With four female rabbis heading Tucson congregations, it’s easy to forget that the advent of women on the bimah is a relatively recent occurrence. Since 1972, about 1,000 women have been ordained as rabbis in this country. So the norm for most congregations is a male rabbi where the rabbi’s wife, known as the rebbetzen, often holds a special place in the community. The AJP caught up with two husbands of Tucson rabbis — aka rebbetzmen or rebbetzsirs — to find out what it’s like for them being married to a rabbi.
Rob Gludt, 43, is the spouse of Rabbi Kelley Gludt of Congregation Anshei Israel. “I married an editor, not a rabbi,” explains Gludt, referring to his wife’s earlier career as a journalist. But the experience of being married to a rabbinical student was the foundation for enduring friendships and strong connections in the Jewish community, he says. During the year that his wife attended the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, Gludt had time to explore Israel with others who were experiencing their spouses’ commitment to long hours of rabbinical studies. “The girls and I all bonded,” Gludt says, speaking of the wives of the other rabbinical students. Married for 20 years, Rob and Rabbi Kelley have been at Congregation Anshei Israel for five years. They adopted their 2-year-old son, Romi, from Taiwan in 2008.
Dennis Dawson, 61, is married to Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation M’kor Hayim. The couple arrived in Tucson in 2006 from the San Francisco Bay Area, where Dawson was a school teacher and principal for 30 years. Cohn was already ordained when they met. “People assume that when I’m in a Judaism class and come up with a correct answer, it’s due to the fact that I’m married to a rabbi. But that’s not really the case as I’ve always been one to study Judaism,” he says. Dawson pursues an eclectic array of interests. He is active in the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Club where he is currently leading a solar observation project, studies classical guitar and serves on the advisory board for the dance department at the University of Arizona.
Dawson says he and Cohn feel they are part of a family at M’kor Hayim, a small Reform congregation. But having come from a Conservative background, he likes to attend morning minyan at Congregation Anshei Israel, where he is an associate member. Dawson was a rarity as the only Jewish chaplain at two Catholic hospitals in San Francisco; he currently volunteers at Tucson Medical Center’s hospice.
Rob Gludt’s activities have always centered on synagogue life, and not just because he’s married to a rabbi. “I’m a regular shul-goer,” he explains, “but with my wife’s position I make a real effort to put distance between me and the bimah. I know that I could easily become a lay leader at Anshei, but when offered a chance to step up to the pulpit I decline. We don’t want to be a team, and besides, I find that it’s more unique being a male spouse to a rabbi.”
Gludt considers himself lucky to be a married to a female rabbi because the congregation’s expectations are limited: “I don’t need to work in the preschool or be active in the sisterhood,” he jokes, referring to the expectations he hears about from his female counterparts. But there are some elements of the experience Gludt feels are universal. “Yes, people do make comments about what I wear,” he admits. “Primarily they focus on the fact that I don’t wear a tie. But I tell them that it’s just too hot here.” When people make remarks about his beard or how he dresses, it’s not from a place of meanness, he says, it’s just that the rabbi and her family live a public life. “Congregants feel invested in our lives,” he says. “If they bring up [what I consider to be] inappropriate subjects, it’s just that they’ve inadvertently blurred the lines because they see us all as part of an extended family.”
Dawson says that he feels no expectations from his wife’s congregants. “We really are a big group of friends,” he says. “If I’m present at services, that’s great and if I’m not, it’s not an issue. If Helen is out of town the congregation knows and often people will call to invite me over for dinner. It’s all very comfortable.” What he didn’t find comfortable but eye-opening was the rigors of the life he briefly dabbled in as a driver of 18-wheel trucks when he and Cohn first came to Tucson. “I only lasted about six months. The life is dangerous and very difficult. You’re on the road for three months and then home for two days. But the worst was how badly people treat you. People just assume that truck drivers are ignorant and they relate to you demeaningly.”
Gludt works as a commissioning technician for Canyon State Facility Solutions, which helps clients maximize building efficiency. The job affords him a reasonable amount of flexibility, allowing him to spend time at home with his son. Through Romi’s first year Gludt was the primary caregiver, but now he and Rabbi Kelley have found the balance to sharing child-raising duties.
There is one issue on which the two rebbetzmen have vastly different perspectives: middle-of-the-night phone calls. Dawson says, “I never answer the phone, period. I don’t like being that accessible as I tend to be more of an introvert.” Rob Gludt admits, “I answer the phone in the middle of the night. I snore so badly that my wife wears earplugs so she couldn’t hear it anyway. Plus caller ID is a wonderful thing.”
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.