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For Female Rabbis, Search for Mate Seems Like Wandering Through Desert

August 11, 2004
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It’s not easy for a rabbi to find a rebbetzin — especially if the rebbetzin is a man. That finding was part of a new survey on the Conservative rabbinate that reported that female rabbis in the movement are about half as likely as their male counterparts to be married with children, and nearly three times as likely to be single as male Conservative rabbis.

The statistics have some wondering why these Conservative women seem to be having more trouble finding their mates than men — and whether the disparity extends to women in other Jewish religious streams.

“It is a highly atypical pattern,” observed Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, director of rabbinic development at the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, which sponsored the study. “I really don’t know what to make of it.”

Noting “very unusual family patterns among female Conservative rabbis,” the study found that 58 percent of women rabbis surveyed we! re either single or did not have children. Called “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained since 1985,” the survey of 233 rabbis, released late last month, also found that women rabbis are less likely than men to take up congregational posts or seek positions as the lead rabbi at large synagogues.

Some women in the Conservative rabbinate said they found the statistics on marriage unsurprising.

“A single woman rabbi dating is a difficult thing,” said Rabbi Amy Eilberg, co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, in northern California.

“There are men who are threatened by the image, threatened by the leadership level, uninterested in the level of commitment and obligation that might go with being married to a woman rabbi,” said Eilberg, who was the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985.

One fourth-year JTS rabbinical student, Helene Kornsgold, said ! the statistics likely have as much to do with the non-traditional choi ce of a woman to become a rabbi as with women’s embrace of tradition in choosing Conservative ordination.

The traditional nature of Conservative rabbis’ religious observance means female rabbis have a very limited pool of men from which to choose, she said. It’s a Catch-22: The men must be sufficiently observant of Jewish tradition, but not so traditional that they’re uncomfortable with egalitarianism — and marrying a woman rabbi.

“I think it’s frustrating,” said Kornsgold, who is single. “There are not a lot of people in that niche who are observant to the level that you need to be and comfortable with the egalitarian thing.”

Jack Wertheimer, provost at JTS, said, “The larger question is: Where do observant Conservative Jews find their prospective mates? That’s not such a simple matter.”

A growing number of JTS rabbinical students have been finding their mates at JTS, though not only at the rabbinical school. Rabbis commonly marry students at JTS’ cantorial sc! hool, school of Jewish education, graduate program and, in some cases, undergraduate program.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” Wertheimer said. “The late chancellor of the seminary, Gerson D. Cohen, used to joke that one of the most significant reasons students came to JTS was to meet a spouse.”

Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the spiritual leader at New York’s Congregation Habonim, which is Conservative, said, “The challenge of finding a partner who is religiously observant and also is committed to egalitarianism and committed to the reality of having a partner who is in a public eye — it takes a very strong man to sign on for that.”

Leaders of other Jewish denominations that ordain female rabbis said they did not think the gender disparity was as significant in their movements and that elements unique to the Conservative movement may make finding a mate uniquely difficult for female Conservative rabbis.

Of the three major Jewish religious denominations that ordain women! rabbis, the Conservative movement is the newest to the idea, having b egun ordaining women 20 years ago. Many of the men whom Conservative rabbis seek to marry may still be getting used to the idea, too.

By contrast, there have been Reform women rabbis since 1972 and female Reconstructionist rabbis since 1974.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said female rabbis in his movement have not reported significantly more difficulty than men in finding mates.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, co-president of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, said challenges remain.

“There are a lot of conference workshops on child raising, family and the rabbinate. There are far fewer workshops on the single rabbi,” Wolkoff said. “Being a single rabbi and trying to find a date is challenging in the pulpit and when everybody in the community knows who you are.”

An informal survey of about 20 percent of the Reconstructionist rabbinate found that female rabbis a! re more than twice as likely to be single as male rabbis.

More than denominational affiliation, career choice within the rabbinate may be a better indicator of the difficulty in finding a partner, observers suggested.

The demands of a congregational job mean it’s harder to find time to date or balance work and family commitments than it is for rabbis who choose to go into Jewish education or other non-congregational work.

Ayelet Cohen, assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a non-denominational gay-oriented synagogue in New York, said the statistics on unmarried rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly survey are inextricably connected to figures showing that female Conservative rabbis are far less likely to work in or seek to work in congregations.

The demands of being a pulpit rabbi simply are too great, she said.

“The traditional demands of a congregational job are not really possible unless there’s one spouse at home who has the vast majority of hom! e responsibilities,” said Cohen, who is single.

“For the congregati onal rabbinate to remain a viable option for people with equal roles in their marriages and people who want to be able to have full family lives — whatever that family looks like — the congregational rabbinate will have to change pretty radically.”

And for those rabbis who do not have a family to manage, even finding time — and the means — to date can be difficult.

None of the movements explicitly bar a rabbi from dating a congregant, but ethics concerns make the practice somewhat difficult and, in some cases, frowned upon.

Though none of the religious movements has surveyed why rabbis — men or women — may be experiencing difficulty in finding a mate, the traditional perception of a rabbi’s job doubtless plays a significant role, observers said.

“My rabbi growing up was there 24/7,” said one woman who asked not to be identified. “He was an excellent rabbi, but a terrible father. There is a perception that the rabbi is always there for everyone else’s family! and the rabbis’ families really suffer.”

Given that perception — especially among rabbis in training — it’s hardly surprising that pulpit positions are becoming increasingly difficult to fill.

“A decision to go into congregational work means highly compromised personal time,” Cohen said. “It’s becoming increasingly obvious that younger people are struggling with the decision to go into congregational work, and I think that this has a lot to do with it.”

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