Moms who Rock highlights Orlando moms doing their thing. This week’s spotlight is on Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik! This Orlando mom talks about raising a Jewish family in Central Florida!
Though I usually sit down face to face with moms, Sharon and I wound up doing a Facebook video call to chat about life. I can’t undersell you on how fun it was to virtually be in her world for a bit. Her vibrancy and hustle and bustle throughout her home as we spoke was charming. In my down time I’ll be drafting tv pitches for a Skolnik family sitcom.
Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik and her husband, Rabbi Hillel Skolnik moved to Orlando about six and a half years ago after Hillel finished rabbinical school. She was 30 weeks pregnant and hadn’t been able to visit during the interviews, so it was a brand new crazy adventure.
On first impressions of Orlando:
“It’s crazy hot. And people kept saying to me it takes three years especially for a northerner to adjust. Three years came and went and it’s still really hot.”
“Orlando has been a really enlightening and special experience for us. We’ve done our best to find our place here and make a place for ourselves and for our kids, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that. But in order to do that it has been a lot of hard work!
On connecting to Orlando:
“Living here during the Pulse shooting has connected us to Orlando in a way forever. I’ve met such incredible people here. It’s so interesting because almost everyone’s a transplant, so they all understand the feelings that we feel about being in a new place and being away from family. You can count on one hand the people you meet that are really from here. It’s special to me to see how people really take care of each other and act like family when they don’t have it nearby.”
Sharon grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Her uncle was the Rabbi of her synagogue growing up. And throughout her childhood, she grew up with strong female role models such as cantors and rabbis for as long as she could remember.
On knowing her calling:
“From a very young age I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I thought about living a life that reflected the things that I loved to do and the things that I was good at it and when I looked carefully all roads lead to becoming a rabbi. So, I basically bet on myself. I applied to one college and just thought if I didn’t get in there I’d figure it out. But I did. I went to Brandeis University, which was the perfect place for me, and even more perfect because that’s where I met Hillel.”
Though Sharon had been sure she wanted to be a pulpit Rabbi, her studies and internship experiences helped her to quickly realize that was not the case. As part of her degree, she was required to do a 400 hour summer internship, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Sharon was able to do her CPE at the Cleveland Clinic. Just a year into their marriage, Hillel and Sharon, packed up and moved into her parents house for a summer that would change her life.
On a life changing experience:
“I sat with countless families and individuals who were sick or dying, and to really feel like I was making a huge difference for them by sitting with them, praying together, or offering comforting words, was an experience that never leaves me. I remember I would come home every day exhausted – like an exhaustion that rivals how I feel today – but I didn’t have kids yet. I couldn’t see straight but still I felt like I had done God’s work every single day. That has influenced everything I have done since then, and even the way I talk to every single person I meet.”
On being a Rabbi’s Wife:
“I take my role as Rabbi’s wife very seriously. I know that for some, this can be a bit of a tricky situation and complicated line to draw. A lot of women have trouble with the term Rabbi’s wife, or rebbetzin, because you don’t want to just be known as somebody’s “something.” But to me, it’s always been so much more than that and such an important part of our rabbinic family. Even though I feel very strong and confident in my own rabbinate and my own rabbinic role, it’s always been a huge priority for me to support Hillel professionally and be his sidekick, and he has always been mine!”
On two rabbis co-parenting:
“That can be tricky. Hillel and I have always joked that we get along very well and are very ‘yin and yang.’ But when you look at the things that really get us arguing it almost always has to do with Jewish stuff. People think that’s hilarious. But it is really complicated because we came from very different backgrounds. We definitely have an infusion of that in the house. The Judaism we practice today and the Jewish choices we make in the house with regard to the kids are absolutely the result of both of our upbringings. And we talk about each choice. It’s a conversation we have to think through and decide how it works.”
On arguing on the Jewish stuff:
“It really makes sense because the things you argue about are the things you’re most passionate about. Your religious choices, the way you live, your spiritual choices, your connection with God, and how you understand the religion of your childhood – those are fundamental things. It was fun to imagine what it would be like before we had kids, but once the kids are there it’s a different thing entirely.”
On raising three children of faith:
“We are so grateful to have three insanely curious and inquisitive and bright children, each of whom are looking for something a little different from us in regards to Judaism. I spend my days thinking and figuring out how to translate every day life and Judaism into a language my kids will love. It is so important to me that Judaism always be something that my kids love and not something that is forced on them.”
On being under a microscope:
“For anyone (especially for Rabbis!) there is an expectation of what our kids will and won’t do or will and won’t believe or will or won’t say. As if we have any control over what they do! There definitely is an expectation in terms of when we show up at services. It’s crazy the comments we get about what we’re wearing or how they’re acting. But it’s so important to me and to us that our children will always know what is important to us and what our expectation is for them.”
On allowing kids to be kids:
“Kids absorb everything and they do it in their own way which is important. I also try to remember that I try to live my life in a way that I think is what God wants me to do. So along those lines I try to imagine as best as I can, what God wants for my children. Does God want little soldiers standing in line and being silent in services? No. If God wanted little soldiers, God would have created children to be quiet and kids are just not.”
