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Rabbinic Call to Action

In 2004, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly released a study, “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained Since 1985.” RA Executive VP Rabbi Julie Schonfeld told Lilith magazine, “I have called upon other rabbinic organizations to follow the RA’s lead and produce a study tracking women’s career advancement, as it is known and widely discussed that congruent gaps [in salary and pulpit placement] remain across the denominations. I hope that others will soon heed the call.”

Rabbi Schonfeld’s call to action comes at a time of firsts for women rabbis. Not only is Rabbi Schonfeld the RA’s first female executive VP but the presidents of the rabbinic organizations of all three American branches of Judaism outside the Orthodox world are headed by women: Gilah Dror is president of the RA; Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is president of Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR); and Yael Ridberg is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA).

Aside from these women at the top, one step in getting the overall numbers on women’s career advancement is the Reform movement’s new study of rabbis’ salaries. According to CCAR Chief Executive Steven A. Fox, the study’s first phase, completed in February, compiled data on more than 700 rabbis from the Reform Pension Board.

Analysis will compare men’s and women’s salaries from entry-level assistant rabbi through senior rabbi. The study’s findings are initially being released to CCAR rabbis and Reform congregations. Fox expects the study will show “in what areas we need to advocate and in what areas we need to educate.”

The Reconstructionist movement has achieved a more level playing field with similar salary levels and pulpit positions for both men and women rabbis. Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the RRA, credits this equality largely to the fact that the first Reconstructionist rabbis were ordained at the same time that the women’s movement was taking off in the late 1960s.

As for Rabbi Schonfeld’s call to action, Hirsh said, “We would welcome an opportunity to consider jointly sponsoring a study across rabbinic associations that would yield valuable information for the entire Jewish community. For example, [Conservative Judaism’s] United Synagogue has lost six percent of its congregations in the past decade. These congregations’ shul programs are still likely ‘Conservatish’ but have their hiring attitudes changed?” Hirsh also suggested including the modern Orthodox seminaries such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, N.Y. Hirsh said, in these schools that are “walking very close to the edge, what’s happening with the women they’re training?”

Reform Judaism’s Fox is also open to working with other branches of Judaism to study how women fare within the rabbinate, saying, “I would certainly be happy to be collaborative.”

While Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly has yet to update its 2004 study, ongoing data does exist on the hiring of Conservative male and female pulpit rabbis. The numbers are not encouraging.

The September 2010 issue of the RA Newsletter reported 47 placements for March through August, the high season for pulpit hiring. Of these, 41 were male and six were female. Of the six women hired as pulpit rabbis, four were fresh out of rabbinical school, hired for entry-level positions. For Conservative rabbis already in the field, 32 men but only 2 women were hired.