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20 Years After Conservatives Began Ordaining Women, Inequity Continues

August 4, 2004
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Women in the Conservative rabbinate are paid less, occupy fewer senior positions and are more likely to be unmarried than their male counterparts, a new survey has found. They also lag behind men when it comes to holding onto their first jobs, are less likely to occupy full-time positions and almost unanimously say they are uninterested in senior rabbinical posts at large congregations.

The findings were part of a study released last week by the Conservative movement that marked 20 years since the movement began ordaining women as rabbis.

“It points out to us that the Conservative movement as a whole has to be aware of and do more to help women rabbis gain an absolutely equal footing in terms of their acceptability and positions, and especially their compensation and benefit level,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic arm.

Females now constitute roughly 11 percent! of the Rabbinical Assembly’s membership, with 177 members.

The survey of 233 rabbis — called Gender Variation in the Career of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained since 1985 — was sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly and conducted largely via mail-in surveys. Roughly equal numbers of men and women were polled.

The study found that 83 percent of women pulpit rabbis lead congregations of less than 250 families, 17 percent lead congregations of between 250-499 families and none lead congregations larger than 500 families.

By contrast, 27 percent of men lead congregations of less than 250 families, 48 percent lead mid-size congregations and 25 percent lead congregations of more than 500 families.

Compensation packages also were disparate, with the mean total compensation paid to men $40,000 more than that paid to women. Even when accounting for full-time work, pulpit work and congregation size, men’s compensation packages on average still led women’s! by $21,000.

Men reported being more satisfied with their careers t han women, the study found. Men held onto their first jobs longer than women; 85 percent of men said they left their last professional post willingly, compared to 67 percent of women; and 26 percent of men said they had been denied a contract renewal by their congregations or agencies, compared to 41 percent of women.

The study also found that 80 percent of male rabbis reported being married parents, compared with 42 percent of women. Nearly three times as many women reported being single as men — 38 percent of women versus 14 percent for men.

The study was accompanied by a Rabbinical Assembly policy memorandum with “action items” for addressing the gender gap.

Among the strategies are plans to give women rabbis more visibility to speed their social acceptance by Conservative congregations, offer women executive coaching to help them move their careers forward, and monitor job placement and searches to guarantee women equal opportunities.

“The Rabbinical Assemb! ly is committed to the ideal that ‘Rabbi’ is a gender-free designation,” the policy memo said. “We want to call upon all of the institutions of the Conservative movement, from the smallest to the largest, to examine their attitudes towards women in religious leadership and their openness to inviting such leadership into their midst.”

Part of the problem, according to the study, is that women themselves are uninterested in pursuing senior positions, due in part to quality-of-life considerations, social norms, family and finance. Women are less interested than men in pursuing pulpit work or congregational work, and a whopping 91 percent of the women surveyed said they did not want to be a senior rabbi at a large congregation.

“What should equal access look like if the overwhelming majority of women don’t want the benchmark position?” the survey asked.

“That is to us one of the most fascinating and puzzling statistics in the study,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, direct! or of rabbinic development at the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of the study’s advisory committee. “To me that was a surprising statistic and it needs further study, and I don’t want to guess” as to the causes for it, she said.

One of the authors of the study, Hebrew University sociologist Steven M. Cohen, said women likely would want leadership positions more if they had a better chance of attaining them.

“You can’t disentangle three processes,” he said. “One, women may to some extent on average have different aspirations for their professional careers than men; secondly, those aspirations may be shaped by their assessment of the openness of the market for their candidacy; third, the market may close off opportunities to women.”

Conservative women rabbis need to be encouraged to aspire to leadership positions, Cohen said, but Conservative synagogues also need to be made aware that they’re acting in a biased fashion.

“Equality of opportunity is an imperative. It’s really a matter of justice,” said Rabbi Amy Eilberg, co-director ! of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, in northern California, and a member of the study’s advisory committee.

“Statistically, it’s possible that it could turn out that a higher percentage of men aspire to large congregations than did women,” she said. “Equity does not mean that women should necessarily want the same things that men do. The equity that is required is that a candidate who has aspirations should have the same opportunities as a man.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his organization has been running programs for at least two and a half years to try to “open the door a little bit wider” for female rabbis.

“We were not going to wait for a study to tell us what we intuitively understood,” Epstein said.

Much of the time, that has meant trying to convince congregations to consider hiring female rabbis — with the exception of nonegalita! rian Conservative congregations, which will not hire women rabbis out of consideration for halachah, or Jewish law.

“Congregational search committees in many cases never interviewed a woman rabbi; it didn’t even dawn on them,” Epstein said of egalitarian synagogues. “In many cases, they just said, ‘Of course we’re going to take a male rabbi.’ “

United Synagogue staff have used role-playing exercises and other methods to train the group’s regional directors to be more effective at persuading congregational search committees and synagogue boards to give female candidates a fair shot, Epstein said.

Some of the considerations when hiring a woman rabbi are credible, Eilberg noted.

“Is the rabbi going to have a baby? Is the rabbi going to get married and leave us? What kind of career track is this woman on? We know that a search committee may rightly wonder if a women is as likely to work a 60-70 hour work week as a man,” Eilberg said.

The key, she said, is to ensure equality of opportunity.

Because it has only been 20 years since ! the movement began ordaining women, it’s understandable — though not excusable — that many congregations are reluctant to hire women, Conservative rabbis said.

“This is a short period of time in the life of the Jewish world and certainly the American Jewish community,” Epstein noted. “It will take some time to move this to the area of full equality. What this study does is serve as a bold reminder that our work has just begun.”

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