My Orthodox friend deduced that this female rabbinical school student we knew was in training to become a Reform rabbi. My friend made this claim partially due to how the woman led services. This woman used several "Reform tunes." Added to that, she seemed comfortable with instruments on Shabbat. The main reason, though, why my friend thought the woman would be a Reform rabbi, was because this rabbi-in-training was both a female and in rabbinical school.
Initially, I agreed. I figured she was probably Reform. But I said I was fairly sure women could also train to be Conservative rabbis. My Orthodox friend replied that there were no rabbinical schools, other than in the Reform Movement, that accept women for ordination. As we argued back and forth, I grew unsure that women could be Conservative rabbis.
I searched my mind for any female Conservative rabbis I might know off the top of my head and only found male after male. I thought of the female Hebrew school teachers and the male rabbis who had taught me in Hebrew school. I thought of every rabbi I had associated with in my life and heard male voices responding to my questions. I thought of movies with a Jewish theme (always helpful) and saw only men leading congregations. Any female rabbi I recalled, I was pretty sure, was Reform.
So, after the argument had fizzled and my brain hunt ended fruitlessly, I asked the woman herself. She explained: she was training to be a Conservative pulpit rabbi. She was, and is, one of few.
In the last twenty years, a little over 150 women have received ordination as Conservative rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). In small numbers, women are also ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
Before 1985, there was not one female Conservative rabbi. Before 1972, there was not one female Reform rabbi.
There never has been a female Orthodox rabbi.
Initially, the statistic, 150 rabbis ordained in twenty years, may evoke such a reaction as, "That’s it?" However, 20 years is a very short time in the course of Jewish history and JTS does not ordain that many rabbis every year.
Women make up 11 percent of the Rabbinical Assembly, which is impressive when one considers that most male members of the Assembly joined before 1985.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, a senior rabbi and former JTS dean, commented that women are now allowed to become rabbis because the rabbinate is finally "letting its halakhic guard down." The move was not wholly accepted by the Conservative movement, but as Rabbi Tucker pointed out, "Some traditionalists left the movement, but that does not mean tradition is lost."
Although women can technically be any type of rabbi, there are few rabbis found in the pulpit leading large congregations. According to the 2005 study, "Gender Variation in the Career of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained Since 1985," 83 percent of female pulpit rabbis lead congregations with fewer than 250 families. At the same time, 25 percent of male pulpit rabbis lead congregations of 500 or more families.
The study also found that female rabbis are more likely to be unmarried, that they earn, on average, $20,000 less than their male counterparts and are less likely than male rabbis to hold onto first jobs.
There are a few suggested reasons for such strong differences between the experiences of male and female pulpit rabbis. Although Conservative Judaism, as a movement, allows for change, many Conservative Jews do not agree with all of the changes made by the Movement. Some Conservative Jews agree only partially with the decision to hire women rabbis.
A Jerusalem Post article tells the story of Kinneret Shiryon who struggled for decades to become a Conservative rabbi in Israel. She faced discrimination by her congregations and community. She recalls that several of her congregants told her they preferred that male rabbis Bar Mitzvah their sons and took their sons elsewhere for the event. The congregants called that choice doing things "the right way." A national-religious Israeli newspaper called Hatzote warned citizens that in Shiryon’s neighborhood, women were "masquerading as rabbis" and "poisoning the minds of young children."
Another complication which keeps women from top earning positions in front of full congregations is the family. Just like with any other full time job, women tend to fall behind men career-wise because of responsibilities to the family.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative rabbi, commented, "There is something wrong with a structure that forces a rabbi to counsel others about the quality of life and spending time with family, and is prevented from doing so because of the demands of the job."
Many women have been quoted saying they particularly value a woman rabbi leading their congregation. Some women identify more with women leaders. Of course, female educators can be just as powerful as female rabbis.
Female Conservative rabbis are at the beginning of their journey, according to Rabbi Eilberg, who outlines two phases for women rabbis. The first phase was equality, which has been mainly achieved. Phase two involves rereading the tradition to understand the roles of females and to reinterpret women’s actions from a female perspective.
The prophet Isaiah may have provided a hint of things to come. He said:
"Go up onto a high mountain, you (female) messenger of Zion. Raise your voice in strength, you (female) messenger of Jerusalem, raise it and do not be afraid."
It is my hope that every Jew will feel comfortable under the spiritual leadership of at least one rabbi, male or female, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. It is also my personal prayer that all women reach their spiritual goals by becoming religious leaders, if they so please. And when a person scans his or her brain with the word "rabbi" as the keyword, let powerful female rabbis come to mind as well, appreciated for their equal contributions to Judaism.