JTS Women Grads Struggling For Pulpits

After some improvement in recent years, gender bias charge resurfaces this year from seminarians.

05/31/11
Staff Writer
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When she began looking for jobs in February, Gail Schwartz knew she had the skills to be a pulpit rabbi. After all, she had served as an assistant rabbi at several synagogues while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

But after interviewing with 11 Conservative synagogues that were looking for both solo and assistant rabbis, and getting only one callback, Schwartz (not her real name) was stunned.

“It was confusing because I had demonstrated an ability to handle the job,” she said.

Asked if she believed gender bias might have been a factor, Schwartz replied: “I don’t see how it couldn’t have been when every single man [in her graduating class] has a job, only two women have full-time jobs and three other women students are still looking. It just doesn’t add up.”

Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, director of placement at the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,600 Conservative rabbis, was equally bewildered.

“I wish I knew what’s happening,” he said. “Women have had a harder time this year than last year, and we are very frustrated and surprised.”

Others suggested that a host of factors might have been involved this year: the number of women in the class — only eight out of a class of 26 — was relatively small; the number of Conservative congregations has dwindled over the years to about 650 today; fewer congregations were looking for rabbis, and not all of the women wanted a pulpit. In addition, several observers suggested that gender bias may have played a key role.

Given the Conservative movement’s unique position in the American Jewish landscape — perched between tradition and modernity — it is perhaps not surprising that some synagogues would favor male rabbinical candidates. The movements to its left — Reform and Reconstructionist — report little or no gender bias in hiring. To its right, the Orthodox do not have women rabbis at all, although a handful of liberal Orthodox institutions, such as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, are allowing women — most notably Rabba Sara Hurwitz — to take on many spiritual, pastoral and educational responsibilities traditionally handled by rabbis.

A 2004 study of women rabbis in the Conservative movement concluded that there was gender bias in employment and salaries.

Rabbi Schoenberg said that since then the outlook for women rabbis seeking pulpits had improved.

In 2005, about one-fourth of the women graduates landed pulpits, a figure that rose to 50 percent in 2009. “We had a track record of women being a success,” he said. “That’s why the conversation this year is about how disappointed we are … and we don’t know why it’s happened or what congregations are thinking.”

He added that he has not yet “had conversations with search committees about why they are not hiring women.”

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a JTS professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, said she believes that because jobs are scarce it has become a “buyers’ market.”

“It’s precisely when it becomes a buyers’ market that synagogue prejudice shows itself,” she observed. “This year synagogues are in the driver’s seat and, based upon my conversations with students, they prefer a man — a married man with a baby — so their congregants can relate to him. You can’t simply say it’s sexism; it’s more complicated. …”

But Rabbi Hauptman added unequivocally: “There is a bias in favor of men in the Conservative movement in the United States. We’re asking ourselves whether it is traditional people who are looking for male rabbis, or newly egalitarian congregations that are not ready for women. Or perhaps women are not going in with the same aggressiveness, are not projecting their leadership skills or an outgoing personality. I think we have to educate congregants about the permissibility of women rabbis. … My sense is that until now the complaint was that they were getting jobs but not equal pay or being treated right.”

The 2004 study found more male rabbis than female rabbis worked full-time, worked in congregations, led the congregations where they were employed, and led congregations “far larger” than those led by women rabbis.

Stephen Wolnek, former international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, suggested that the large number of male rabbis seeking jobs is hurting women rabbis.

“Five or 10 years ago if a congregation asked for rabbinical candidates, they had maybe two people to choose from,” he said. “And if the best candidate was a woman, she had as good a chance as the man. Today when synagogues are looking for a rabbi, they get 10 or 12 applicants and some have more experience than others.”


Another reason why so many Conservative rabbis are looking for work is the economy. Wolnek, who is now president of Mercaz Olami, the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization, said some of the larger congregations had to cut back on staff because of the financial crunch.

“So instead of having four rabbis on staff, they will have three,” he said.

In addition, Wolnek pointed out, there are more male rabbis looking for jobs than female rabbis. Only 280 women have been ordained since JTS began the practice in 1985.

