The Best of Times, The Worst of Times for Women Rabbis

by Joanne Palmer

So what do Charles Dickens and women rabbis have in common?

Here’s Mr. Dickens, beginning A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...”

There’s nothing like starting a story with a thesis, assuming a consensus, only to find that reality, at least as refracted through the people you talk to, is considerably more splintered.

Right now is not a great time to be a rabbi, at least in the practical sense. If you are a young rabbi, it’s harder to get a job than it was a decade ago. If you are a middle-aged rabbi, it’s harder to hold onto the job. If you are older – well, retirement’s a good thing, isn’t it?

There are many ways, of course, in which this is a superb time to be a rabbi, but that would be another story.

But does it make a difference if you are a female or a male rabbi? What role does gender play? How deep-seated are our images of God, of authority, of scholars, of healers? A full quarter-century after the Conservative movement first ordained women, how’s it working out?

The answer, it turns out, is as varied as the women rabbis themselves.

First, some facts. The first woman to become a Conservative rabbi was ordained in 1985 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Those early classes held just a sprinkling of women; later classes had more, flirting with parity but never quite reaching it. More recently, numbers at JTS have declined slightly. Last year, the women in the graduating class had a harder time than their male peers in finding jobs, although it was not easy for anyone. There is now another seminary ordaining Conservative rabbis in North America, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles; last year, there were no women in its graduating class, although that was atypical.

Women do not seem to become senior rabbis easily; not many head large congregations, although there are more in smaller ones, where usually they are the only rabbi. (And at times also the education director, the youth director, the office manager, the custodian…)

Meanwhile, even though most laypeople think of rabbi and pulpit more or less like love and marriage or horse and carriage, rabbinical students increasingly are considering other career paths, partly from necessity but also partly by choice.

Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, the Rabbinical Assembly’s associate executive director, is in charge of rabbinic placement for the Conservative movement. (The RA represents Conservative rabbis in North America. Most Conservative synagogues find their rabbis through its placement service, which it runs in cooperation with United Synagogue.)

“I think that there’s been a radical shift in the 25 years since women first were ordained,” Rabbi Schoenberg said. “When I first got here, 21 years ago, a good number of congregations would call up and say ‘I know you’re graduating women rabbis, but our congregation’s not ready.’” A discussion would follow, and soon a new rule mandated that every senior who signed up for a job interview would get one.

“It was a way to jar the system, both for the congregations and for the graduating seniors. Many of the women who went for interviews knew that it wasn’t a congregation that would hire a woman, but it was an educational experience for everybody. The women could stand in front of them, be articulate, and clearly filled with integrity.” As the years went on, Rabbi Schoenberg said, more women were placed in this way. “It hasn’t been a straight line, but perceptions have changed significantly.”

Last year was a very hard one, however. Fewer women got jobs – none got pulpit jobs on the first round. “We were greatly disappointed,” Rabbi Schoenberg said. “We have a shrinking congregational base and fewer jobs outside the pulpit. We have the same number of graduates, with an economy in free fall. It’s hard to make judgments based on one year. But there’s a bigger picture. Conservative rabbis are a very diverse group. There are not only women and men – there are gay and straight rabbis, rabbis who are married, unmarried, divorced. In order for the movement to be strong, for it to be sound and sustainable, congregations and institutions have to take the rabbi who is the right and appropriate match.”

It is true that there are not many women heading big synagogues, but “it’s not like this is something solely owned by the Conservative movement,” Rabbi Schoenberg said. “There is gender bias and a glass ceiling in all the movements, and everyone is suffering from the economy. It’s even worse in the Protestant denominations; I’ve spoken to directors of placement at Protestant seminaries who say they’ve almost given up trying to place women in solo pulpits. That’s especially true for Protestant ministers of color.”

Rabbi Lisa Gelber and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, the associate deans at JTS and Ziegler respectively, are well positioned to give an overview of the field. Rabbi Gelber, who graduated from JTS in 1996, says that the economy is largely responsible for last year’s dismal job market for women. “The market really has contracted,” she said. “We’re helping all our students, especially our women, think about their strengths and passions; to think about what would make them feel most fulfilled.”

