Imas on the bima: Seeking to balance spiritual leadership and motherhood

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein spends time with her children, Macey, 12, Eli, 10, and Lila, 6 at home. Goldstein has served Congregation Shaare Emeth for the past 13 years.

By Ellie S. Grossman, Special to the Jewish Light

As hard as they may try, moms who are rabbis or cantors can’t leave their work at the office. It’s impossible. These imas on the bima redefine multitasking by what they can accomplish in one day—balancing spiritual and family duties. 

Perhaps this Mother’s Day they’ll get to sleep in.

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“I can’t remember the last day I slept in. If I can sleep until 8 a.m. it’s a golden day,” said Hazzan Joanna Dulkin of Shaare Zedek Syngogue and mother to two boys, Zac, 8, and Jesse, 6. “I’d also enjoy a bowl of granola—that’s what they could cook for me.”  

Being a rabbi and a mom can be exhausting and exhilarating. Just ask Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, who has officiated for 13 years at Congregation Shaare Emeth, the same place she 

became a bat mitzvah in 1983. She is the mother of Macey, 12, Eli, 10, and Lila, 6.

“I never feel that I’m doing my best in either realm (work or family) because, in many ways, I feel torn between two worlds. My biggest challenge is to remain present in whatever realm I’m in,” said Goldstein, 42, who remembers giving her children a pinkie wave from the bima when they were younger. 

“When I’m at work, I try to really be present with the tasks that I’m completing and with the people I’m working with. And when I’m at home, I try to really be present when I’m eating dinner with my family, playing outside, reading books before bed, and even for the mundane tasks, like doing the dishes or folding the laundry.” 

For Dulkin, 37, the rhythms of motherhood and spiritual leadership are right in sync.

“When you’re clergy you’re always on, and when you’re a mom you’re always on,” she said. “Who I am as a cantor and who I am as a mom is not two different people. It’s the fullness of who I am.” 

Dulkin, a native Californian, isn’t the only clergy member in the family. Her husband, Ryan Dulkin, is a rabbi and adjunct professor at Eden Theological Seminary and Washington University.

For this dual clergy family, life is anything but ordinary.  

“We don’t have a full weekend the way other families do. If there’s a stone dedication or a funeral, our family plans have to be adjusted because the community needs me. If there’s a funeral, I drop everything because that’s what I do,” said Dulkin. 

“My role as a cantor is very similar to a rabbi in terms of pastoral work. I stay up late recording Torah portions and try to limit my evening meetings. I usually forgo daily minyan so that I can be home in the morning to help with breakfast and get my kids out the door,” Dulkin said. 

Despite these sacrifices, the accomplished singer and songwriter wouldn’t change a thing. Her goal is to create a comfortable, homey atmosphere for parents and their children at shul. 

“I tell people I have the best job in the world,” said Dulkin, who trains for marathons to clear her mind. “What brought me to synagogue life was being able to make a difference in the community. I get to work with all ages in all stages of life…and that’s very powerful.”

These career moms believe that parenthood and the pulpit go hand in hand. And while their jobs are uplifting, their kids keep them grounded. In fact, often their children teach them.

“When my kids come to understand something for the first time, I bring that reflection to my work as a bridge that helps me connect with members of the congregation,” said Goldstein. “The sermons and articles that I write come to life through my kids. Their understanding something for the first time illuminates the text that I hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a blessing.” 

Another gift that children give to parents is the opportunity to help adults appreciate the holiness in the ordinary.

“Kids are uncomplicated and make us see things with fresh eyes, such as when they are little and recognize a rainbow for the first time,” said Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh, 45, who is the Chaplain at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and serves as visiting rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham, in Decatur, Ill. She also occasionally conducts services at B’nai El in St. Louis.  

Hersh (also a blogger for the Jewish Light) was the first female rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation, where she served from 1994 to 2004. 

In June 2004, she moved to her husband’s homeland Australia with their son, who was 10 weeks old at the time. She led liberal congregations in Sydney and Perth and ran the religious school and adult education program for a few years.  

“It’s hard to stay away from something that you’re passionate about, which is why I was pulled back into work as a rabbi when my son was only a few months old. Being a rabbi is not a job, it’s a way of life,” said Hersh. 

She also believes being a mom makes her a better rabbi.  

“My heart became larger when I became a mom. Whether I’m feeling pain, happiness, or love, it’s a greater intensity of those emotions because my heart has opened to boundaries that I ever thought possible,” said Hersh. “I transfer that to my work. When someone tells me something about their children, my heart opens. I’m with them every step of the way,” said Hersh, whose son Noah, is now 8.  

Bottom line, these career moms want to be positive role models to their children.  

“I hope they learn from me the value of work, of being independent and finding a way to earn a living by being involved in something that you love,” said Goldstein. “I also hope I teach them, through example, the importance of being connected to a community who will surround them when they have joys to share and uplift them when they fall to sorrow.”

And finally, “I hope I make them proud.”