An old saying admonishes us to never discuss religion and politics in mixed company. Well, for us, religion and politics have been front and center in our marriage and throughout most of our adult lives. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, as a couple we believe that religion and politics must intersect where the common good is at stake.
That is not to say we don’t strongly believe in the separation of church and state. As Jews, we know that historically, if any country adopts one religion as the state’s religion, the Jews are likely to be displaced. We have only to look to our own family histories where our grandparents faced strong discrimination in Eastern Europe and came to the United States to escape anti-Semitism.
We also know firsthand that clergy and politicians are held to a higher standard – rightly so – but that means our lives under the microscope are not always easy.
With Steve’s 11 years as the assistant rabbi and 29 years as the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado and Joyce’s 10 years as the first female Jewish Denver City councilwoman and four years as a state senator, we are considered a high-profile couple with widespread name recognition. But because of our careers we have only a handful of people we consider our true friends, and we know other clergy and politicians feel the same way about their circle of friends.
We were at every bar and bat mitzvah at the temple, but often our two sons and daughter wouldn’t be invited – which bothered Joyce.
Joyce: “They saw us as the clergy, not as a family, and that was a tough, tough issue. I am sure that’s true whether you are a rabbi or minister. My heart would just break when I saw everyone’s kids, and our children were not invited – especially when they introduced us as their ‘dearest friends’ to their guests.”
But our children never felt slighted.
“You know that’s why our parents were always each other’s best friend,” said our oldest son, David. “Not going to another bar or bat mitzvah was always fine with us. I imagine that’s what my mom was most disappointed in: the constant reinforcement of the fact that people weren’t as close as my parents thought they had been.”
We have faced the challenges of growing our congregation and garnering votes and the often difficult and sometimes humiliating task of raising money for political campaigns and the synagogue.
We have sometimes alienated our congregation or constituents when they disagreed with us, but we stood up for what we believed and we never backed down. We’ve lived by the code: “Principle before politics.”
Steve: “This is something we have in common as a rabbi and a politician. We never pander to anybody. We stand up for what we believe in.”
We know when to do the right thing, whether ministering to the mother of one of the Columbine High School shooting suspects shortly after the tragedy or as Denver City Council president sending Denver police first to the Muslim mosque the morning of 9/11 because we needed to make sure their community was safe from possible retribution.
We wanted to write this book because we have taken this unique journey together not only as a husband and wife but as a rabbi and rebbetzin, father and mother, rabbi and city councilwoman, and retired rabbi and retired state senator.
“Growing up in a house where two parents really did live social justice and standing up for others, I always stood up for the kids who got beat up or bullied,” said our daughter, Debbie.
We call it “walking the walk” and standing by our convictions. We strongly support civil and gay rights and interfaith dialogue, including leading mixed religious group trips to Israel and reaching out to the Denver Muslim community.
“Steve and I would have lots of conversations about Israel and Palestine and that’s how our two journeys began to Israel in 2006 and 2007,” said Bill Calhoun, the former pastor of Montview Boulevard Presbyterian in Denver. “I saw Jews and Presbyterians learning a little more about the history and situation and that gave me great joy. Steve also made an effort with the Muslim community. He initiated it as a leader.”
Joyce also didn’t shy away from difficult issues. One example was when she went to the mat against other elected officials to make sure Denver built a skateboard park for youth and adults after the city made it illegal to skateboard downtown on the 16th Street Mall and other public places.
“Without Joyce’s consistent leadership and consistently resisting the ‘Not in My Backyard’ pressure, the skateboard park never would have gotten built,” said former NFL player Dave Stalls, who ran a center for at-risk youth and young adults. “No question it should be named after her.
Even if people didn’t agree with our convictions, they often overlooked what they considered our trespasses because they knew that when they really needed us – whether at a bar mitzvah or funeral or neighborhood planning issue or controversial vote – we were always there ready to serve.
“Rabbi Foster can be polarizing with his thoughts and opinions but no matter how offended or upset you may be, you always know he is going to give a great funeral,” said Jim Cohen, former board president for Temple Emanuel and owner of Feldman Mortuary, Denver’s Jewish funeral home. “He doesn’t have a stock story. He really knows the person and if he doesn’t he spends enough time with the family to deliver the perfect eulogy.”
Like a surgeon, police officer, or firefighter, we were on our jobs 24-7 and often picked up a phone call at home late at night or early in the morning. Obviously, not every clergy or public official will be that available and responsive, and many set boundaries. But we didn’t.
There were many times Steve was awakened by calls that a member of his congregation was in the hospital, and half-asleep he got up, dressed, and went to the hospital.
Steve: “And when there were times when I really didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night, Joyce would remind me I should get up.”
There also were numerous times constituents would call Joyce late in the evening to complain about a pothole or the neighbor’s overgrown weeds.
Joyce: “Sometimes I would be on the phone for a few minutes and sometimes more than an hour. I took the calls.”
The typical rules of not bothering someone afterhours often do not apply to clergy or politicians. We felt that was just part of our jobs and met those calls with availability and responsiveness.
