People can come with their full selves, which is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be radical but somehow is. I think that’s one of the most meaningful things about the Beis–all the people who have found a Jewish communal home who wouldn’t have otherwise.
The other core part of our mission is intentionality and spirituality. Our goal is not just to provide the basics like davening and learning, but to also think about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. How are we gathering in this space, and are there ways we can tweak the structure or setting or content (within the framework of halacha, Jewish law) to make the experiences we share more relevant and more meaningful? Why are we here, doing this religious practice, as individuals and as a community, and how can we tap into the more ‘spiritual’ elements of Judaism that sometimes get lost in the face of halachic minutiae? How can we enhance our relationships with each other and with God through our community?
The first time I was referred to as “Yael, the Rebbetzin”, I cringed. As time has passed, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the label, but it’s still a role that I’m ambivalent about.
First, I don’t feel like I fit the image of a classic rebbetzin. I don’t cover all my hair, I don’t work in the Jewish community (I manage storm recovery projects for New York State), and I’m kind of introverted. I also sometimes question basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism; while I’m committed to halacha and find so much beauty and wisdom in our traditions, I struggle with the tensions inherent in being a religious Jew in the 21st century. However, while I don’t feel like a ‘typical’ rebbetzin, I have also started to realize that these characteristics help me be a better leader at the Beis. I can empathize with people who are searching or questioning in one way or another (which is pretty much everybody at the Beis) because a piece of me is questioning too.
The position of rebbetzin, in general, is also something that I’m struggling with. On the one hand, I find so much meaning in hosting shabbat meals, introducing myself to people in shul, and being part of a unit that’s responsible for the community– all things that I consider part of my “rebbetzin-esque” role. And I’m so grateful to be continuously involved in Jewish communal work on the side while my professional life takes me elsewhere. But I still feel uncomfortable with a label that was generated because of my husband’s role (even if I’ve also given a lot to the Beis). I’m not sure why I’m privileged to be in a position of power that other women without rabbinic husbands aren’t able to access.
Having twins was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and parenting is the most challenging and rewarding part of my life. My twins are two, so they’re on their way to independence, but they still need hands-on care a lot of the time. They love going to shul (and everyone loves them!), but I end up spending most of my time running after them. I’m one of the only moms at the Beis, and being in that headspace makes it hard to sustain conversations with other people and make the social connections that are important to me both as a person and as a communal leader. I’ve been blessed to make some close friends through the Beis, but since having kids I’m definitely more in the background. One of the hardest parts of being a mom/rebbetzin is being very visible but not necessarily known. I think it’s harder to get to know me a person, beyond the constructs of rebbetzin/mom/wife/etc that I inhabit.
Becoming a parent has also completely shifted how I spend my time and how much I can devote of myself to communal endeavors. Before having kids, my husband Hart was still devoting more time than I was to the Beis, but I felt much more like an equal partner in community building. After having kids, I tried to stay as involved as before but ended up burning out. My own physical needs fell by the wayside, and everything started getting a little out of whack. I started pulling back and saying no to things (which is really hard when you live with the guy running things who loves to talk about his work!). Now, I opt-in in small ways when I can, but I’m trying not to get recommitted to the point of neglecting the basic needs in my own life, which are more boring than community building but necessary for keeping my own sanity. It’s hard to maintain those boundaries, but my physical and emotional health is the building block for everything else in my life.
When I was dating Hart, at one point I got nervous that he was so invested in Jewish communal work. I asked myself, “What does Hart love more–you, or reaching out to other Jews?”, as if it was an either/or question. Of course, I learned quickly that the answer is both.
So many of our family traditions revolve around Jewish community–from hosting weekly Shabbat dinners to giving out apples and honey with our kids before Rosh Hashana, to throwing huge, open-invite seders. All these things are outward-facing, yet they also bring Hart and me together.
We’re also regular people, who value spending time together as a couple and as a family, and in our day to day life things don’t line up perfectly all the time. Sometimes we argue about whether to spend more time as a family or as part of the community, or whether I could take on one more thing for the Beis. And there are certain times of the year, the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) in particular when communal things take up a lot of Hart’s time and I have to wait until the pendulum swings in the other direction. (Luckily our anniversary is soon after the holidays!)
But at the end of the day, I believe in what we’re doing at the Beis, and I believe in Hart, and I think he is and we are where we’re supposed to be. I feel so blessed that my life partner and co-parent is also my community building co-conspirator. Hart and I have been able to take values that we share and bring them to life, together both in our home and our community. There’s a book I love called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman, and the very last principle is “Create shared meaning”. I’m so incredibly grateful that Hart and I can create shared meaning together: opening up our Shabbat table to guests from all walks of life, creating spaces for thoughtful exploration of Jewish practice and identity, and brainstorming what Jewish community can and should look like in the 21st century.
I have been dancing for many years–mostly hip hop—and I feel like dance has helped me be rooted in my body and also appreciate my physical self for being a source of strength and power. I also think dance is an amazing antidote for modern Orthodoxy’s tendency to overemphasize intellectual ways of being, and for balancing out the modesty practices which are valuable but also have the potential to make women feel disassociated from or negative about their bodies.
I think my dance background is part of the reason why I started teaching kallah (premarital) classes because I’m interested in the interplay between our bodies, identities, relationships, and sexuality. Keeping hilchot niddah (laws of separation/family purity) encompasses all of that, plus our relationship with God and halacha. It touches on every aspect of a person (physical, emotional, social) and I try to teach in a realistic and holistic way.
Teaching kallah classes have also allowed me to continue to engage deeply with Jewish texts in a narrow, focused area. Between my job, kids, Hart, and the Beis, there’s so little space for other things, and I don’t have the capacity to attend Jewish learning events that sound interesting or dip my toes into new material. But by teaching kallah classes, I’m reading and re-reading Jewish texts consistently, and building my knowledge and understanding in one area deeper over time.
And I recently started a blog, just for fun, combining my love of hip-hop with my passion for teaching kallah classes. I write about hip-hop songs that can be connected to some aspect of niddah, mikvah, or sexuality. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but often there are surprising connections!
Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, 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 is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.