Reworking The Rabbi’s Role

Women in the pulpit today are changing the hierarchical nature of synagogue life and--surprise!--drawing in new congregants everywhere!

When Debra Hirsch took over as rabbi at the East End Temple in lower Manhattan five years ago, she inherited a barely solvent, 126-family congregation with seven students in the religious school and a building that was falling apart.

After 12 years with a part-time rabbi, the congregation was teetering on the brink of extinction. Things were so bad that “Mickey Mouse could have come in and done a good job’,’ says Hirsch.

Today, the temple is experiencing a renaissance. Membership is over 200 families, the religious school has grown tenfold, and this year developers will break ground on a new, three-story synagogue which was financed by selling the old building’s air rights.

When that happens, Hirsch, 35, will find herself one of four women rabbis heading up congregations of more than 300 families. With a little luck and a lot of drive, she overcame the wall of resistance many women who pursue the rabbinate come up against, both in and out of congregations.

In many ways, though, Hirsch is the exception. Since 1972, women have been entering the rabbinate in increasing numbers. Most of them do not even become congregational rabbis. But of those who do strike out on their own as solo rabbis, the majority wind up in small congregations low on prestige and pay — the ones male rabbis often pass up. “Women rabbis are serving congregations that are less desirable. Given the choice, congregations will choose male rabbis” says Rabbi Melanie Aron, sole rabbi of Temple Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, New York.

Small congregations have the additional problem of having small budgets, obliging the rabbi to serve as resident jack-of-all-trades. Many women say being on call around the clock exacts a heavy toll on their private lives. Often the tradeoffs are too great, dissuading many from considering pulpit positions. Those willing to tough it out still face additional traces of condescension in professional circles where traditional-minded male rabbis predominate.

Sexism aside, male rabbis tend to take more seriously their colleagues who have large, affluent congregations or those who serve in leadership roles in the Jewish community at large. But for many women rabbis, says Rabbi Lenore Bohm, 35, of the 450-family Temple Solel in Encinitas, California, not only are these jobs generally not available to women (or not coveted) but “attending weeknight meetings of the local board of rabbis can get pushed precipitously low on the priority list if you have a husband and children waiting for you at home!’

Interestingly, few women rabbis these days experience much resistance from their congregants — who not only hired them, but may also be accustomed to interacting with women bosses in the course of ordinary life. This grassroots acceptance of women rabbis, along with a new vitality that female rabbis tend to bring to their jobs, has been a big boon to Judaism, bringing formerly alienated people back to the fold.

In Hirsch’s case, the single biggest membership draw was the revamped religious school. Under her predecessor, the school began at the fourth grade, which meant that parents looking for a full Hebrew education for their children were forced to go elsewhere. Hirsch expanded the program to begin at kindergarten, and rescheduled classes from Sunday to Tuesday to accommodate weekend homeowners and divorced parents with weekend custody. This resulted in 35 additional members.

She also launched a pre-kindergarten program where parents could enroll their children without joining the temple. As the children grew, parents joined the temple to take advantage of the religious school. When the temple’s organ died, she replaced it with a synthesizer, giving the cantor latitude to add flair to his songs. Occasionally he pipes in the steel drums for a Calypso feel. “People enjoy making [religious services] not as serious as some people make it!”

In another effort to appeal to families, Hirsch shortened services to make them less formal, and added more family celebrations of festivals. At Purim, she encourages everyone to attend services in costume. The carnival features a humorous game called ‘throwing sponges at the rabbi.’ On the other hand, maintaining some standard synagogue traditions “becomes vital because there’s a changing of the guard [a new rabbi]’,’ she says.

Women rabbis across Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements alike are reinterpreting the relationship between rabbi and congregant. Instead of the traditional roles of omnipotent patriarchal leader and humble follower, women rabbis are quietly but decisively redefining the roles and narrowing the hierarchical gulf. “The push now is to change the image of the rabbi: to speak near the congregation, not from above. It’s no longer the distant holy man, but rather that of a hand-holder, an educator to inspire and teach!’ says Rabbi Nina Car-din, assistant to the chancellor for academic affairs at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). “The idea is to empower the congregant to be a more active member of the Jewish community!”

