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The whirlwind: Mother of six, PhD candidate, teacher, rebbetzin

Rivka AlterRIVKA Alter swoops through the front door and apologizes for a glitch in her tightly coordinated schedule. “I have to take the kids to BMH-BJ but I’ll be right back. Would you like some coffee? It will only take a second. Splenda or sugar? Is it light enough? OK, back in two minutes!”

In Alter’s multitasking wake, the house seems unnaturally quiet. The living room is exceptionally neat and guest-appropriate –– no easy feat for a family of eight (two adults, six children). A washing machine cycles unseen.

True to her word, Alter returns in record time. “I’m so sorry,” she repeats. “Usually things run smoothly but today is an exception.”

The wife, mother, rebbetzin (“I’m uncomfortable with the title –– I like Rivka”), Judaic and math teacher at DAT, doctoral candidate and former accountant agrees the kitchen would be a good place to talk.

With an unerring sense of what goes where, she swiftly cleans off the table and occupies a chair. A decorative “bling” sparkles on the headband framing her shaitel. Her nails are plum-colored.

“Yes, those are my challahs,” she says, referring to several loaves wrapped in aluminum foil on the stove. “I made some last night and didn’t want to wait up to let them cool. I usually make a big batch that lasts for a couple of weeks, but the holidays drained my reserves.”

This morning, Rabbi Daniel Alter, whom she married in 1997, is at DAT, where he is head of school. The kids –– Yehuda, on the far side of 11, Shimmy, 10, Talya, 8, Elisha, six, Ezra, three, and Avigail, 10 months –– are either in school or at daycare.

Although Rivka’s teaching schedule at DAT is flexible, one senses that enjoying a lengthy conversation around the breakfast table isn’t a normal part of the routine.

Raising six children “is daunting,” she admits. “It has its moments. Some nights I can’t wait to get them all in bed. But it’s also very rewarding. It’s not a piece of cake. Thank G-d they’re good kids.”

While balancing family, job and social responsibilities can be very demanding, this modern Orthodox woman feels she benefits from the mix.

“I think it makes me more organized when there’s a lot going on,” she says.

“The busier I am, the more productive I am. I don’t like surprises. If I know what my day is going to be like, I can get through it. Anything is doable.

“And there are moments of relaxation in between –– until the next craziness. Things come in waves. Some weeks are crazier than others. But in the end, it’s very worthwhile.”

Now starting the dissertation stage for her PhD in education for Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Alter will investigate curriculum-based measures.

Alter says her husband is the one who encouraged her to pursue the degree.

“I probably would not have progressed as far as I have without Daniel,” she says. “He’s really into it.”

To the casual observer, Rabbi Alter has an unmistakable air of intensity about him. He’s always on point; poised to address any issue.

“Yes, he can be intense,” Rivka smiles. “But he’s also very laid back. We both are. We don’t sit around analyzing our relationship. Life’s busy. You just kind of go with it.”

The family moved to Denver in 2000, when EDOS hired Rabbi Alter as its spiritual leader. “We were the youngest by far in Denver’s modern Orthodox rabbinical community,” Rivka says.

In 2006, Rabbi Alter joined DAT, which attracts longtime Denverites as well as youthful families putting down fresh roots in the area.

“Now we’re the old timers,” she says of the DAT scene. “We’re definitely not the young ones anymore.

“Me? I’m 36,” she adds without the slightest hesitation. “I’m not really old.”

Her bare face is radiant; her laughter, uncensored.

RAISED in an observant home in Englewood, NJ, Rivka Carmel grew up surrounded by faith and familiarity –– but later pushed the envelope of traditional expectations.

“I was brought up in a very insular setting,” she says. “I didn’t have non-Jewish friends or even friends who weren’t Orthodox. I mean, you didn’t even talk to kids who weren’t in your grade back then.”

When she enrolled in college, she opted for accounting, a serious vocation with practical applications.

After receiving her degree from the Sy Syms School of Business at YU, she started working for Arthur Andersen in New York.

“And no, I did not have Enron as my client,” she jokes.

The job offered what she describes as “prolonged exposure to all types of people. The New York office was full of Jewish accountants, but not that many religious ones.

“I didn’t even have an English name. But Rivka turned out to be a great conversation starter.”

She says her co-workers constantly asked questions about her Torah-observant orientation, and she was happy to provide a little insight.

Her colleagues were also vicariously introduced to the shidduch dating scene. “My dates were set up,” she explains. “I wasn’t going to happy hour to meet people!”

An arranged date with rabbinic intern Daniel Alter led to the chuppah. After the birth of their first child Yehuda, Rivka quit her two-and-a-half-year job at the accounting firm.

She has discovered that modern Orthodoxy “means so many different things to so many different people,” she reflects.