She was a pulpit rabbi at the start of her career, in a synagogue in suburban Seattle that had never had a woman rabbi but had been egalitarian for decades. “They were looking for the right fit, the right person, the right rabbi,” she said. She did interview at a congregation where not everyone was comfortable with the idea of a woman rabbi, but “sometimes it’s just lack of exposure.”

Sounding a leitmotiv that came from just about every woman rabbi interviewed for this story, Rabbi Gelber said that much of the resistance came from the mental picture many people have of rabbis as men. That image is deep-seated, has historical resonance, and is hard to shake. “We can address that by having more women in the field,” she said. “More women speaking in congregations, more women writing op eds in the newspapers, more women getting their names out there, with the title rabbi attached.” The more visible women are as rabbis, the more people’s internal photo galleries of rabbis will include women.

Are there differences between male and female rabbis? “I think there are differences between people. There are societal assumptions about women and men that may cause them to act in particular ways. The presumptions are that women are kinder and more compassionate, and cry more easily, that men are tougher and stronger. We’re trying to help our students identify who they are at their core. That will help them be the best rabbis they can be.”

Rabbi Peretz, who graduated from Ziegler in 2001, said that questions about gender equality and egalitarianism are basic. In fact, the Ziegler community is holding an internal conversation about what egalitarianism means. It is a term notoriously hard to define.

“The vast preponderance of students in our schools chose them because the schools are egalitarian,” she said. “These students grew up with an assumption of egalitarianism. And then they hit the real world and all of a sudden they’re shocked by the realization that they’re going to have problems getting jobs.” Some of that, Rabbi Peretz says, is the reality of the outside world, and some of it is particular to the Conservative movement. “It’s about our relationship to text and to Jewish life. Halachah is a male system, and as Conservative Jews we can’t simply toss it aside. Our unique desire to conserve and reinterpret is exciting on the one hand, but challenging on the other. We have to grapple with the specifics of the system.”

For example, what should a woman rabbi wear? “I still feel uncomfortable wearing tefillin,” Rabbi Peretz said. “All my images of people wearing tefillin still are male images. No matter how I put my tefillin on, they always seem to fall off. The whole idea of being girded in leather feels very male. And also, like anybody else, I’m concerned about how I’ll look for the rest of the day. I want to look professional, and tefillin always flatten my hair.”

Still, she wears them. “It’s important,” she said. “They have become a symbol for me that the mitzvot are not about me, but about interpreting the divine will. They’re about what it means to be in relationship with God, as defined through the system of halachah.”

Clothing is always an issue for women, but, as Rabbi Peretz pointed out, it’s an issue for men as well. It’s just more of a problem for women. “Clothing is about being sexy, and it’s deeply rooted in our cultural norms. The only way to transcend it is through individual conversations and through cultural evolution.

“The experience of women rabbis is not unlike the experiences of women in other fields,” she continued. “If we’re really serious about the value of egalitarianism, then we shouldn’t wait until the rest of the world catches up with us. We should be putting forward the value of egalitarianism in the light of the Torah. Is egalitarianism a divine mandate that we see ourselves living out, or is it only a modern political issue? I believe that it is a divine mandate, seen through the lens of Torah.”

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who graduated from JTS in 2000, is now at Clal, where she heads Rabbis Without Borders. “We’re at an interesting point in history,” she said. “We’ve certainly made gains since the first women were ordained, but we’ve seen in the recent economic downturn that women are having a much harder time finding positions than men. For whatever reason, right now synagogues seem to want men – specifically, they want men who are married, with 2.2 children. They want rabbis with beards and glasses.” Women, she pointed out, can manage the glasses, but the beards? Not so much.

According to Rabbi Sirbu, once the movement began to ordain women, it rested on its laurels. “We didn’t do enough,” she said. “There are a number of issues. Most of us were educated to believe that God is a man, even though that isn’t at all conscious. Even today, we use male God language. The default pronoun for God is he. For many people, the rabbi serves as God’s surrogate, so when you think rabbi you think he. We have to do work with theological imagery so that it either includes both genders or is gender-neutral, because language and theology go hand in hand.”

Another issue, Rabbi Sirbu said, is that “egalitarianism means different things in different synagogues. There still are many Conservative synagogues that are not what I consider to be fully egalitarian, with women able to lead every part of the service.