“Most congregations still want a male rabbi,” he said. “At the moment, the choices are such that the tendency is to go for the standard.”


He noted that although his son’s congregation in Birmingham, Ala., hired a woman rabbi a number of years ago, he is not so sure it would hire a woman today. 


“It’s nothing against women; it’s just that given two equally good candidates, congregations would prefer to go for the more traditional profile,” Wolnek added. “Again, it has nothing to do with the quality of the women; it’s just more comfortable” with a man.

Of the eight women ordained by JTS last week, one did not look for a job and only two of the other seven secured full-time employment — one as an educator in a congregation and the other as a hospice chaplain. Two others were able to get part-time jobs as congregational rabbis and will work the rest of the time at another job (one will work at a local Hillel and another as an Army chaplain). The other three women have no jobs at all. 


All of the four full-time solo congregational positions went to men, as did the five full-time assistant rabbi positions. The other men ordained last week also found full-time jobs. “It’s perfectly clear that in the rabbinate, like other aspect of society, there is a gender divide,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school. “What is the role of explicit discrimination? There is clearly some there.”


But he went on to say that not all of the women sought full-time jobs as synagogue spiritual leaders and that some limited their job searches to a specific geographical area. He noted that the three women rabbis still looking for jobs have “possibilities in congregational and educational organizations.”

“Although employment for 22 out of 25 graduates looking for jobs is a reasonable yield for this economy, we will not be satisfied until we have 100 percent placement for our graduates,” he said.

Asked if he believed that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism had not properly prepared its congregations to accept a woman rabbi, Rabbi Nevins replied: “The differential in the response to female applicants is comparable to other sectors in the American workplace and is certainly not the result of action by the USCJ or any other organization.”


But JTS graduates complained privately that although all of the congregations looking for a rabbi interviewed women during placement week at the seminary, few women were actually called back for a second interview.

None of the women graduates contacted agreed to be interviewed for attribution for this article because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Rabbi Nevins said there were not that many pulpit positions available this year, and that callbacks were often a function of how many jobs the students sought during placement week.

“Some women got lots of callbacks, and some men did not,” he said. “I spoke with some synagogues and was assured they were not just going through the motions by interviewing a woman. One synagogue said it received 16 to 18 applications and invited back only the three or four candidates they were most impressed with. Several synagogues said that after the top three men, women were included in the next top three candidates.”


Advancement for Conservative women rabbis has not been easy, according to Rabbi Francine Green Roston, who in 2005 became the first woman to lead a congregation of more than 500 members when she became spiritual leader of a congregation in South Orange, N.J.

Ordained in 1998, she said she experienced “sexual harassment” from congregants and staff in a previous job as the assistant rabbi at a large suburban synagogue. 


“I don’t think it was unlike what other women experienced in high-level executive positions where the women were breaking barriers,” she said. “After that position, I was a solo rabbi in a small suburban congregation that had a debate on whether they could hire a woman. I was four months pregnant and had two children while working full time. It was difficult, but over the years things improved just as they have improved for women in general society.”

Rabbi Faith Cantor, who was ordained by JTS in 2004 and for the last four years has been the associate rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in Charlotte, N.C., pointed out that not only do fewer women rabbis get pulpit positions but “we tend to be the second or third rabbi.” Some of that is by design, she said, noting that she chose the associate position because “I knew I wanted to have kids. ... and being an assistant made more sense so I could balance” both a career and motherhood.

“I teach a class of 12- and 13-year-old girls, and they had no idea there was once non-egalitarian Judaism,” Rabbi Cantor said. “Their mothers love it and the girls say, ‘Of course women can be rabbis and cantors.’ This is a generation of girls who take it for granted that women can do these things.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the fact that women have not fared as well in the job market as their male classmates is something the movement has been trying to address since the early ‘90s through seminars and special programs for women rabbis at RA conventions.

Officials at the other two rabbinical seminaries here — one pluralistic and the other Reform — reported no gender bias in hiring. 


