Sisterhood Blog

Conservative Women Rabbis Celebrate Changes, Still Face Struggles

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Women Rabbis, Gender Bias, Conservative

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.


Comments
C. Tamir Mon. Nov 16, 2009

Is the pay issue much different from what women deal with in the average workplace?

As a women who works with primarily with men, I have found that although sexism exists (especially when working a Judaic field), there is respect to be earned from male counterparts.

Secondly, are the part time Rabbi's working less hours because they want part time work? Or is it that because they have chosen part time rabbinical posts they are earning less respect.

furrydoc Mon. Nov 16, 2009

From a congregational perspective this surprises me some. Women have generally been accepted in most elements of the workplace from business to law to science to medicine. There are many who have reached senior positions, which should eventually be the case for the rabbis, though the women have comprised a large fraction of the seminary classes for too short a time to achieve full seniority. There may also be a difference in the type of positions that the women accept relative to the men. I wonder if they accept pulpits in the same proportion and allow themselves to relocate so that they may accept larger and more financially lucrative opportunities.

With regards to pulpits, though probably not other professional activities that Conservative seminary graduates might pursue, let's not forget that this process is really a closed shop controlled by the rabbis' own professional organization. Some of the responsibility for under-representing their own candidates and advising them of optimal negotiation and contract expectation would have to lie with the RA.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.