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The ‘Stained Glass Ceiling’ and The Sisterhood 50

The “stained glass ceiling” is such a common condition that it has its own Wikipedia page. It refers to the barriers placed before women who strive to become leaders in their churches — barriers that are both overt (no Catholic women need apply) and more subtle. The metaphor doesn’t quite fit the Jewish world, but the condition does, particularly because women are largely absent from professional communal leadership even as they have made great strides in the broader American society. Consider: Should Elena Kagan be confirmed, there will be more Jewish women on the U.S. Supreme Court than have led any of the 18 major Jewish community federations. Ever.

In that context, it’s not surprising that when Newsweek publishes an annual list of the 50 “most influential” American rabbis, women are small in number and low in rank, only five or six a year. That’s partly because Newsweek’s criteria, drawn up by two guys from Hollywood, reflect a more traditional definition of success — international profile! media presence! — but the gender imbalance also speaks to a broader failure of imagination.

Look harder, and plenty of women can make the list. That’s what Gabrielle Birkner, the Forward’s web editor, found. As founding editor of The Sisterhood, our women’s issues blog, Birkner enlisted the help of other journalists, scholars and readers to arrive at a list of 50 women rabbis in America, and another five in Israel, whose work can certainly be called influential. (Read their accomplishments elsewhere on these pages and here.).

The face of the American rabbinate is changing dramatically. Non-Orthodox seminaries are educating record numbers of women: At the Jewish Theological Seminary, 40% of the rabbinic students are women. At Hebrew Union College, 61%. At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 68%. How we value influence and importance must catch up to this new reality.

When asked about the persistent gender gap in its high-profile project, Newsweek responded: “We have heard these and other criticisms and we welcome the conversation.” Let’s do more than talk.

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