Conservative Women Rabbis Celebrate Changes, Still Face Struggles

Much has changed for female rabbis in the 25 years since the first woman was ordained in the Conservative movement — including acceptance by peers and congregants — but some things, including more difficulty getting good jobs and resentment from other women, remain challenging.

These issues were explored at a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary on November 4 and 5, titled “Leadership Presence: Women’s Ways in the Rabbinate.” Of the 1,600 members of the Rabbinical Assembly today — the umbrella group for Conservative rabbis — 257 are women.

Several of the 75 or so women who attended were among the first ordained (Rabbi Amy Eilberg was the very first, in 1985, and was part of the gathering), and they spoke of how much things have changed.

“I was the only woman in all my classes. It was not an easy time to be here,” said Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein, who teaches at Los Angeles’ Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and leads the N’Shama Minyan at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. She was the second woman to be ordained at JTS, and the first Conservative rabbi to become a mother.

Fifteen years ago, at a conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the first woman’s ordination, “there was still ambivalence about women at that conference, and at the seminary,” said Rabbi Debra Cantor, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Sholom in Newington, Conn. and a member of the first class at JTS to include women. “Ten years out we were still struggling for legitimacy and still striving for authenticity.”

Now, she says, “the rabbinate has changed dramatically.”

But not completely.

“The playing field is not equal. There is still a glass ceiling – I’ve experienced it myself,” said Rabbi Bieber Feinstein.

Because she has put together a multitude of part-time rabbinic jobs — which include leading a minyan, writing two prayer books and teaching — as she has raised three children with her husband, who is the rabbi at a large Conservative synagogue himself, “I get ‘well, you haven’t really worked.’

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Female colleagues say that. There’s sometimes a lack of collegiality among women, and extreme competition. There are so few jobs.”

Rabbi Lisa Malik, who leads Congregation Bnai Aron in Havertown, Penn., told The Sisterhood, “There’s definitely still sexism. I encounter it every day – mostly from women.”

“I came in thinking that men would be calling me ‘little girl,’ but it’s women our age,” women in their 30s and 40s who don’t have professional lives, but do devote their time to work for the temple’s Sisterhood, making food for Kiddush and polishing the synagogue’s silver, who express resentment, she said.

Rabbi Malik says she gets snarky comments from these women because “there’s a feeling that my being in my position delegitimizes their work.”

To be sure, female Conservative rabbis also contend with bias of the more tangible kind.

A study conducted in 2004 that looked at the relative professional achievements and compensation of female and male Conservative rabbis found that women are far more likely to work part-time.

The study “demonstrated that fully a third of Conservative women rabbis are serving in a part-time capacity. We want to ensure that these women can have the most productive careers possible, for the sake of the Jewish community as well as theirs,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld told The Sisterhood.

She recently became the first woman to run the Rabbinical Assembly as its executive vice president.

With the conference “we wanted to address the issue that women deal with across the professions — “on ramps” and “off ramps” to see that their professional development and profile continue to grow during a period of part time employment or hiatus due to other obligations.”

Pay for female rabbis definitely lags. One third of the men surveyed in the 2004 study – who were all roughly the same number of years out of rabbinical school as the women surveyed – reported compensation packages of $125,000 or more, but just 9 percent of women did.

At the same time, 52 percent of the women made less than $80,000, while just 8 percent of the men did. Even controlling for what kind of workplace and the number of hours worked, as well as other things, researchers found a pay gap between $10,000 and $21,000, depending on the specific type of rabbinic job.

No one interviewed at the conference thought that this had likely changed at all in the last five years.

Instead, the women spoke of wanting to create more support for flexible rabbinic work. “We need to make part-time work legitimate, for women and for men,” said Rabbi Bieber Feinstein.


Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”

Conservative Women Rabbis Celebrate Changes, Still Face Struggles

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