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Conservative Rabbinical Assembly to Launch Survey on Women Rabbis

August 27, 2003
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Are women rabbis hitting the stained-glass ceiling? That’s one of the questions to be asked in a new study by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which is undertaking the first study of Conservative women rabbis since the movement began ordaining them in 1985, JTA has learned.

“Overall in society, it’s clear that women’s advancement in many areas is not equal to that of men,” said Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the R.A.’s director of rabbinic development, who is heading the study.

“The assumption is that many” women rabbis “are not earning as much as men.”

Until now, there has been no hard evidence to back up that assumption in the Conservative movement or the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, which also ordain women.

But the R.A.’s study, which is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2004, will attempt to gauge issues such as whether a salary gap exists between men and women rabbis, why women rabbis chose the positions they did and what kind of competition they faced for jobs.

“We are attempting to establish a baseline of data,” Schoenfeld said.

The study ultimately will have implications for all three of the denominations that ordain women, women rabbinical leaders said.

“Any time a study like this comes out, it holds up a mirror to make sure that what you’re doing is right,” said Rabbi Amy Small, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and rabbi at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Chatham, N.J.

If the study reveals an earnings gender gap in the Conservative movement, “we’d want to go back and make sure we don’t have that problem” in the Reconstructionist movement, Small said.

Of the 236 Reconstructionist rabbis, 110 are women.

The $25,000 study, launched with a $17,000 grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, in addition to funding from the Rabbinical Assembly and private donors, should “have broad implications around the country,” said Sherri Greenbach, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation.

The foundation is a private, non-denominational grant-making group that supports Jewish women and girls.

“Although there is a lot of anecdotal information” about women rabbis, she said, “to create change there needs to be quantitative information about why women rabbis are making the choice they’re making.”

The study is still in the planning stages.

The Assembly has hired sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew University to head the study. Cohen, who will work with a panel of Conservative rabbis to formulate the study’s questions, said he will examine the “career trajectory” of female and male rabbis.

“There is an impression that men have been more likely to have been hired for the more prestigious, larger congregational posts,” he said. “We don’t know that for a fact, but if it’s true, the question is why.”

Women face other issues too, said one member of the rabbinical advisory panel, Rabbi Toni Shy of Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington, N.Y.

The difficulties many career women face in holding a high-powered job while raising a family are especially acute for women rabbis, who are expected to be available at all hours of the day, Shy said.

As a result, she said, fewer women with young children are going into the pulpit.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, said congregations need to know “that a rabbi is going to be there when they need that rabbi.”

“I’ve heard congregations say that if a rabbi is a woman and someone is in the hospital at 3 a.m., she’s not going to want to leave her children” to attend to that person, he said.

At the same time, he added, congregations need to give women the same respect men receive.

Epstein said the study will be very helpful in helping both synagogues and rabbis understand each other’s needs.

In 1985, Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, following a protracted debate over women’s ordination.

Today there are 177 women among about 1,500 Conservative rabbis in all. The telephone survey will attempt to reach all of these women, as well as 177 of their male contemporaries, to capture a “whole generation,” Schoenfeld said.

Rabbi Zari Weiss, co-president of the Reform movement’s 220-member Women’s Rabbinical Network, said women generally have had substantial support in the Reform world, though anecdotal evidence suggests that women rabbis earn less than men.

In that respect, the report’s “results might affect all of us,” Weiss said.

The Reform movement, which has about 1,700 rabbis — including 373 women who belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis — became the first Jewish stream to break the rabbinic gender barrier when Sally Priesand was ordained in 1972.

Since then, Reform women rabbis have reached leadership ranks in the movement’s professional organizations.

Among them are Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, one of the more notable pulpit positions, and Rabbi Jackie Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinical Network.

The Reconstructionist movement ordained its first woman, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, in 1974, though women began occupying leadership positions in Reconstructionism in the 1960s, Small said.

Schoenfeld said women in all the liberal Jewish movements stand to learn from this study.

“We think that what happens with Conservative women rabbis will have much broader implications beyond the Conservative movement,” she said.

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