Aron of Temple Ahavath Sholom calls the new synagogue “more democratic and participatory. People come looking for community, not an authoritarian structure. Women by nature seem less distant, more human.”

The result is a more accessible, informal approach to services. Both male and female congregants are frequently recruited to sing or lead the congregation in prayer; women drape themselves in the shawl traditionally reserved for men (the tallit). Instead of standing on the pulpit, Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein of the United Synagogue of Hoboken conducts parts of her service from the first pew where she is literally on equal footing with her congregation.

Sally Priesand, the nation’s first woman rabbi, believes in establishing what she calls a “creative partnership” with her congregation — and with the board she reports to — at the 240-family Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. “I don’t see myself in total control!’ she says. “My opinion may not be necessarily accepted by the board. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes I lose.”

When her contract was up for renegotiation last year, Priesand announced it to the congregation so that people were free to express their opinions. She compares this style of leadership with the model espoused by her former supervisor, the late Rabbi Edward Klein at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. “He would never have gone to a meeting unless he had all the votes” she says. “Klein would decide the temple’s agenda. I work in such a way that the congregation decides for itself.”

Each year, Priesand has mutual evaluations with her board as part of the give-and-take process of partnership. “I evaluate the board and the president and vice president evaluate me!’ she says. “A lot of my colleagues, men and women, stare at me in shock when I tell them I allow that, but our philosophy is that we can always be better than we are.”

How women rabbis dress during services also says a lot about their relationship with their congregations. A woman wanting to narrow the gap between herself as spiritual leader and her followers may choose not to wear the traditional robe. “Another woman — who says my problem is a lack of authority and responsibility — would want to establish herself as a rabbi and as such would put on the traditional garments!’ says Cardin. “The clothes establish a sense of otherliness or holiness.”

The male practice of covering one’s head with a yarmulke has always symbolized humility toward God. Dickstein thinks that, as a rabbi, she too should cover her head, but rarely will she reach for the yarmulke. She may lead Shabbat prayers wearing a white fedora hat with a feather. Other times it’s a beret or a crocheted headpiece.

Conversely, for Aron, wearing the traditional male garments is a way of reinforcing her legitimacy. “I don’t want to wear a feminized tallit. I want to wear a tallit” she says. “Women aren’t imitating men. They’re trying to become citizens in the Jewish corporate body. Not men, but citizens.”

Because they’ve been shut out for so long, women rabbis seem more adept at making others feel included. One way Amy Eilberg (the first Conservative woman rabbi, ordained in 1985) laid down the welcome mat was to take religion out of the abstract and ground it in concrete, personal experiences, which she felt people related to more easily. During her year at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, Eilberg says she composed sermons that drew heavily from experiences in her private life — like motherhood. “My rabbinate was a first person rabbinate^’ she says. “Women value experience as highly as intellect. My own story is as significant as any fact or piece of scholarship.”

Others seem particularly disposed to encouraging diversity within their congregations. Recently, Rabbi Roz Gold of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston officiated over an Asian boy’s bar mitzvah. “We have a lot of adopted kids from Vietnam and Cambodia!’ says Gold, who is trying to bring in more interfaith couples and potential converts. Non-mainstream congregants often feel more at ease with a woman rabbi; after all, she, in some sense, is an outsider, too.

Priesand says almost a third of the 240 families that belong to her synagogue are interfaith couples, a phenomenon that has been very controversial within the Jewish community. Like most rabbis, male and female, she won’t officiate at mixed marriages but she does get a lot of requests. “People seem to think that a woman rabbi would do a mixed marriage since we’re more liberal and have had to face a lot of discrimination ourselves.”

Women are also the force behind the switch to gender-neutral God-language. Aron changed “He” to “You!’ and Adonai (which means “My Master”) to “Eternal!’ The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in the Reform movement is now developing a revised prayer book that will refer to God in gender-neutral terms; the Reconstructionist movement already has such a prayer book. Conservatives like Cardin and Dickstein, however, have problems with gender-neutral imagery. “It’s worse. It distances us from God” says Cardin, adding that Hebrew doesn’t have a neutral gender. “That solution is for people who don’t know Hebrew!’ Other women rabbis use both male, female and neutral terms for God — King, Mother, Shekhina, Creator, Source.