“For example, I tell you that I’m modern Orthodox. But if I introduce you to other people who are modern Orthodox they might not look the same as me, they might not talk the same or have an identical lifestyle.

“And I think modern Orthodoxy gets a bad rap for that. People assume that ‘modern’ is more important  –– if I can be modern and somehow manage to fit ‘Orthodox’ into my view of the world, then great.

“But it’s really the opposite.

“Even if you don’t compromise on Halachah, have rabbinic leadership and obey all the rituals, you can still have different philosophical viewpoints.”

While Alter may dress conservatively –– a fashionable mid-calf skirt, sweater and boots –– some women at DAT might adopt more individual dress codes and even forgo the shaitel.

“What makes this way of life so hard is finding a balance,” she says. “The DAT community is very supportive of their children. While we strongly encourage Torah learning, we also incorporate fun like Copper Choppers, a Sunday skiing trip to Copper Mountain.

“The kids play basketball at the JCC, attend sports games –– although we try to limit the amount of time they spend on these activities. Torah should be exciting. Religious growth should be exciting.”

Although Alter supervises her children when they use the computer –– “it’s not that I’m standing on top of them, but I make sure they’re not being exposed to anything inappropriate” –– it’s virtually impossible to limit their exposure to external influences.

Alter says modern Orthodox Jews are constantly looking for ways to integrate the modern world into their Torah-observant value system.

“To say we’re going to cut off contact with the outside world doesn’t give our children the tools to cope with that world,” she says. “Being in an environment that includes only your own kind is not something that is assumed, or even ideal.”

DESPITE being a rabbi’s wife and the mother of six children, Rivka Alter concedes that she’s never pursued the domestic track alone.

“I’ve always been one of those people who could never have one best friend or put all my eggs in one basket,” she laughs. “I’ve always had to be involved in different things.

“I really respect women who regard raising their children as a full-time job. I think it’s amazing. But I can’t do that all the time. I like the balance of working and being with my kids.”

Ezra and Avigail, her youngest, attend daycare.

“I like having them at daycare because it’s more reliable,” she says. “Remember, I like everything as predictable as possible. I don’t want a babysitter calling to say she can’t show up –– or worse, quits.”

Between her family, the laundry, cooking, cleaning, hosting large meals on Shabbat for the DAT community, teaching and her dissertation –– not to mention being shomer Shabbos –– when does she find time for Rivka?

Initially, her coursework at Yeshiva University was an attempt to “become more anonymous in an environment apart from Denver.

“Now we all go back East every summer for six to eight weeks,” she says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids to spend time with their grandparents, and for me to see friends from my life before this one.

“Not being able to be yourself all the time takes its toll. In the summer, I’m just a regular person visiting my parents. It’s a different lifestyle.”

She has scaled down on social obligations so she can spend quality time with her kids, especially at bedtime.

“But I don’t do our taxes,” says Alter, who prepared financial audits at Arthur Andersen. “My husband jokes that he married an accountant so I could do the taxes. I admit I’m not much good in that area.”

As her children grow up and older, she recognizes the importance of returning to her own center.

“Everything we do is an extension of G-d’s commandments. That’s what we teach our children. Our observance is their model. But in terms of my own personal growth, it’s hard when you’re raising young kids. I don’t have a lot of ‘me’ time for spiritual development.”

She tries to make the mundane holy and “incorporate everything into my being.”

Right now, moments of prayer occur on the run.

“I look for the time, and once in a while I find it. And when the kids are older, I’ll be able to do things I haven’t done in years. I’m not remorseful. Different opportunities present themselves at different times.

“And that’s what G-d wants. I think the reason women are exempt from certain time-bound commandments is because of the primacy of raising a family.

And I don’t mean that in a sexist way. Historically, this is what women have done.”

Alter’s prayerful intentions are frequently interrupted by voices who require her immediate love and attention.

“You think you have a quiet moment,” she smiles. “Two seconds later, your child starts crying. It’s like, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to ignore my child because G-d wants me to pray?”

She rubs a spot off the table.

“It’s hard to figure out sometimes. But it’s important to pray, even if you can’t pray everything, or the prayer isn’t as intense as you’d like. You’re still building it into your routine.”

She walks back to the living room.

On the piano, an instruction booklet opens to “Ode to Joy,” the stirring final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“Hmmm,” Alter says, turning the page out of curiosity.

“Ah. See that? The next song is ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.’ ”

Our print VIP special section includes profiles of community volunteer extraodinaire Scott Levin, Feldman Mortuary’s Jim Cohen and adult educator Elinor Greenberg. Get your copy by subscribing to the IJN or contact Carol at (303) 861-2234 or [email protected] to purchase individual issues.

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IJN Senior Writer | [email protected]

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