Ora Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, a transdenominational pluralistic institution, agreed that the sluggish economy has been a factor this year but added that “gender bias in clergy hiring practices does not seem to be a factor in AJR’s placement experience.” 


Prouser said her school has ordained 32 women and 25 men as rabbis in the last nine years and that “almost all were employed post-ordination” except for those with personal or geographic restrictions.

She said one reason there doesn’t appear to be gender bias is because the academy “has always offered a very personalized placement service. This means that each congregation’s intake is done with an emphasis on getting a good grasp on the specific needs and ‘personality’ of the congregation. In addition, real time is spent with each candidate looking for placement. The placement process concentrates on finding the right match — by skill set and fit for the community and the clergy. Thus, it is about the match and not about the gender.”


Similarly, the Reform movement reported that gender is not an issue in job placement.
Renni Altman, associate dean and director of the rabbinical program at the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said that while not all 12 students just ordained here have yet found jobs, “overall our women did very well and I do not see that gender was a factor in terms of placement.” 


She noted that 11 of the 12 are women, that seven have congregational positions, one is moving to Israel for doctoral studies, another will be a part-time (her choice) family educator in a congregation, two have part-time work and the other two are still looking for full-time work. 


Last Update:

04/26/2013 - 10:39

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Rabbi Rosten wasn't sexually harassed. By my observations as a woman and I am a woman who works in a male dominated field, she was unprofessional. Should a Rabbi come to work in overalls? Should a Rabbi talk down to the elders of the congregation? Should the assistant Rabbi walk right in and start telling everyone what they are supposed to do? Even the people who pushed for her to be hired, didn't want her there anymore. Please verify facts before posting.

"I would like to see the day when the ordained Rabbis from JTS advocate banning driving on Shabbat, perhaps then they would earn the respect and the followers they are losing."

The driving tshuva was not unanimous, and IIUC many JTS rabbis are not happy with it, but overturning it would be seen as a disrespect to the decisors of that generation, and CJLS isnt ready to go that far.

There have been widespread complaints of sexual harassment towards females at Zeigler (University of Judaism) Rabbinical School. Why go there just to get sexually harassed?

Having dealt at length with the RA regarding a conflict between a male and female rabbi, their antediluvian views were stunning. They were quite clear that in any case of "he said, she said" there could be not doubt as to who was to be believed.

Given the RA's role in placement, congregations, even those who might be favorably disposed to a (young) woman, can't mistake the signals. And if you don't do what the RA wants, they are quite clear that you will have a difficult time finding the next hire.

Having seen several outstanding rabbis and candidates "exiled" to undesireable jobs and geographies, this problem won't change until leadership changes.

I agree. I went before the RA to discuss a very disturbing case of sexual harrassment between men and a rabbi as well as chronicle examples of this rabbi acting in hateful and aggressive ways towards me to change me into a submissive woman who knew her place. This rabbi wanted me to look nice so he could stare and do his thing, but he did not, and he demanded, that I never get more attention than him in any kind of public forum and went to great lengths to ensure that my voice would not be heard, even though my words were deeply appreciated by members, due to my unique background as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was able to convey the darkness but alsos the resilience that I witnessed and in turn share wisdom with my old congregation that the rabbi found incredibly threatening. We,, the RA would not hear the most abusive behavior the rabbi used against me and only honed in a two narrow points out of the many that should have been discussed, and almost did that, to ensure that they would not find themselves having to come out with a punishment that would ensure that this rogue rabbi was supervised and not able to hurt more women going forward. i am very disappointed that the needs of the establishment and patriarchy within the conservative movement allow this. The RA is antiquated, and if it wants to survive it must be able to support its women including its women rabbis and take risks and not be scared and come out swinging. That is the bottomline. I don' t see that happening. I see lots of relgious mysogynist in the movement. It will die and it will be the RA's and the USCJ's own fault. Women rabbis and strong smart women leaders of congregations are needed and they are stymied and they will go elsewhere as they should. The movement must get rid of the haters on both sides. It seems unable to do that. It supported my old rabbi who is a scary disturbed man that will continue to hurt women and function under the radar with his perversions, but one person can only do so much. So let the conservative movement die a slow death. Not all of their male rabbis are good actors and for some reason they are really scared to admit that.