Feminist liturgy is also being created to help women cope with such events as menstruation, abortion and hysterectomy. “There were women’s prayers in the past, but they said, ‘Oh, God! Please give me sons. Sons, Sons, Sons,'” says Aron. “Women’s experiences weren’t thought worthy enough to have prayers.”

Both Eilberg and Dickstein are lobbying the law committee of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly to introduce mourning rituals for miscarriages, stillbirths, and babies that die within one month of birth. Jewish law currently bars parents from mourning these deaths on the theological grounds that you can’t mourn what never lived. “At any time we confront death, having structured ritual helps us deal with the chaos” says Dickstein.

Still, for all the strides women rabbis have made in terms of broadening their constituency, investing followers with a greater voice in both ritual and temple governance, and in general adding a new flavor to Judaism, they continue to face resistance to their presence. For these women, breaking into the rabbinate has been at least as tough as the battle the rest of the female population waged for job equity. A lot of the issues, like childcare, salary, and the tug-of-war between career and family, are the same.

Sometimes it’s as subtle as the laity’s assumption (sometimes correct, but sometimes incorrect) that they can address a woman rabbi by her first name, instead of by “rabbi!’ “People expect familiarity with a woman professional!’ says Sue Fendrick, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Some women drop the title to foster closeness. “I may sometimes err in letting go of the title too soon!’ says Eilberg. “Sometimes people need to see me as a rabbi!’ At the large and prestigious Har Zion, she was under heavy pressure not to go by her first name since it would break with long established temple etiquette.

Women assistant rabbis at large temples complain of being condescended to by their superiors. They resent being called “dear!’ or being grouped with the secretaries in the office. One rabbi called her former supervisor a “verbally abusive father figure who used consistently demeaning and humiliating language” toward her.

The entrenched resistance to women rabbis’ authenticity can be a real roadblock in professional circles where rabbis interact. Women — especially the newly ordained Conservatives — tolerate all the classic signs of discrimination. Their older, male colleagues are adversarial, test them on their knowledge, are not receptive to their ideas, and generally make them feel like outsiders.

Bucking some male colleagues’ pecking-order assumptions is particularly hard, according to Rabbi Susan Grossman of Genesis Agudas Achim in Tuckahoe, New York, because, “We’re trained to listen to the male voice. You have to keep telling yourself you’re an authority. It’s very hard, but that’s what it means to be a first in any field.”

Convincing people to hire you can also be an obstacle. “I spent a lot of time arguing that I wouldn’t do things differently from a man” says Dickstein, who had a difficult time finding a congregation even though she says she had more professional experience than most of her classmates. Eilberg recalls the search committee asking her if she would substitute “She” for “He” in prayers, introduce explicit feminist theology, and talk about women every week. “I now know the true answer is — I will talk as a woman every week!’ she says.

Gilbert Epstein, placement director for the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, says the few women who had great trouble getting congregations would have been no better off had they been men. He says these women appeared shy before search committees who were looking for someone “dynamic!’ Stanley Dreyfus, Epstein’s counterpart at the Reform CCAR, says the women who struggled getting placed were, contrarily, rejected on the basis of being too belligerent. “There’s no place in the rabbinate for people who are aggressively rebellious.”

But blaming the women is a little like blaming the victim: Both placement directors acknowledge there are still pockets of resistance. “Large congregations will engage women, but not as the senior rabbi’,’ says Epstein. “The educational director or assistant rabbi, those positions they could get!’ The reason? “Many congregations are reluctant to have women rabbis for fear of alienating their older members” — many of whom were originally affiliated with Orthodoxy, says Epstein.

Small congregations, on the other hand, sometimes hesitate to hire a woman because of the cost of paying for maternity leave. “Some [of the congregations] questioned the women about whether they anticipated having families and how soon!’ says Epstein. “They were worried she’d begin and then take off two months and they’d be without a rabbi!’ Maternity leave is “a heavy expenditure!’ says Dreyfus. “In a small synagogue, the rabbi’s salary and benefits are the largest part of the budget.”

But Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, co-coordinator of the Women’s Rabbinic Network (and Stanley Dreyfus’s daughter-in-law), says the cost of hiring replacements for new mothers is no different from covering for rabbis on sabbatical or those stricken with illness. Part of the hiring problem may be that religious institutions are exempt from federal laws that bar businesses from discriminating on the basis of, among other things, gender. The Reform movement asks congregations seeking a rabbi to sign a statement agreeing not to exclude candidates on the grounds of gender. But, says Dreyfus, “It’s a moral pledge. It doesn’t mean a thing legally.”

Once a woman rabbi manages to get a job, getting ‘stuck’ is commonplace. “There’s a lack of upward mobility for women in the clergy!’ says Rabbi Jan Kaufman, a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. “When you apply for jobs [up the ladder], you don’t get them. You don’t get invited to sit on committees. It’s very subtle. No one will say anything to you directly.”

The majority of women in solo slots head up the very smallest-sized congregations in the three movements which ordain women. Some argue that the absence of women in major pulpits has more to do with accruing seniority than anything else, and this is especially true for Conservative women, the most senior of whom was ordained only five years ago.

Unlike in other fields, job placement in the rabbinate is highly centralized. To hire a Conservative or Reform rabbi, congregations contact a central office which then determines eligible candidates by matching up the congregation’s size with the rabbi’s years of experience. “Women don’t have seniority so they’re automatically funneled to smaller congregations’,’ says Stanley Urbas, chairman of the Joint Placement Commission of the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue, and the JTS.

Another factor for Conservative women is that many entered the rabbinate after carving out careers in social work or teaching. “They are simply returning to related arms of those fields with the degree of rabbi to augment their professional standing!’ says Rabbi Debra Blank Reed, a doctoral student at JTS. “As more women come to rabbinical school straight out of college, more will probably go into the pulpit.”

But that does not account for Reform women rabbis who have been in the field for nearly twenty years. Why are they still in small-sized temples?

Some of those who started out in large, anonymous congregations found they preferred the intimacy of a smaller setting. “I wasn’t good in a big environment’,’ says Rabbi Paula Winnig, who used to work at an 1,100-family temple and is now at the 200-family Temple Sholom in Queens, New York. “I don’t like being a showpiece. [Here] I know the people and what they’re going through. I can gear a sermon to a specific person!’ Hirsch, who is eligible for an even larger congregation next year, is not interested in one. “I don’t want the impersonal contact. I don’t want to meet the bar mitzvah family the week before the event.”

The intense time-commitment of pulpit work is another deterrent to being in a large congregation, especially for women with young families. “It’s always there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week!’ says Winnig. “The pulpit is extremely demanding in terms of hours and on one’s emotions!’ says Reed. “Women in their mid-thirties are not attracted to that kind of work.”

Whatever the size of the congregation, women rabbis are paid less than men, although more in comparison with women in the workforce at large. Last year, American women earned an average of 70 cents per male dollar, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Reform women rabbis earned on average slightly above 89 cents per male dollar, according to the CCAR’s Task Force on Women. They begin their careers on near parity with their male colleagues — 94 cents per male dollar at the smallest congregations — but the difference widens as they advance — 81 cents per male dollar at mid-level congregations.

The reason, says Rabbi Roz Gold who heads the Task Force, is that women are not adept at negotiating for themselves. “Women are willing to make tradeoffs more easily. If they take a couple hours off in the middle of the day to be home when their kids come home from school, they might feel a little guilty about that” and not push for a raise.

Perhaps the most significant reason why women remain in small congregations may be attributed to what Gold describes as a different perception of the rabbinate. “Climbing up the ladder is not necessarily what we want!’ She regards the commonly asked question — “how big is your congregation” — as phallic. Rabbi Shira Milgrom, associate at the Jewish Community Center in White Plains, puts it another way: “When people think of prestigious rabbinic moments, they think of speaking before large congregations. Ultimately, what makes the difference is what happens between one person and another.”

Julie Goss has reported for Fortune and Money Magazines.