“Family stuff also can be difficult,” she continued, and search committees sometimes ask inappropriate questions. “A graduating senior said that when she was negotiating for a job she was asked what her husband makes. “It’s often easier for women to get jobs as assistant rabbis, so there’s a nice mommy and daddy at the bimah. Women in those jobs make less money. But many of even those positions have been eliminated and rebirthed as educators, often at significantly less pay. There is a clear financial and status issue here. It’s important to teach women to be more entrepreneurial, to create their own jobs.

“As a movement, we’ve dropped the ball. It’s not just in working with rabbis, it’s rabbis and lay leaders together.. There are a lot of practical things the movement could do to raise the awareness of women rabbis. We should take some of our more charismatic women rabbis on a tour around the country.”

Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, the director of Prozdor, the afterschool high school program at JTS, said, “I used to think that there were inherent differences between men and women as rabbis, but I no longer do. I was part of the very first generation of rabbis to be ordained, in 1988, and when I started there was a feeling that women would bring something different to the pulpit; it was a feminist essentialist argument. Now I think that men can bring those so-called female qualities – a listening ear and compassionate sensitivity – and women can bring strong opinions, a strong public presence, and decisiveness – qualities we stereotypically think of as male. Everyone’s trying to balance those qualities.

“I think that we still are plagued with a kind of transference that happens with congregations and rabbis. For many people, it’s more comfortable when it happens with men. Men have a hard time bonding with a woman rabbi, and women feel competitive with her. It may have something to do with the public nature of the job, and the authority that comes with it.

Rabbi Alana Suskin, who graduated from AJU in 2003, is a writer, blogger, and social activist. “I’m not sure that the problems women rabbis are having are separate from the issues women are having everywhere,” she said. “The real issue is with women in power in the Jewish community. Women head very few charitable organizations in general, but in the Jewish community they head almost none. So a piece of what’s going on is that women are still struggling with a society that does not support them.

“My experiences have been mostly positive,” she continued, somewhat surprisingly. “I haven’t had trouble finding things to do, but I know there are women who wanted to be high-powered pulpit rabbis but did not get those positions.” Some of the problem is inherent to the structure of the job. The pulpit is designed for people who are married but have other people to take care of things.

Synagogues often don’t want to hire younger women – they might have children! – but they don’t want older women either, Rabbi Suskin continued. “You can’t be sexy – but you must be sexy. It’s a double bind – if you’re young you might come across as too flirty; if you’re motherly you’re not sexy enough. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But – that wasn’t my experience.”

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, who graduated from JTS in 1991 and was a pulpit rabbi until five years ago, said that the question of whether women rabbis face more challenges than their male counterparts “is over. When I graduated, there was a real issue of accepting women rabbis. Women couldn’t get interviews, and the rare times when we did we didn’t get hired. What I see now is women getting jobs in small and medium-size congregations. Those are good jobs. Not that many jobs in the big synagogues open up very often. And after all, most of our congregations are fairly small.”

Before she began at JTS, Rabbi Newmark had been a successful businesswoman. She said that she recalled a study from Harvard’s business school that asserted that “in the corporate world, when it came to hiring women and minorities the magic number was 25 percent. Once women or minorities are 25 percent of a hiring pool, the issue goes away. When there are only one or two women rabbis, they’re curiosities. We’re not curiosities any more.”

As a sign of how much times have changed, Rabbi Newmark offered her experience on Jeopardy this spring. (She won.) “Alex Trebak asked me how long have there been women rabbis, and he asked me if there are Orthodox women rabbis, but he never questioned my wearing a kippah,” she said. “I’m a rabbi, and of course a rabbi wears a kippah.”

Institutionally, at any rate, women are flourishing in the Conservative movement. For the first time, women rabbis occupy both of the Rabbinical Assembly’s top offices – Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is its executive vice president and Rabbi Gilah Dror, who is the spiritual leader of Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, is president. This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

“We are fortunate to have hundreds of excellent women rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly. It is a credit to the Rabbinical Assembly that although women are still a small minority of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, it has modeled for the rest of the movement the value of including women’s voices in all levels of service and leadership,” Rabbi Dror wrote in an email. And as advice to the women coming up, she added, “I am profoundly grateful that I was able to become a rabbi. I encourage women who are interested in becoming rabbis to follow their dream and their calling, to connect with others who have chosen this path, and to apply their wisdom and perspective to the collective sources that have sustained our people throughout the generations.”

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