I just wanted to add the my case of sexual harrassment against a standing rabbi at an egalatarian synagogue was met with hate by the men in leadership who together with the rabbi created a sham committee that abused its powers and actually wrote a letter to me that dismissed my charges with no investigation or interview with me and stated they would work with the rabbi to reduce his lifetime bima ban against me which was done 10 days after i told the rabbi he had to stop his sick sexually based behaviors towards me after I made a small mistake on the bima that the rabbi turned into something to justify his retaliatory action. His lifetime bima ban came in the form of a sadistic vicious and destrustive missive sent to my home. The sham committee stated would lessen lifetime to 15 months and that I would have to sign a degrading consent decree that I would never talk on the bima again unless directly told to do so. This happened. I took the letters and the bima ban to the RA and the USCJ--this was hate in its purest form--and they have the case and it remains open until the hateful synagogue that hired a man who has a deep-seated hate of women and who enjoys making them suffer and rationalizes his hate by immersing himself in extreme ideas that he holds on to from the Torah. Now how can a rabbi like this get away with not only sexually harrassing me in a very extreme and disturbing way but retaliate in such a vicious way and the board not be outraged. Because this synagogue has issues with women like me who are smart and have something to say. And they call themselves egalatarian. This is a cancer in the conservative movement and hopefully it is addressed. Men cannot treat women with substance who have worked hard and desire to make a committement with hate and that is the bottomline. If they treat us hatefully we will treat them hatefully. I will stake out my position within the movement and the bottomline is now a synagogue is stuck with a hater who has a disease known as a sexual compulsion that overtime requires the sick person to develop more and more intense sadistic fantasies to be able to get the same result that at the beginning of the compulsion did not require sadistic fantasies to be able to reach the sex addict's ultimate goal. So there is a synaogue with a diseased rabbi and that rabbi will act out and hurt others. But because of the hate and weakness and corruption on the board the rabbi got his way and my case was never heard. So a synagogue is stuck with a really sick rabbi. Now how does that make any sense??? Why do we cover things up like we do in the conservative movement. We should not be like the orthodox movement and we should identify extremely sick individuals (and this rabbi comes off as highly disturbed) and pull them out and not scapegoat the woman messenger and villify her and make it so that she must leave the synaogue. It is a really serious problem and the more the movement hides from it and keeps its head in the sand the more serious it will become.

The Conservative movement is bankrupt because they do not keep Shabbat holy. Imagine if a movement in Judaism said, "ok, we keep nine out of the ten comandments - adultery is now permitted!" (Oh, and by the way, we consider ourselves "halakhic"!)

I would like to see the day when the ordained Rabbis from JTS advocate banning driving on Shabbat, perhaps then they would earn the respect and the followers they are losing.

They've turned "egalitarianism" into a form idolatry - it has become an end in itself. It is not gender bias that is the problem.

Subject: Fwd: Few jobs in Rabbinate for males and females

There is gender discrimination in all fields; another major problem I did not mention, is that some Rabbis are peddling ordination documents which they either bought or received from a make believe school, including the internet. These Rabbis demand less money and shuls are desperate because they cannot pay the minimum asked by the qualified rabbininical schools. They do not ask for benefits and sell themselves as cantors, executive directors and principals.
The truth is Rabbinical schools and placement organizations should warn how tight the job market is . Up until a few years ago recognized placement organizations were able to control placement. I do not believe that is true today as people are desperate for jobs and synagogues are desperate to hire clergy at the cheapest cost. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

I take strong issue with blaming JTS for not "educating and preparing" congregations to "open their doors" to women rabbis. Our congregation (in Virginia) is staring the rabbi search process. Keeping it polite, I don't think we'd react well to being lectured to by national organizations that don't have to pay the mortgage on our building. Maybe we're too provincial for the sophisticated intellects on the Upper West Side. It could be that JTS is to blame for misleading women applicants into believing that gender would not be an issue.

