Combining Faith and Family

A simple Sukkah hut constructed by Rabbi Karen and Rabbi Micah Citrin and their twin 6-year-old sons, Itai and Yonah, in the backyard of their midtown Tulsa home signified the seamless integration between their Jewish faith and family.

“We built our first Sukkah, a fort, in our back yard for the Sukkot holiday. We worked together as a family and the boys had a lot of fun. It was nice to see our sons celebrating their Jewish faith within our family,” Rabbi Karen said.

The Citrins are a co-senior rabbi husband and wife team at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. They are one of approximately a half dozen Rabbinic couples in the nation to share the pulpit.

“The Temple was looking for one rabbi, but we applied as a team,” Rabbi Micah explained. “It took some educating and there were initial questions about how this would work, but there was a good chemistry and dialogue. In some ways, we have always worked together, even when I was teaching high school. We both have a master’s degree in Jewish Education, so we always helped each other with the other’s work.”

The Citrins moved to Tulsa from San Mateo, California where they worked at Peninsula Temple Beth El, she as Associate Rabbi/Educator and he as Rabbi/Educator. With both working separate positions in the Temple, the Citrins relied on childcare and babysitters to help with the boys.

“Like many full-time working parents, we found we were running in different directions all the time,” Rabbi Micah said. “Once we had the boys, we realized there was a disconnect between what we were emphasizing to our congregation about family and our own availability to spend time with our sons. On major Jewish holidays we were lucky to spend time and enjoy the holiday together. That was not what we wanted for our boys.”

By sharing the rabbi position both parents can now participate in before- and after-school time with Itai and Yonah. “One of us leaves here every day at 2:30 to pick the boys up from school and spend time with them on homework and extra activities,” Rabbi Karen said. “We communicate daily about who will pick them up depending on both our schedules.”

As co-senior rabbis, the Citrins share one position equally, partnering to provide rabbinic guidance, care, teaching and spiritual direction at the Temple. If Rabbi Karen is leading a service, Rabbi Micah sits in the congregation with their sons. They also try to divide equally their rabbinic roles in meetings, worship, teaching and public moments and in fun. Both are music people. Rabbi Karen sings and Rabbi Micah plays the guitar, and they enjoy bringing members of their congregation together around meals, music and dancing.

Growing up in committed Jewish families was a factor in leading the couple to the pulpit. Rabbi Micah’s father is a rabbi. “I grew up in a family and home where the life of a clergyman was familiar,” he said. “Every Friday night we would have our Sabbath dinner together. My family was actively Jewish. There was not ‘This is Jewish time and this is family time’.”

Rabbi Karen grew up surrounded by Jewish custom. She attended Jewish camps with her sister and described the experience as “a joyful time being immersed in a Jewish community.”

“As a woman, for me to become a rabbi was more of a leap of faith. Women began being ordained in the early ‘70s, and we began seeing women in leadership roles in the Jewish congregational communities in the ‘80s. Today, the rabbinic classes are about 50 percent women,” said Rabbi Karen, who is Temple Israel’s first female rabbi.

From a pastoral point of view, Rabbi Micah said the congregation has responded very naturally to having co-senior rabbis. “I think that we do try to project that partnership, and we speak with one voice even when only one of us is speaking.”

Yet sometimes there has been a natural split in how they help in the temple community. “If a male member is ill, I can visit him in the hospital and work with the family. Karen can do the same for our female members. And the same goes with working with our teens and youth.”

The Citrins encourage their congregation to bring their children to Temple. “We want to emphasize the intergenerational nature of temple life. We want to see parents, grandparents and kids actively engaging in Jewish life at the Temple, celebrating our traditions and heritage and making it relevant. As much as we can, we bring our boys to services,” Rabbi Micah said.

“We believe the future of Temple and the Jewish people depends on our youth learning to be Jewish by doing Jewish things,” he added. “A child can learn about Shabbat and being Jewish in a classroom, but a child learns to love Shabbat and being Jewish by sitting in the warmth of the sanctuary, surrounded by community,” he said.

“We want our youth to recognize the fact that life is complex and if you have this wonderful tradition, although it is ancient, it is renewed. We want to give them the tools to feel like they can make sense of their traditions and know they have gifts to bring to the Jewish community and the community at large,” said Rabbi Micah, smiling. “It takes a village to raise young people and our Temple is their village.”

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