by Kari Tuling
Tuesday being my day off, I took the opportunity to go pick out plants for my backyard landscaping project. I bought a Korean maple – one that looks like a Japanese maple, but with green leaves that turn rather than continuously-red leaves – and a bunch of grassy perennials. Today, Wednesday, the nursery will be delivering the tree along with 60 cubic feet of slate rock and 45 cubic feet of cedar gravel. I am going to make a Zen-garden-like dry riverbed that winds through a grassy flowerbed. Because I like to dig.
Tomorrow, of course, I will return to the office and do all the usual rabbi things: teach, attend meetings, set up events in the community, write a sermon. I am hoping that I might have a break in between meetings and picking up my son from school to dig a very big hole for the tree – but the project could end up waiting a few days if something comes up that demands immediate attention. Even so, I am not worried; now that the High Holidays have passed, I should be able to get back to it.
My life here is like that: an intermingling of rabbinic meetings and hole digging; of representing the Jewish community by giving a prayer at the Kiwanis club meeting and then being a mom while explaining the High Holidays to my son’s teachers. In a town of this size, my full persona is on view: not just my congregation, but also the whole community knows if I walk the walk.
Lately we have seen much in the way of discussion about women and having it all. There are genuine problems facing women who wish to take on challenging, interesting, and high-paying positions. The assumptions surrounding these positions are built up around the assumption of a worker who can commit everything to his or her position, relics of the days when positions were rigidly assigned by gender. Really, we could choose to structure these things differently. It is not necessary to insist that only people who work incessantly can be successful.
And there are those folks – there are many in my generation (Gen X), for example – who choose walk away from these assumptions, wishing to find a different path, one that is more humane in its structure. But that act of walking away is seen by many as a loss, as a less-ambitious approach to a career. It appears that there are no paths back to the fast track once you make your exit.
But is it necessary to define success in these terms and these terms only? What about those careers where the human touch is most valued? What, for example, qualifies as a successful rabbinical career?
One known and accepted career path is to take an assistantship at a large congregation right out of school, then move or get promoted to take on an associate rabbi position or a solo position at a mid-sized congregation, and keep moving up in size and scale until the summit is reached: senior rabbi in a truly large suburban congregation. A select few then move on to accept national positions within the movement itself, which is no small achievement.
Once upon a time, of course, all of these positions were held by men who were the primary wage-earners, who were married to women who was the primary home-keepers. So, much of what constitutes success in these roles is defined in those terms: success is measured in the size of the congregation, the size of the paycheck, and the size of the community. Bigger, of course, is better.
Similarly, rabbinical job listings are posted by size: to apply to congregations of X size requires Y number of years of experience. As the congregation gets larger, so does the number of years required. It is indeed a convenient way to organize the information. But perhaps it also gives the impression that one should necessarily move up in size as one gains in experience. To choose to be small – would that not indicate a less-ambitious path?
If measured solely by size, then I suppose my current position could be viewed as ‘less than.’ I am in a small town, with a small congregation. Our school is small, our building is small, and our budget is small.
But that kind of assessment misses so many things. Specifically, it misses that this congregation has an active, educated, and involved population that gives the rabbi respect and autonomy. It misses that this congregation sits next to a major university campus, and that ideally the rabbi here should be willing and able to engage in genuine and sustained academic study. It also misses that this particular position requires that the rabbi be a community rabbi in the fullest sense – that is to say, the rabbi must be fully comfortable with the pervasiveness of the role itself, and that role requires a lot of emotional intelligence and interpersonal poise.
And it misses that this position offers extraordinarily rich non-monetary compensation in the form of time and flexibility.
In other words, I don’t just get to be a rabbi; I get to do that while also having time to think. And, of course, time to dig up my yard.
I have not always taken this view. At one time, before I became a rabbi, I had the impressive title (“Senior Manager of Marketing Communications”) and the impressive car (BMW 318ti) and the impressive address (Laguna Niguel, California).
Yet somehow, in this most lovely small town with a long winter, I feel so much more successful here. Why? Because I am living on my own terms, according to what it is that I value most: I have found a position with time to think, time to be involved in my family life, the opportunity to really make a difference in a community, and the opportunity to write.
Impressive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Satisfying? Yes, in the deepest sense.
Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a most wonderful small congregation in Plattsburgh, New York, where she is also working on her dissertation, learning to play piano, and digging up her backyard lawn. Not necessarily in that order.