Given the small sample sizes, I'd be very cautious about making generalizations. We really don't know how these particular candidates fit with the specific openings for which they interviewed. Also, there are some viewpoints and approaches that may work in New York, but not in Virginia (for example, our congregation would view any connection of a candidate with J Street as toxic).

There are some issues that congregations will just have to face on their own. For example, as courts have held that federal and state anti-discrimination laws don't apply to hiring rabbis (First Amendment trumps Title VII) a congregation is free to decide whether or not it wants to deal with maternity leaves, if that is relevant.

Many years ago, the President of a small Reform congregation in Tennessee told me that the temple wanted to hire a female rabbi, but she had to be "good looking"

My friends in JTS have told me that Conservative Congregations that hire Woman Rabbis report a substantial decline in Male participation. This has led to a decline in memberships. The JTS has found that many rebelious male teenagers also dislike having a female mother figure leading their Hebrew School events. Clearly the JTS is to blame for not educating and preparing their member Conservative Congregations to open their doors to Woman Rabbis.

This is not a halakhic issue, it is an issue of perception. Even congregations that are adamantly egalitarian may still carry very strong yet unconscious stereotypes about what a 'new rabbi' looks like - a man in his late twenties, with a cute wife (probably a teacher, social worker, or Jewish communal worker) and a cute baby or two. There is only so much that the RA or the JTS can do about this before it is the responsibility of the movement at large to live by its values. Congregations who are hiring rabbis should take a good long look at themselves and see whether their egalitarian values carry over into their hiring process.

A halachic commitment to being a non egalitarian congregation would be one thing. But these are congregations that are "fully inclusive" of women.

READ MY LIPS. THERE ARE VERY FEW JOBS. OLDER RABBIS ARE NOT RETIRING AND MANY SYNAGOGUES ARE CLOSING. WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH WOMEN RABBIS? IT IS A QUESTION OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND.

Hey, even Reb Moshe referred to C rabbis as "rabbi". Of course, he referred to O rabbis as "rav". Still, whatever rules you play by, Rabbi is a professional title, and people who have gone through rabbinic programs of whatever movement are entitled to call themselves that. Where that leaves O women who have been through quasi-rabbinic programs such as Maharat and Nishmat, in terms of parsonage allowance, is another matter.

On topic: I thought it was old news that no (major) C synagogue had yet hired a woman as the main rabbi. No wonder women aren't applying for rabbinical school as much - if they aren't getting hired, why bother taking the training? Better to be an academic, at least then you have some chance of getting a job.

Most female rabbis are radical leftists, who side with Israel's enemies in calling for Israel to surrender every bit of land from 1967. They became rabbis to carry out an agenda, at a very high salary.

Don't let your synagogue hire them. You, and Israel, will be sorry.

According to the Halachic Logic employed by the movement, just as women are to be ordained, congregations that refuse to employ women as Rabbi's are acting halachically and totally within the movement's own guidelines.

Sorry, but there is no such thing as a female rabbi. The rules are the rules.

I wouldn't be quite so dismissive. Which rules are those precisely? Cite us chapter and verse, siman and se'if, daf, whatever, if you can find it in chazal that "there is no such thing as women rabbis." Some streams of Judaism prohibit women from taking on certain roles (edut, for example) or limit those roles (shaliach tzibbur), but women can certainly teach and posken halacha.

 At the American Jewish University (Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies) in Los Angeles, there was not a single woman in this year's graduating class. I'm wondering if this is an anomaly or a trend.

Um.. why not just call someone over there and ask?

It was an anomaly. When I was ordained on '09, there was a class of 12 - 6 men and 6 women.

And we wonder why our movement is failing. I had hoped that by marshalling the resources of women, we could instill new excitement into the movement and reach out to a new generation of Jews. Instead we coninue tired old story of male centered Judaism, professional Rabbis, no committment to a living dynamic Judaism. It would be one thing if male centered Conservative Judaism was working but we know it isn't.

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