But that kind of availability can negatively impact clergy and political families. Popular reality television shows, such as “Preacher’s Daughters,” paint a gloomy picture of clergy children who rebel with sex, drugs, and leaving their childhood faiths. We know that’s a good storyline for TV but also, unfortunately, it’s what some clergy families face.
We raised three children in the fishbowl and never had a conventional weekend with the kids. Yet, thankfully, our sons, David and Danny – established attorneys and partners in their own Denver firm, Foster Graham Milstein & Calisher, which employs 30 attorneys – and our daughter, Debbie, a beloved Temple Emanuel preschool teacher and tutor for bat/bar mitzvah, did not rebel against our lifestyles but embraced our legacies.
We’re not painting them perfect but we do feel proud all three are kind people with good hearts, good intentions, and commitments to many of the same issues we support.
“If not for my name and the connections I have in this community I wouldn’t be where I am today, there’s no doubt about that.” Danny said “People know my family’s name and for that I was very fortunate.”
How lucky are we that David and Ali’s three children – Abby, Aiden, and Aaron (Bo) – are growing up within a block of their cousins, Danny and Becky’s three children – Rex, Lucy, and Ozzie. Our home and Debbie’s condominium are just a few blocks from them.
“I never grew up with first cousins who lived down the street from us,” Ali said. “It is pretty incredible in this day and age for all of us to live in the same city and in the same neighborhood.”
We feel proud about our accomplishments and appreciate the numerous awards and recognitions over the years. We went from a young clergy couple traveling to conventions to learn more from our elders to setting the national agenda – including how to address interfaith marriages.
Steve served as president of the Denver Rabbinical Council and president of the Midwest Association of Reform Rabbis. He also was co-chair of the national Commission on Outreach for the Reform Movement (a joint effort of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis) for 12 years.
He also served on the board of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and as chair from 2009-2011.
Steve’s work on boards included the National Council of Justice and Peace (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), United Way, and the Allied Jewish Federation, to name a few.
Prior to her election on the Denver City Council, Joyce worked 16 years for Jewish Family Service as director of employment services and assisted Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union and Pacific Rim countries. She served as president of the city council and pushed for light rail expansion in Denver and addressed long-time needs in her district, including park and shopping center renovations.
We have experience and some wisdom that we hope people who serve the public can relate to and perhaps learn from.
We also feel strongly that if we tell our story it has to be the whole picture. It means lifting the veil that clergy and politicians sometimes wear implying our lives are perfect.
While we “fell in love at first sight” our marriage nearly did not happen. We broke up but were subsequently reunited less than 24 hours later when Joyce received the devastating news that her father committed suicide. Her mother was a widow at 53.
Joyce has spoken candidly about her father’s struggle with mental illness, and our daughter, Debbie, is bravely talking about her journey, as well. Any family who has faced mental health issues knows the misconceptions and ignorance that continue to surround the numerous challenges of the disease. Many bright, creative people fear sharing they are bipolar or battling depression for fear of being labeled unstable. Friends and employers often lose patience with the symptoms of the disease – including being late for work, canceling plans, and isolating.
We know individuals and families go through what seems like an endless cycle of looking for the right combination of medications and counseling. And often they are on this rollercoaster alone for fear of judgment.
On the flip side, we know there are many caring people who do not judge or label. But until there is more discussion and understanding of mental illness, the stigma remains.
The tragic suicide of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams may have helped more people understand that depression can hit anyone – even someone who made us laugh for years. We agree clergy and politicians can help educate about mental health by being compassionate and aware that this is a serious issue for society.
We share the same opinions on most big issues. But like any couple we disagree on different topics and sometimes our passionate conversations raise a few eyebrows. We want to be clear that we know when to stop; words are powerful and can be hurtful.
Being married for 50 years we obviously agree more than we disagree. What has worked for us is to address something in the moment, and sometimes that adds a little drama to our banter. Joyce says some people refer to us as the “Bickersons,” like the couple on the old radio show, when they see us squabble.
To ignore this aspect of our marriage would be dishonest and as we chronicled our memories for this book those exchanges surfaced and will be included throughout these pages.
Readers will also notice that after we bicker we often end the fight with humor – a Foster trait that our children inherited.
We want to show readers that clergy and politicians have real problems and issues just like everyone else. Our daughter-in-law Becky noted that communication – even if it is arguing – can help a marriage. Otherwise, resentments can build up and ruin a relationship.
“They fight and they argue and they get it out in the open and it’s over and done with,” Becky said. “It’s the rest of us who are uncomfortable sitting around and listening to it but really, it doesn’t faze me.”
Our good friends, Natalie and Steve Goldman, have witnessed some of our squabbles.
“Steve told me the most important three words in a marriage are: ‘Yes, my darling,’ ” Steve Goldman joked.
Natalie has a different view: “You look at couples who never disagree or bicker and look like a perfect family, and that often ends up in divorce.”
Even though at times the public expects clergy and politicians to be super humans, we are not. Sometimes those unrealistic standards crush the very people who should continue to serve.
We hope by sharing our story we help others who have chosen this same path, because the rabbi and senator who sleep together understand the challenges clergy and politicians face.