On a Shabbat that’s anything but restful:
“Friday nights are tricky, Hillel has to be at services by 7:30pm. So for us Shabbat dinner is crazy. I’ve been cooking all day, sun up to down. The kids of course sit down and someone doesn’t like what I gave them or found a carrot in the soup or doesn’t like the spice on the chicken. It’s crazy. Hillel always starts with kiddush (the blessing) over wine and the kids are usually talking or yelling at each other. We laugh that as kids, if we would have done things that they do, we would probably have been sent away from the table. But we’re not sending them away. We’re just not doing it. So in the past couple weeks the kids have taken to making animal noises that sound like the different Hebrew words so as they say Shabbat they do it like baaaa as a goat. First of all that’s hilarious, and they get Hillel to laugh when he sings which is also pretty funny. And I think to me that’s like the perfect example where you want to teach them to be respectful but at the same time not shut them down, which would probably just cause them to block it out and become disinterested.”
On creating a safe Jewish environment:
“You have to keep your kids in a bubble in this world as much as possible, in this tight Jewish bubble. And it’s not for everybody. Since we’ve been here, our kids have been in Jewish schools. My oldest has always thrived in a strong Jewish environment. My son has always struggled with his Jewish identity in a way. He loves going to synagogues and services and asking questions and loves everything Jewish. But, he also wants to be like everyone else and just fit in. In his pre-k class he was maybe one of three Jews in his class out of 18 kids. He wears a kippah (head covering) everyday and that was really hard for him. He just wanted to be like everyone else. He wants to play baseball on Saturdays and didn’t want to wear the kippah. That was really complicated. We kept trying to teach him to be proud, reminding him it’s good to be different, being Jewish is so special and all the things you’d want to say to your kids to make them proud of who they are. He’s in kindergarten now and he is so happy where he is and is just blossoming and is coming into his own. It’s been good for him to be with other kids who wear a kippah too and see that Judaism is important to all these kids too.”
Sharon’s house is an open door for Shabbat and holidays. She thrives in moments like these where she’s preparing a Passover Seder for 25 people. She believes those moments have a huge impact on her kids. They help her prepare and set the table and put out fun special surprises for all the children. At Hannukah each child has their own hannukiah (menorah) and she tells of how empowered and proud they are at lighting their own candles. She also acknowledges the utter fear she and Hillel have watching their kids play with an open flame.
On encouraging Judaism:
“I think that we do our best to keep the kids in a bubble and when we’re not keeping them in the bubble we encourage them in so many ways by inviting people over or wearing their Judaism on their sleeves so to speak to really share it with everyone. If we focus on the things you can’t do because you’re Jewish or can’t say, can’t eat, can’t go, then who wants to do it? Not me either. But if you focus on the things we get to do and you have all these great opportunities to share with everyone, then it’s great.”
On how exploring her faith has changed as a mom:
“Before kids, we were much more concerned about meticulously following the rules. Especially the rules within the confines of Jewish law. And we still are. But for me now, nothing has to do with me and it all has to do with them. I struggled with this as a Rabbi and as a Jew in general. I remember going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah one year, and I didn’t even get to open the prayer book. I felt really guilty about it. How am I supposed to pray? I can’t even wear a tallit (prayer shawl) anymore since I’m sweating so much from chasing kids around. When I finally took a step back and accepted that at this stage in my life, the prayers in the prayer book are not mine. My prayer is my children. I focus, I try to check in with God when I can, but for me, connecting my children to Judaism and developing that love, that’s my prayer. That is way harder and way more work.”
On the days before kids:
Sometimes you reminisce, not that you want it back, but you remember that life [before kids]. I remember that life and it was great. This life is greater but t’s just different than it was. It’s connected to all types of things, like when you stop expecting to get your pre-baby body back and pre-baby life back then I think everyone can find a little more happiness. It’s about incorporating the new stuff into your life and taking it all in and working it out. It’s not about pushing out the other stuff, but rather forging a new path ahead and I think for me it always will be about my kids. Hopefully as they start coming into their own I’ll start bringing more back for me.”
On the importance of self-care:
“I am a big proponent of self-care but am very bad at doing it myself, horrible actually. I’d love to tell you I exercise regularly, but I don’t. I try really hard to exercise and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I do love crafting and cookbooks so I’m always on pinterest and flipping through cookbooks for inspiration for new ideas. I love to cook and I especially love new recipes that remind me of Israel.”
On supporting other moms:
“Every mom wants so badly to be a great mom. And I feel like there are days or just moments I feel like ‘Wow, I rocked this mom thing just now, that was amazing parenting!’ There are moments where I feel like I’m on the ball and on my game, patient, thoughtful determined. But then there are so many moments where I totally lose it. People see me and think I have it all together because I have a big smile on my face all the time. That helps me because I don’t want to walk around grumpy or mad. But I do get mad sometimes and it is really hard. And I just want everyone to know that it is hard for every mom – even the ones that seem like they have it all together. And the only way we can survive this ‘momhood’ is by helping and supporting each other and learning and losing the judgement.”
Sharon’s outlook on faith and motherhood is reassuring. A reminder we don’t have to do it all perfectly to be doing it right. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that.
Want to read about other amazing Orlando moms? Check out all of our interviews here.