Conversations with a Jewish Rabbi and a Mormon Bishop, Part I

The beginning of this conversation started in a suburban St. Louis high school in the late 1980’s. Alison (top) and Teresa (bottom) in 1988Alison, a member of a Conservative Jewish synagogue, and Teresa, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were best friends during those years.

After years of pursuing educational and career paths in different parts of the United States, solidifying their own belief systems and establishing their own families, Alison and Teresa are now reconnecting with something new in common—they are both wives of clergy.

Alison is the wife of Morrie Zimbalist, a rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Suffern, NY. Teresa is the wife of Paul Hirst, a bishop in the LDS Church in Brainerd, MN.

Their seemingly different life paths have brought them together in a common conversation about their husbands’ roles. This series is a comparative look into those roles. These conversations begin where they started, from the wives’ perspectives:

What kind of involvement do you as the wife have in the congregation? How do you support him there?

Alison: As a rabbinic family, we strive to be examples, in all ways, for those in the congregation to follow. This is true not only in our religious observance in public and at home but also in our dedication to the synagogue. When Morrie became a pulpit rabbi six years ago, I decided that my dedication to and involvement in the synagogue would be focused on the things that most interest me and where I can be truly useful, rather than spreading myself too thin across every element of synagogue life.

For example, I’m not really very active in Sisterhood (the women’s branch of the temple), and I don’t attend every service that many probably think I “should” attend. But, when our son was an infant, I decided to start a mommy-and-me class that would hopefully develop into a nursery school.

We started that class twice a week in one classroom with eight moms and babies, and now, four years later, we have over 50 children ages 4 months through Pre-Kindergarten, five days a week, taking over six classrooms. We even have a summer camp!

I help direct the school and serve as its registrar and as a baby-and-me teacher. I also saw the need for toddler services (we call it Tot Shabbat), and I designed and lead those. I am a founder of the Young Couples Club, and I run junior congregation for the kindergarten through second graders on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In terms of directly supporting my husband, I think he’d agree that I’m his right-hand woman. I support him in every way, from being a sounding board to helping him develop programming to nagging him to get things done (people tend to nag me to nag him!) to occassionally filling in for his secretary.

Teresa: In the LDS church we do not have a paid clergy. All leadership, teaching and service is provided by the members themselves. In our congregation, called a ward, each member is given a responsibility, known as a calling, which is prayerfully determined by the bishop and his counselors who work with him. As a member of the ward I also receive a calling, just like the other ward members, but out of respect to the burdens placed on a bishop, the calling for a bishop’s wife is generally not a leadership responsibility.

When Paul was called to be a bishop in April 2007, I was a president of the Relief Society, the organization for women in our church, and served women and trained presidencies in the eleven Relief Societies in our area. Shortly after he became bishop, I was given a new calling as a family history consultant, helping members to research their own family history. I also teach a youth religion class two days a week, and I am a visitng teacher, which is an assignment in the Relief Society to watch over several women by visitng and calling them regularly.

Although I do feel my responsibilities support his efforts, I often want to do more when I know that human resources to meet needs and accomplish goals are limited. However, I restrain my tendencies to offer my own time and talents (or even opinions or reminders) so that other individuals can have the opportunities to develop their capacity by fulfilling assignments.

What is the personal impact of his responsibilities on you? On your family?

Alison: As much (or more) as he is a spiritual leader, Morrie is an employee of the synagogue. His “employer” is about 1,000 members. Thus, he’s on call 24 hours a day, and days off are scheduled but certainly not always used. We are fortunate that we live on the synagogue grounds, and he is able to arrange his schedule so that we usually have three meals a day as a family! And with Zachary in the nursery school and me as a work-at-home mom, we do see each other a lot. I would say that’s a very, very rare situation for a rabbinic family.

Teresa: Paul gives a lot of time as bishop. He has a full-time job in addition to being a bishop, and so he fulfills most of his church responsibilities in the evenings and on the weekends, more than 20 hours per week. Much of that time is put in on Sundays, which can be long and a little lonely for me, at home and at church. Sometimes I feel somewhat invisible as the bishop’s wife to other members of the congregation.

We do set aside time for just our family, though, like Sunday dinner followed by a walk, Monday night for a family home evening, and Friday night for dates. Despite the sacrifices, I see more positive impact than negative and appreciate the blessings from his service. The most important blessing is the increase of spiritual strength I feel in our home because he and I and our children are more focused on living the doctrine he is teaching and leading others to live.

How do you give him support at home for his responsibilities?

Alison: The biggest way I support him at home is making sure things are being taken care of so he doesn’t have to worry about them. In Yiddush, the expression is “ba’alah bust’ah” – the woman head of the house who basically is a whirlwind of psychotic energy. I’m the very hands-on mommy, the cleaner, the cook, the fishtank cleaner, the bill payer, the laundress, the errand-runner. I’m also his at-home secretary, sounding board, and head cheerleader. Fortunately, he is all of those things and more for me too.

Teresa: In a temporal sense, I make sure his needs are met. My husband always wears a suit with a white shirt and tie when he serves, and I keep busy ironing white shirts. While he does have an office at the church and an executive secretary, he still receives many phone calls and all his mail at our home, which involves me staying organized. He used to cook dinner on Sundays when I was a leader; now, I do that for him. In a spiritual sense, I try to create a calm, spiritual tone in our home with regular routines like family and couple prayer, eating dinner together as a family, and studying the scriptures. We try not to add too much mental and emotional stress to his load. And all this creates a good atmosphere so that he may receive the inspiration he needs.

Alison and Teresa continue their conversation next Wednesday, April 7, when they introduce their husbands, the rabbi and the bishop, and share some of the similarities between the congregations they lead.


  1. Minna Dyer
    Apr 2, 2008

    Such an interesting idea for discussion. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Rachel Corbett
    Apr 2, 2008

    Glad to see that you and Alison have reconnected. How interesting that you both ended up in similar (but very different) situations! I love the section about support for you husbands. How exciting to feel like you are helping God’s work by being a support to them so they can do what they are called to.

  3. Tami Siebert
    Apr 26, 2008

    I too appreciate this perspective of doing what we can as women to support our husbands and families in what they do. I believe we as women have the most control over the atmosphere and attitude in our homes, let it be a place of peace and joy.

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