JTS Women Grads Struggling For Pulpits


When she began looking for jobs in February, Gail Schwartz knew she had the skills to be a pulpit rabbi. After all, she had served as an assistant rabbi at several synagogues while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

But after interviewing with 11 Conservative synagogues that were looking for both solo and assistant rabbis, and getting only one callback, Schwartz (not her real name) was stunned.

“It was confusing because I had demonstrated an ability to handle the job,” she said.

Asked if she believed gender bias might have been a factor, Schwartz replied: “I don’t see how it couldn’t have been when every single man [in her graduating class] has a job, only two women have full-time jobs and three other women students are still looking. It just doesn’t add up.”

Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, director of placement at the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,600 Conservative rabbis, was equally bewildered.

“I wish I knew what’s happening,” he said. “Women have had a harder time this year than last year, and we are very frustrated and surprised.”

Others suggested that a host of factors might have been involved this year: the number of women in the class — only eight out of a class of 26 — was relatively small; the number of Conservative congregations has dwindled over the years to about 650 today; fewer congregations were looking for rabbis, and not all of the women wanted a pulpit. In addition, several observers suggested that gender bias may have played a key role.

Given the Conservative movement’s unique position in the American Jewish landscape — perched between tradition and modernity — it is perhaps not surprising that some synagogues would favor male rabbinical candidates. The movements to its left — Reform and Reconstructionist — report little or no gender bias in hiring. To its right, the Orthodox do not have women rabbis at all, although a handful of liberal Orthodox institutions, such as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, are allowing women — most notably Rabba Sara Hurwitz — to take on many spiritual, pastoral and educational responsibilities traditionally handled by rabbis.

A 2004 study of women rabbis in the Conservative movement concluded that there was gender bias in employment and salaries.

Rabbi Schoenberg said that since then the outlook for women rabbis seeking pulpits had improved.

In 2005, about one-fourth of the women graduates landed pulpits, a figure that rose to 50 percent in 2009. “We had a track record of women being a success,” he said. “That’s why the conversation this year is about how disappointed we are … and we don’t know why it’s happened or what congregations are thinking.”

He added that he has not yet “had conversations with search committees about why they are not hiring women.”

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a JTS professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, said she believes that because jobs are scarce it has become a “buyers’ market.”

“It’s precisely when it becomes a buyers’ market that synagogue prejudice shows itself,” she observed. “This year synagogues are in the driver’s seat and, based upon my conversations with students, they prefer a man — a married man with a baby — so their congregants can relate to him. You can’t simply say it’s sexism; it’s more complicated. …”

But Rabbi Hauptman added unequivocally: “There is a bias in favor of men in the Conservative movement in the United States. We’re asking ourselves whether it is traditional people who are looking for male rabbis, or newly egalitarian congregations that are not ready for women. Or perhaps women are not going in with the same aggressiveness, are not projecting their leadership skills or an outgoing personality. I think we have to educate congregants about the permissibility of women rabbis. … My sense is that until now the complaint was that they were getting jobs but not equal pay or being treated right.”

The 2004 study found more male rabbis than female rabbis worked full-time, worked in congregations, led the congregations where they were employed, and led congregations “far larger” than those led by women rabbis.

Stephen Wolnek, former international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, suggested that the large number of male rabbis seeking jobs is hurting women rabbis.

“Five or 10 years ago if a congregation asked for rabbinical candidates, they had maybe two people to choose from,” he said. “And if the best candidate was a woman, she had as good a chance as the man. Today when synagogues are looking for a rabbi, they get 10 or 12 applicants and some have more experience than others.”

Another reason why so many Conservative rabbis are looking for work is the economy. Wolnek, who is now president of Mercaz Olami, the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization, said some of the larger congregations had to cut back on staff because of the financial crunch.

“So instead of having four rabbis on staff, they will have three,” he said.

In addition, Wolnek pointed out, there are more male rabbis looking for jobs than female rabbis. Only 280 women have been ordained since JTS began the practice in 1985.

“Most congregations still want a male rabbi,” he said. “At the moment, the choices are such that the tendency is to go for the standard.”

He noted that although his son’s congregation in Birmingham, Ala., hired a woman rabbi a number of years ago, he is not so sure it would hire a woman today. 

“It’s nothing against women; it’s just that given two equally good candidates, congregations would prefer to go for the more traditional profile,” Wolnek added. “Again, it has nothing to do with the quality of the women; it’s just more comfortable” with a man.

