This interview first ran in the April 2014 issue of the Jewish Family Network newsletter.
by Julie Wolf
Born and raised in San Francisco, Steve Abramowitz worked behind the scenes in TV and radio production for 14 years before a life change — marriage to Massachusetts native Meredith — and a career change had him singing in front of a congregation. He was ordained a cantor in 2008, and he earned a master's in Jewish education from Hebrew College. He has been the cantor at Temple Ner Tamid since 2009 as well as the director of congregational learning at two other synagogues. With the birth of their twins, Ella and Gabriel, in 2010, Steve decided to cut back his hours to be a stay-at-home dad, working part-time for two years, while his wife, Meredith, returned to work as a speech and language pathologist. Now that his children are in preschool full-time, Steve hopes to teach in a Jewish day school as well as continuing as a cantor. Steve discussed his life as a stay-at-home dad and his views on the changing role of the synagogue in Jewish community. Steve and his family live in Marlborough.
What were your greatest challenges as the stay-at-home father of twins? What was it like for you to walk into a room full of moms and babies at playgroups?
Great question! I believe the greatest challenge has been scheduling activities around nap times, potty training regimens, and their energy levels. The Framingham JFN playgroup was a real benefit, as a weekly morning event Ella and Gabriel could look forward to attending. The more comfortable I am in an environment, the less intimidated I feel about being the only dad at so many events and playgroups. I only felt subtly ostracized at certain libraries and playgrounds, where most moms hung out in small groups and kept to themselves. Fortunately, with two small children running around (usually in opposite directions), I rarely had time to think about being left out of adult conversations.
Women are often each other's harshest critics, and there's an ongoing battle (certainly on the Internet, even if not in person) between working moms and stay-at-home moms. What's it like among dads? What was it like for Meredith?
On the plus side, most other dads I've met know me in the context of being a working cantor, so I never received an unkind word about staying at home part-time with the kids. Some did express how lucky I was to have this opportunity while I could take it! I think my wife received a few questions about our traditional role reversal when she first returned to work (after being home with our infants twice a week the year prior), but once we settled into our roles, such comments subsided.
Do you think being so actively involved in the day-to-day life of your kids influences your role in the congregation? Does it give you a special perspective on the needs of young families who choose to engage in synagogue life?
I am extremely blessed to have a very supportive congregation, and I'm planning a family-friendly concert in June. Each year I plan three to four special musical Friday night services with keyboard and drums; the last one, Baby Boomer Shabbat, was such a huge hit that congregants suggested we record an album! Since the rabbi, Deborah Zuker, gave birth to her own child, Ner Tamid has experienced a bit of a young-family renaissance. The rabbi and I lead monthly Teddy Bear Shabbat services during the spring and fall, and the synagogue hosts monthly family services on Saturday mornings as well. Purim and Simchat Torah celebrations have undergone a significant family-friendly transformation as well. Nonetheless, there doesn't seem to be enough interest among young families to ensure future sustainability.
Do you see these families seeking community in other ways? What do you hope your own children gain from their early connection with a synagogue?
Young families have so many Jewish cultural options in the area and on the Internet. They can experience holidays and Jewish celebrations in their own unique ways, instead of with a dues obligation, and many synagogues aren't there yet.
As for my own children, I want to develop in them a love of Jewish holidays and rituals, and make their occasional visits to my synagogue feel special. For example, on Purim, Gabe, in his adorable brown-bear costume, raced across the steps to the bima (which was serving as our stage) throughout our PurimSpiel, and though I was distracted, I recognized that he was having the time of his life — as was "Princess" Ella, who was dancing in a corner. And both Gabe and Ella have their own mix CDs with Jewish kids' music on it.
As a cantor, you provide a Jewish environment for your children at home and at work. Yet you continue to seek out programs like JFN.
Since my work as a cantor takes place in Peabody, and my home is in Marlborough, I've had to become more proactive in finding Jewish community activities locally. The JFN, JCC, and PJ Library events have been wonderful! And it hasn't hurt that the kids have been exposed to some great musicians and performers. We've also made some social connections through JFN circles. I thoroughly enjoy experiencing these programs and mini-holiday celebrations through my twins' developing minds.
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