by Mary Nearpass
When Mt. Airy’s Julie Greenberg, 57, was in her mid-20s, studying to be a rabbi and living in a feminist world of non-traditional relationships, she wondered how she would create a family. As a single woman engaged in passionate activism, Greenberg had always planned on becoming a mother.
More than 30 years later, Julie, who says she is currently not living with a partner, has parented her five children within a web of connection that has included women lovers, a gay male parenting partner, birth parents, sperm donors, multiracial children and beloved friends. Pulsing through her non-traditional family life is a commitment to spirituality, justice work and mothering. Her children are Rosi, 27, Raffi, 24, Zoe, 23, Joey, 18, and Mozi, 14.
We recently discussed her new book, “Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time,” which is packed with ideas for conscious parenting in a new age speaking to all kinds of families. The book integrates the genres of memoir and how-to, intertwining her personal story with ideas that could be useful to any parent. Julie focuses on the “macro” issues of the day, such as race, class and peace, and those “micro” moments of parenting, such as how to handle squabbles at the dinner table. Overall, this book offers innovative wisdom from the mainstream and from the margins.
Rabbi Greenberg, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist, became a mother on July 11, 1987, and is the proud mother of three girls and two boys ranging in age from 14 to 27. She birthed her oldest three children and her youngest two were adopted from Guatemala. Her family shares a spacious three-bedroom apartment in a large racially and economically mixed co-op in Mt. Airy. She has lived here for almost 30 years. It provides a “a web of connection rather than a nuclear, linear model.”
For 17 years, Rabbi Julie chose to send her children to public schools, but she sent her oldest son from K-5 to Chestnut Hill Academy and her third child from 5-12 to Springside School. (Now they are combined as Springside/Chestnut Hill Academy). As a single mom, she was looking for ways to broaden her scope of caring partners. “There is a difference between having a mate versus having partners to bolster family life.”
Julie’s book makes it clear that there is a “new normal” family in America, which may include multi-racial parents, gay parents, single parents, etc. Overall, parenting has been a joyful journey for her, but there have been hard times, too. “Sad is part of life, too.”
“Just Parenting” combines giving advice and practical pointers with her family’s personal stories. People come to Julie for advice all the time, both friends and people in her therapy practice. “It’s like how you know if you should be a teacher; do people come to you to learn things? I feel like it’s important to trust yourself but also take in as much information as you can, whether it’s from books or my children’s coaches, teachers or therapists. I am always happy to hear from someone who cares about me and my kid!”
In a significant portion of the book, Greenberg is involved with a platonic co-parent, and the book deals frankly with the end of that relationship. It addresses co-parenting with a former lover. “We are all intimacy-challenged” is a quote in her book from her colleague Rabbi Goldie Milgram. “It doesn’t really matter if you are having sex with the person or not; parenting is deep and primal. You will have challenges and moments of reckoning. And you might even choose not to continue partnering with the person. But the choices will be yours, not ordained by God or society or whatever.”
Julie grew up in Washington, D.C., as the oldest of five daughters; she was raised by a mother who was steeped in early childhood education and progressive values. The family spent several years in Mississippi at the height of the Civil Rights movement, where her mother Polly helped start an innovative statewide Head Start program. Julie’s father, Daniel, is a journalist who writes about the politics of science.
Julie attended public school in Washington and Mississippi for most of her young years and also attended a progressive private school for four years. She dropped out of her “dysfunctional” D.C. high school at age 16, though, to work as a waitress and travel in Europe, studying literature, art and education in each country. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 1979 with a special major in Religion, History and Economics. For a few years after college, she did full-time feminist organizing on the west coast, supporting herself by working in a juice bar, in daycare centers and at under-funded non-profits. In 1980 Julie founded and directed Mountain Meadow Feminist Camp on her mother’s mountaintop in South Central Pennsylvania. The wilderness camp embraced children from LGBTQ families, creating an affirming community for children growing up in families that did not yet have rights and recognition. The camp moved to New York and then New Jersey and served countless children and counselors during its decades of operation. Starting in 1983, Julie studied at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Wyncote. Though her feminist and gay activism sometimes branded her a heretic during and after her time at RRC, the college recently honored her with an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
For 12 years starting in 1990, Julie was the founding director of the Jewish Renewal Life Center, which offered a year-long immersion in Jewish living. During these same years, Julie built a rabbinic private practice in Philadelphia offering services such as weddings, funerals and Bar/Bat Mitzvah training and ceremonies. She was one of the first rabbis in the world to officiate at same-sex weddings, welcome interfaith couples and families and work closely with clergy from other faiths in co-officiating. In 2001, Julie became the rabbi of Reconstructionist Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City in Center City. After training at the Council for Relationships, she also became a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her private therapy practice is called Counseling with Soul. Currently, Julie also spends many hours each week on issues of social justice including climate change, public education and living wages for families. She is a member of the Rabbinic Council of Jewish Voice for Peace and a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network.
And Julie is not the only female rabbi who has made a conscious decision to be a single mother. “There is nothing wrong with how I live my life,” says Rabbi Lisa Gelber, one of the subjects of “All Of The Above,” a documentary film about women rabbis who have become single mothers by choice that aired on ABC-TV nationwide on March 23 of this year. Gelber, associate dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, appears in the hour-long program together with two other rabbis and a cantorial student who have all made the decision to build a family without marrying first, something that would have been unthinkable years ago.
Julie Greenberg can be reached at JulieGberg@gmail.com or at JulieGreenberg.net. To order “Just Parenting,” send a check for $21 (includes shipping) to Just Parenting Book, 6445 Greene St., B202, Phila. PA 19119. Include an address and phone number.