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Study of Women Rabbis Finds Widespread Sexual Harassment

September 16, 1993
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Women in the rabbinate experience sexual harassment and discrimination so often that they consider these obstacles "part of the job," according to a new survey.

The study, conducted by the Commission for Women’s Equality of the American Jewish Congress, showed that a majority of women rabbis (73 percent) have been sexually harassed by congregants or other rabbis. Fifty-four percent said they had experienced sexual discrimination.

Yet a majority say they are very happy in their work. Most rate their job satisfaction at 7 or more on a scale of 1 to 10.

The survey followed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines in defining sexual harassment as unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advances that could have an impact on an individual’s employment.

Discrimination was defined in the survey as denial of equal pay or benefits because of being a woman, or differential treatment in hiring, firing, duties or responsibilities on the basis of gender.

The survey was sent to all 325 women rabbis who have been ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist movement’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Those ordained by rabbis in the Jewish renewal movement and by the independent seminary in New York known as the Academy for the Jewish Religion received surveys as well.

Nearly half the recipients, 142, responded, in about the same proportions as the percentage of women rabbis in each of the movements with which they are affiliated.

The results of the survey appear in the October issue of the Jewish magazine Moment.

In terms of sexual harassment, women rabbis have experienced a range of unwelcome approaches. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said they had been faced with unsolicited touching or closeness within the context of their work.

Twenty-three percent said someone had tried to fondle or kiss them, and 12 percent said they had been pressured for dates or other activities with a sexual overtone. Seventeen percent said they had received letters and calls of a sexual nature.


Nearly two-thirds of the rabbis (65 percent) said they had received unwanted sexual comments or had been told sexual jokes on the job.

Most of the rabbis (68 percent) reported that they were harassed by laypeople, 29 percent were harassed by another rabbi and 12 percent by a colleague who was not a rabbi.

And the harassment often preceded their ordination. While in rabbinical school, 40 percent of the rabbis said they heard derogatory comments about women during classes and 23 percent had been discouraged from becoming a rabbi by professors or administrators.

Eight percent said they were sexually harassed, and 19 percent said they had been faced with inappropriate sexual behavior from professors or administrators.

Five percent said they were harassed by other students, and 10 percent said they had dealt with inappropriate sexual behavior from peers.

In all, a plurality of 43 percent said that being a woman put them at a disadvantage in their training to become a rabbi.

After graduation, the discrimination picture did not brighten for these women.

Half the respondents said they had not been offered a job because they are women.

Nearly that many, 47 percent, said they had been offered a lower salary than a male colleague for the same job because of their gender.

Almost half, 48 percent, said they now make less than their male colleagues.

While being interviewed for a job or negotiating a contract, just over two-thirds said they were asked questions related to being a woman, and 71 percent of those rabbis said the questions and comments were inappropriate.

According to Ann Lewis, chair of AJCongress’ Commission for Women’s Equality, women rabbis have been "told point blank (by synagogue search committees) that the congregation wanted someone who would be ‘more devoted to their job’ " than a woman would be.

Pregnancy and motherhood are the chief issues around which women in the rabbinate experience discrimination.


"The whole tenor of their job changes" when they are pregnant, said Lewis, "Every time they take maternity leave, they’re questioned and feel they have to justify any time they do anything" out of the office.

"They’re told they can’t get pregnant and be due around the High Holy Days. One rabbi was told (by her board) that she had no right to get pregnant under her contract," she said.

Forty-nine percent of the survey respondents said they were asked about pregnancy or having children during a job interview or contract negotiation.

When it comes to officiating at life-cycle ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, bar and batmitzvahs, britot milah and baby-naming ceremonies, being a woman rabbi cuts both ways.

Seventy percent of respondents said they have been asked not to officiate at a life-cycle ceremony because of their gender.

At the same time, nearly half said they are frequently asked to officiate because of their gender. Another 36 percent are occasionally or sometimes invited to officiate at life-cycle ceremonies because they are women.

Most respondents, 73 percent, said they are treated differently than male rabbis in non-discriminatory ways as well.

"People are more open to counseling with female rabbis, with talking about things that they feel uncomfortable talking to male rabbis," said Lewis.

Despite the harassment and discrimination that women in the rabbinate continue to face, they are remarkably happy in their work.

On a scale of 1 to 10, more than three-quarters of the rabbis (76 percent) rated their satisfaction with their career as excellent, or at least a "7."

"They accept the things that happen to them and look beyond that to see whether they’re happy or not, and they are," said Lewis.

"Many feel they’ve made an impact on their synagogues and communities by bringing women’s issues to the fore. They feel they’re making an impact, and that’s more important than the negative experiences that they’ve had," she said.

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