Jewish Clergy’s Newest Challenge: Single Motherhood
A new documentary follows four women on their journey to parenthood
Be sure to have a hanky ready should you watch All of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother, a frank documentary about the pursuit of solo parenthood. If you’re at all a softie, you’ll cry despite the fairly corny title cards and occasional sunset vistas, and even though it’s clear from the start that for three of the four women featured there is a happy ending. Rabbis Felicia Sol, Julie Greenberg, and Lisa Gelber all now have children. Basya Schechter, a cantor and musician, is still on a path there.
As a single mother myself, it’s hard for me to tell if the stories in this film, so like my own, have truly saturated popular culture or if that’s just my projection. Similarly it’s hard to know if the audience for such a film is broader than the cohort of women going through similar journeys, and if so, exactly how much broader. Broadcasting this documentary on ABC certainly helps dispel the idea that there is only one viable model of family. And whether or not people read essays or watch movies exploring this terrain, just knowing they exist—and, more critically, that the women in such stories exist—changes, enlarges, and enriches our conception of family and community.
It helps, of course, that the women featured in All of the Above are articulate, loving, persistent, and filled with imagination. There may not be partners or husbands or wives in the picture, but their absence did not stop the subjects from going after what they always knew they wanted—a child. That said, arriving at the decision to go forward to become a parent without a partner is emotionally arduous.
There’s “mourning around what your life didn’t become,” says Sol, a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When the fantasy she had of herself as a married wife with kids didn’t materialize, Sol opted for single motherhood. She now has two children. She may yet become a wife; the clock on that possibility never runs out.
Schechter voices similar grief. Hers so raw, it made me weep.
“You have to let go of your dream husband, of your dream family, of your dream house, of your dream pregnancy, of your dream maternity clothes and be open to…what’s available and possible and an opportunity for you at a given time.”
That the four women in this film occupy positions of leadership in religious communities makes them exceptional. I don’t mean that their pursuit of parenthood is more poignant simply because they’re full-time dwellers in a spiritual realm, though that realm clearly nourishes them. Rather, their professional status makes them a beacon for other individuals in their congregations and orbits who may be struggling with questions of if, how, and when to become a parent.
“I think it’s really powerful for a woman in a leadership position to say, ‘I thought I was going to get it all, I didn’t in the way I thought I was going to get it, but I’m blessed with more than I ever imagined I would be,’” says Sol. Looked at another way, she is suggesting viewers consider that members of the clergy may have personal struggles similar to those their congregants face. And the candor and sensitivity with which these women speak about these struggles—not just the emotional hurdles they cleared in choosing to become single parents, but the financial ones they still face and the social ones they encounter in being pioneers professionally and personally—is thoroughly riveting and instructive.
“My partnership became between my child, and myself and god,” Gelber explains. “What I did in adopting my child, in creating an expanded family for myself was an act of tikkun.” I would add it is an act of love, as well.
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