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Women in the Rabbinate: Meeting the Needs of Their Families May Come at Expense of Their Careers

August 12, 1991
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Many women in the rabbinate are having to make difficult choices between meeting the needs of their families and advancing their professional careers.

Rabbi Beverly Magidson, for instance, has reached a point in her career where she is ready to leave the 150-member congregation she has served for eight years and move on to a synagogue in a larger community.

But leading a larger congregation would mean “more Sundays where I’m not home at all and more nights out, and I’m not willing to make that tradeoff,” she said.

In order to spend more time with her two children, Magidson is leaving the pulpit for two part-time jobs, as a hospital chaplain and a day-school teacher. She hopes to return to the pulpit within a few years.

Magidson is not alone. More and more women rabbis are choosing positions as chaplains, Hillel rabbis, educators and administrators, rather than take on the arduous responsibility of running a synagogue.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement and now a chaplain at Stanford University Hospital, worked at a synagogue for a year when she started her career in the rabbinate.

“Chaplaincy is particularly attractive to rabbis who are mothers, because it wreaks less havoc with your personal life than the pulpit,” she explained.


Her 5-year-old daughter is one of the reasons she prefers the chaplaincy. When her daughter’s first sentence was “Bye bye, Eema — shul,” it struck a chord, Eilberg recalled. “My daughter’s expectation was that I was the parent who was always leaving. And that was untenable to me as a mother.”

But, like Magidson, most women rabbis who have left the pulpit hope to return someday.

“Re-entry will be a big issue” for the rabbinical organizations in a few years, as increasing numbers of women come back to congregational life after a hiatus, said Rabbi Jody Cohen, a solo pulpit rabbi in South Windsor, Conn., and co-coordinator of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

Benefits are an important consideration for women rabbis, especially those who are parents.

They are often willing to trade time for money, according to Rabbi Margaret Wenig of Beth Am, the People’s Temple, a 200-member Reform congregation in New York.

“We are often interested in negotiating more vacation time than substantial salary increases,” she said.

Maternity leave has been a contentious issue for women rabbis in both the Reform and Conservative movements.

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis suggests to its rabbis that they include two months of maternity leave in their contracts, but congregations are not bound by the CCAR’s guidelines.

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of codifying its placement policies, which will for the first time include maternity leave.

At present, some women rabbis do not have maternity leave written into their contracts and are in the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate it when they become pregnant.

Others have had congregations limit their maternity leave to shorter periods, and some have even been asked to pay for the cost of hiring replacements if they give birth at an inopportune time, like just before the High Holy Days.


Another consideration for women in the rabbinate who are also parents is the availability of good day care for children. This is sometimes as important as the dollar amount of the salary, said Rabbi Arnold Sher, director of placement for the Reform movement.

A handful of women rabbis have developed a solution to the day care quandary by starting their own programs.

Cohen of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, who has a 7-year-old son, began one at her first congregation, a 1,400-family synagogue where she served for five years as assistant and then associate rabbi.

She found that the program had an “incredibly positive” effect on the whole congregation. It brought many young families to the synagogue and Hebrew school enrollment swelled by 100 children.

But strangely, “very few congregations have followed suit,” Cohen said. “It’s been slow to catch on. It’s considered a women’s issue.”

Now that Reform women rabbis have been working for nearly two decades, more than 100 are eligible for the largest size congregations, which are classified by letter, with “A” being the smallest and “E” the largest.

But only four women rabbis hold positions in the medium-size “C” congregations, which have up to 600 members.

In the Conservative movement, women only serve in “A”-level congregations, with two or three exceptions in “B”-size congregations of up to 500 families, which require two years of experience. No women are in “C”-level congregations of up to 750 families, which require at least five years of experience.


Is it because “women really believe we can go so far and no further?” Cohen asked. “Is it the perception that congregations are not ready for a woman in this position of authority, and we don’t want to put ourselves in the position of being the ‘korbana,’ the sacrifice?

“Or does it have more to do with the fact that many of the women in the rabbinate are in their child-bearing years, and some are working part time, which is absolutely appropriate?”

Creative alternatives to the traditional rabbinic career ladder, such as job-sharing and taking frequent sabbaticals, are of great interest to many of the women in the rabbinate rearing families. But they have found that few congregations are interested in working out schedules that deviate from the norm.

Paradoxically, women may have a difficult time transforming the nature of the rabbinate precisely because they are not climbing the long-established ladder of success to qualify for leadership positions in the Reform and Conservative movements’ rabbinical and congregational organizations.

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