Leaning In to the Presidency: Hillary, Sheryl and Me

Will Hillary Clinton take Sheryl Sandberg's advice and lean in? Will she announce her candidacy for president even as she awaits the birth of her first grandchild? Would we ask such a question of Bill? The answers are of more than passing interest to me.

Upon receiving Sheryl Sandberg's popular book Lean In, my first thought was, "In which direction?" The book was a gift from the president of the seminary where I was ordained a rabbi in 1991 and have served as a professor of Jewish history since earning a Ph.D. in 1998. "Do you wish to study history," he asked pointedly as he handed me the book, "or make history?"

This was part of the president's efforts to persuade me and others to consider stepping up when he stepped down as the eleventh president of Hebrew Union College, the first institution of higher Jewish education in America. Established in 1875 in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, the institution is responsible for training future rabbis, cantors and educators for lives of Jewish engagement and leadership in the service of the innovative, open-minded, caring and activist congregations that make up the largest denomination of Judaism in the United States.

As a 1986 graduate of a women's college that embraces the "F word" (i.e. feminism) and had promoted the era's super-woman model of doing it all, I had long ago resolved to do just that. I entered seminary not even a decade and a half after Sally Priesand became the first American female rabbi and was told by a classmate during our first year of study that I'd likely wind up a housewife in suburban Westchester. Instead, after five years of rabbinical school and six years at an Ivy League doctoral program, the ninth president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion appointed me to his faculty. I would later become the first woman to earn tenure at the rabbinical school's New York campus. (There are campuses as well in Cincinnati. Los Angeles and Jerusalem.)

Unlike some professional women of my generation who took what the professional Bible of the day Business Week coined the "Mommy Track," I continued to believe that I could have it all. I returned to teaching five weeks after giving birth to my firstborn. While pregnant with my second child, the dean informed me that if I wished to take "time off" after the birth, I would need to teach extra courses the next semester. Subsequently, the school instituted a maternity policy, which I was the first to benefit from when my third child came along.

Among other debates, the entry of women into the rabbinate (and other professions) has forced a reconsideration of the ideal balance between work and home. Long before our plugged-in culture expanded the reach of the workplace into our family rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, rabbis were expected to be on call 24/7. The reality of an imma on the bimah (Hebrew for "a mom on the pulpit" -- and the title of a children's book by Rabbi Mindy Portnoy) is slowly but surely altering the ways we measure success. How in God's name, both men and women have been asking, can a parent parent with the rabbinical yoke on his or her shoulders?

Although I am committed to nurturing my students' intellectual and spiritual growth, I am honest about the fact that I have growing children at home who need me. And their needs, I have discovered, grow in proportion to their ages: fulfilling the straightforward, physical needs of babies and toddlers gives way to juggling schedules of school children and later to the very demanding emotional challenges of adolescents. Over the years, I have increasingly leaned in toward my children, and in so doing, I hope, instilled in a generation of rabbis, cantors and educators realistic expectations about their own futures as professionals and family members.

At this moment, I'm on a flight headed to Cincinnati for the inauguration of the twelfth president of HUC-JIR. I have no doubt that the school will flourish in the capable hands of its newly-appointed head. As he stands up to receive the mantle of leadership, I will sit down.

For sure, Sheryl Sandberg and I share the goal of creating equal access and opportunity for all within a society that won't define or limit people by their gender identity. But mine is a quieter approach than hers. Were I to lean in any further, I'd likely fall over.