Nearly two decades after the ordination of the first Conservative woman rabbi, the movement’s rabbinical union is calling for dramatic steps to close what it describes as an alarming gender gap in the pulpit.
The issue was highlighted in a study released last week that found a number of discrepancies, such as female rabbis earning $10,000 to $21,000 less than their male counterparts. Commissioned by the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the study attributes the disparity to gender biases in American society, as well as to the sociological difficulties in promoting gender equality after thousands of years of male-only rabbinic leadership.
While in the past two decades, Conservative institutions have pushed for full egalitarianism and achieved great strides in women’s participation in family and congregational life, the study suggests division between the movement’s theological ideals and its success in selling them to the rank and file.
“There has to be more of an aggressive approach,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinic Assembly. “There are certain systemic and cultural issues that have to be addressed more strongly.”
The R.A. has 1,600 members, 191 of whom are women, constituting 30% of the Conservative rabbis ordained since 1985.
Responding to the findings, the R.A. attached a policy memo to the study calling for nationwide reforms in the movement. It proposed creating mentoring programs, increasing public visibility of women rabbis through such programs as scholars-in-residence, and monitoring rabbinic job searches to ensure more equal job contracts. Armed with quantitative facts to back up claims of gender inequality, R.A. leaders also say they want to initiate a larger national conversation on the topic among its synagogues, schools and leadership.
“Most good-minded people find it hard to believe that their own organization or institution labors under problems of gender disparity,” said sociologist Steven Cohen, the Hebrew University professor who conducted the study. “This is not a matter of fighting counter- ideology, it’s a matter of alerting people to the issues.”
Though the R.A. and the movement’s leadership have made efforts to advance women rabbis in the past, including the passage of a 1995 resolution that addressed gender discrimination in congregations, movement insiders say that not enough has been done.
“It was treated [at the Jewish Theological Seminary] like a nonissue, which, in some ways, is great — but it’s problematic because it’s not the reality of world,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of the fledgling Los Angeles-based spiritual community Ikar. “This attempt to gloss over ultimately complicated matters for us.”
Many women rabbis and outside observers are hoping that the study reflects a newfound willingness to identify and address the issues proactively.
“We can’t allow change to happen by itself,” said Shifra Bronznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals, who has been active in increasing female leadership in the Jewish community. “They basically gave women access [to the rabbinate], but there’s a difference between access and equitable opportunity.”
Recently, through her initiative, Bronznick has worked with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to improve the search process for rabbis at synagogues in order to increase opportunities for qualified women.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, echoed the need for increased efforts in these areas. “Change is not going to be effected by mandate,” he said, “it’s by persuasion and stimulation.”
The study, which is being hailed as the first to examine the female rabbinate in any denomination, was based on surveys with 233 Conservative rabbis, 115 of whom were women. Questionnaires were sent to all 156 women who were Conservative rabbis in the United States at the time of the study, and to 155 of their male counterparts.
According to the study, which was conducted from May 2003 until July 2004, more than 25% of the male respondents are senior rabbis in congregations, as opposed to none of the women. More of the men questioned found their first pulpit experience rewarding, and they enjoyed greater success in retaining their positions.
With regard to lifestyle matters, a significantly larger percentage of the women work in part-time pulpit positions because of familial obligations; the study found that despite the male and female respondents being roughly the same age, 80% of the male respondents were married with children, compared with 42% of the women; 38% of the women were single.
The discrepancies in these areas led some movement insiders to note that women have made more progress in the sphere of lay leadership, which leaves more room for balancing family demands.
“It is not at all unusual for a woman to be president of a congregation,” said Judy Yudof, the lay president of the United Synagogue. Yudof is the first and only woman to serve as either the top professional or lay leader of the United Synagogue, the R.A. or the Jewish Theological Seminary. But in 1984, she became the third female president of her synagogue in Austin, Texas.
Some observers have suggested that it is easier for congregants to accept a female synagogue president, since it does not challenge their image of a man serving as the community’s religious leader.
The R.A., in its policy memo attached to the study, stressed the need to examine pulpit life, specifically with regard to part-time roles. In raising the dilemma, the R.A. asked rhetorically: “Could Conservative synagogues move away from the model of the rabbi who makes himself or herself available to the congregation 24/7 at the expense of his or her family?”
A number of women rabbis contacted by the Forward said that though the study delivered bad news, they felt validated and hoped that the movement was prepared to push for major changes.
“This has corroborated what we’ve been feeling,” said Debra Cantor, a rabbi at B’nai Shalom in Newington, Conn., and a member of the advisory committee that oversaw the study. “Despite the fact that there is certainly not a level playing field, we still love being rabbis.”