Of the eight women ordained by JTS last week, one did not look for a job and only two of the other seven secured full-time employment — one as an educator in a congregation and the other as a hospice chaplain. Two others were able to get part-time jobs as congregational rabbis and will work the rest of the time at another job (one will work at a local Hillel and another as an Army chaplain). The other three women have no jobs at all. 

All of the four full-time solo congregational positions went to men, as did the five full-time assistant rabbi positions. The other men ordained last week also found full-time jobs. “It’s perfectly clear that in the rabbinate, like other aspect of society, there is a gender divide,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school. “What is the role of explicit discrimination? There is clearly some there.”

But he went on to say that not all of the women sought full-time jobs as synagogue spiritual leaders and that some limited their job searches to a specific geographical area. He noted that the three women rabbis still looking for jobs have “possibilities in congregational and educational organizations.”

“Although employment for 22 out of 25 graduates looking for jobs is a reasonable yield for this economy, we will not be satisfied until we have 100 percent placement for our graduates,” he said.

Asked if he believed that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism had not properly prepared its congregations to accept a woman rabbi, Rabbi Nevins replied: “The differential in the response to female applicants is comparable to other sectors in the American workplace and is certainly not the result of action by the USCJ or any other organization.”

But JTS graduates complained privately that although all of the congregations looking for a rabbi interviewed women during placement week at the seminary, few women were actually called back for a second interview.

None of the women graduates contacted agreed to be interviewed for attribution for this article because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Rabbi Nevins said there were not that many pulpit positions available this year, and that callbacks were often a function of how many jobs the students sought during placement week.

“Some women got lots of callbacks, and some men did not,” he said. “I spoke with some synagogues and was assured they were not just going through the motions by interviewing a woman. One synagogue said it received 16 to 18 applications and invited back only the three or four candidates they were most impressed with. Several synagogues said that after the top three men, women were included in the next top three candidates.”

Advancement for Conservative women rabbis has not been easy, according to Rabbi Francine Green Roston, who in 2005 became the first woman to lead a congregation of more than 500 members when she became spiritual leader of a congregation in South Orange, N.J.

Ordained in 1998, she said she experienced “sexual harassment” from congregants and staff in a previous job as the assistant rabbi at a large suburban synagogue. 

“I don’t think it was unlike what other women experienced in high-level executive positions where the women were breaking barriers,” she said. “After that position, I was a solo rabbi in a small suburban congregation that had a debate on whether they could hire a woman. I was four months pregnant and had two children while working full time. It was difficult, but over the years things improved just as they have improved for women in general society.”

Rabbi Faith Cantor, who was ordained by JTS in 2004 and for the last four years has been the associate rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in Charlotte, N.C., pointed out that not only do fewer women rabbis get pulpit positions but “we tend to be the second or third rabbi.” Some of that is by design, she said, noting that she chose the associate position because “I knew I wanted to have kids. … and being an assistant made more sense so I could balance” both a career and motherhood.

“I teach a class of 12- and 13-year-old girls, and they had no idea there was once non-egalitarian Judaism,” Rabbi Cantor said. “Their mothers love it and the girls say, ‘Of course women can be rabbis and cantors.’ This is a generation of girls who take it for granted that women can do these things.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the fact that women have not fared as well in the job market as their male classmates is something the movement has been trying to address since the early ‘90s through seminars and special programs for women rabbis at RA conventions.

Officials at the other two rabbinical seminaries here — one pluralistic and the other Reform — reported no gender bias in hiring. 

Ora Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, a transdenominational pluralistic institution, agreed that the sluggish economy has been a factor this year but added that “gender bias in clergy hiring practices does not seem to be a factor in AJR’s placement experience.” 

Prouser said her school has ordained 32 women and 25 men as rabbis in the last nine years and that “almost all were employed post-ordination” except for those with personal or geographic restrictions.

She said one reason there doesn’t appear to be gender bias is because the academy “has always offered a very personalized placement service. This means that each congregation’s intake is done with an emphasis on getting a good grasp on the specific needs and ‘personality’ of the congregation. In addition, real time is spent with each candidate looking for placement. The placement process concentrates on finding the right match — by skill set and fit for the community and the clergy. Thus, it is about the match and not about the gender.”

Similarly, the Reform movement reported that gender is not an issue in job placement.
Renni Altman, associate dean and director of the rabbinical program at the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said that while not all 12 students just ordained here have yet found jobs, “overall our women did very well and I do not see that gender was a factor in terms of placement.” 

She noted that 11 of the 12 are women, that seven have congregational positions, one is moving to Israel for doctoral studies, another will be a part-time (her choice) family educator in a congregation, two have part-time work and the other two are still looking for full-time work.