When Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform rabbinical seminary, ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972, the event was more inevitable than revolutionary. It had been 50 years since HUC-JIR had come within a whisker of ordaining faculty daughter Martha Newmark, and other women had attended liberal rabbinical schools since then.
Meanwhile, in 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) opened, with women admitted from the first day. Priesand’s ordination — and that of the first female Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Sasso, in 1974 — were newsworthy, but they quietly found pulpits and began to build careers, the first of an accelerating number of women to join the rabbinate in American Jewry’s most liberal denominations.
Today, the 377 women in Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) constitute about 20 percent of Reform rabbis — closer to 25 percent when retired and inactive rabbis aren’t counted — up from about 10 percent in 1991. Currently, there are 246 Reconstructionist rabbis, 45 percent of whom are women.
Female rabbis serve synagogues, schools, hospitals and Jewish communal organizations in every metropolitan area; more than 20 women work in Los Angeles congregations, with possibly a similar number of women holding down other rabbinic jobs. Their ubiquity has had an effect on Judaism — but motherhood, a factor for most women in the rabbinate, may be keeping them from real power.
Transforming the Synagogue
Women in the rabbinate are widely credited with making rabbis seem friendlier and more approachable: the common buzzword is "accessible."
"We used to say that women’s presence has shifted the rabbinate out of the priestly, hierarchical model into a more egalitarian model," said Karen Bender, associate rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1994, though she added that younger male rabbis strive for accessibility, too.
"Congregants want a closer, personal relationship with their spiritual leaders, and for many women this intimacy comes easily," according to Judith HaLevy, rabbi at Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Reconstructionist temple.
"Women are historically seen as good listeners," said Zoë Klein, associate rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. "I think all of those negative stereotypes from the past actually fit well with what people want from a rabbi: a gracious hostess, care, gentleness and strength."
Another rabbi said she thinks women are more comfortable talking to female rabbis about issues such as menopause and domestic violence.
"It’s important that girls are growing up with women rabbis," Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a Conservative rabbi, told The Journal, adding that women bring "a keener eye and a fresh perspective [to Jewish texts]."
For many female congregants, there’s a comfort level in connecting with a woman rabbi when one is searching spiritually.
"Walking that path with another woman can be powerful," said Sheryl Nosan-Blank, a 1993 HUC-JIR graduate and rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills.
Some see women rabbis as an engine for Reform Judaism’s recent attention to traditional ritual. Male rabbis during Reform’s first 150 years were interested in shedding ritual, said Temple Judea’s Bender, but women, having been excluded from ritual for so long, don’t feel the same way. "For women, there isn’t meaning in shedding; women embrace ritual," Bender told The Journal. "They’re more, ‘Let’s make more ritual, let’s make new ritual.’"
And women have most definitely made new ritual. Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, who became the third female Reform rabbi in 1976, said at last November’s Reform Community Shabbat that women in the rabbinate have made it possible for women to mark the milestones in their lives in Jewish ways. They’ve created rituals for menarche, menopause, weaning, miscarriage and abortion, she said, and they are responsible for making the ceremony for bringing a new daughter into the covenant as prominent in rabbis’ manuals as brit milah.
She added, though, that this contribution goes beyond women’s ceremonies to "new rituals for men as well as women: rituals for retirement; new rituals for divorce; gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies; rituals for becoming a grandparent."
"The presence of women in the rabbinate opens up the perspective," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said. "It changes what we see and what we hear and therefore what we listen for and what we look for."
The Mommy Track
Bender, who works full time and is rearing two children with a female spouse, is active in the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a group of female Reform rabbis. Five years ago, she said, women attending the group’s convention would state guiltily that they were leaving congregational work; today, she said, they brag, "I’m pulpit-free."
"Most people are finding that the pulpit rabbinate is incompatible with being a mom," Bender said. When significant numbers of newly or recently ordained rabbis leave congregations or won’t go into congregations at a time of shortage, she said, "that’s a crisis."
"I don’t think I could have done this when my children were small," said Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, whose children were 12 and 14 when she entered RRC and who was ordained in 1994. "I would not be a pulpit rabbi with children at home."
There’s wide acknowledgment of a "mommy track" in the rabbinate. "Certain [jobs] lend themselves to ‘mommyness’: those with clear hours, evenings and weekends off," Lewart said. Such jobs include teaching, Hillel work and administrative positions in Jewish communal organizations, though plenty of male rabbis do that work, too.
Women comprise the bulk of rabbis holding down part-time positions in Reform congregations and affiliated organizations, said Rabbi Arnold Sher, director of rabbinic placement for the CCAR. Even a "part-time" job, particularly in a congregation, often means working 40 hours a week for 20 hours’ pay, several women said. Some rabbinical mothers limit their careers to part-time teaching or officiating at weddings and funerals.
When Rabbi Karen Fox’s two sons were small, she worked a two-thirds-time schedule at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for five years except during the summer, when she ran the temple’s camps in Malibu. She brought her sons and a housekeeper to camp with her, but when one of the boys complained, "You’re not their mom, you’re my mom," Fox left Wilshire Boulevard and switched to education, teaching and then directing the middle school at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson.
"That allowed me to have structure as a mom and as a rabbi, and I was home for Shabbat," said Fox, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1978 and is back at Wilshire Boulevard as associate rabbi. "There were times when I thought I might be trading something away, [but] I don’t think I gave anything up; I allowed myself to have a soul."
Several rabbis mentioned the arrival of a second child as the breaking point at which full-time congregational work (which in a typical rabbi’s contract involves working six days a week, including Saturday and Sunday) becomes too much for many mothers. Temple Isaiah’s Klein, however, has had a son and a daughter since her 1998 ordination, and she embraces the rigors of the job.
"Being a rabbi is hard work, but I chose it because I feel called to it and I love it with all my heart," Klein said. "Sometimes, when my weekends are eaten away in service of families, I wonder if it is worth it, but … when my son runs through the halls of Temple Isaiah and then stops suddenly in his tracks, points up to my picture and says proudly, ‘That’s my mommy,’ I know it is worth it."
"The hardest thing about being a mother, a wife and a rabbi is that when most people have family time — Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday — that’s when I am the busiest," said Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Her decision to remain in full-time congregational life with two children under age 4, though, is a lonely one. Of the women in her 1996 ordination class at HUC-JIR, Missaghieh said, "they’ve either left congregational life, left rabbinical life and become mothers full time, they’re working part time or they’re lesbians and have a partner at home."
But she has no plans to leave full-time work.
"That’s the struggle, that I am so fulfilled in my work," Missaghieh told The Journal. "I would not be as effective as a full-time mother as I am as a full-time rabbi; I could not be the best Michelle I could be if I were a full-time mother."
Parenthood deepens experience and makes men and women better rabbis, several women noted. Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi, said that as a young, single woman, she wasn’t taken seriously when she first came to Sinai Temple in Westwood, but during those five years, she met and married her husband, bore her first child and helped nurse her father through a terminal illness.
"People say, ‘I really didn’t support you when you first came here, but now I honor you as my rabbi,’" Hirsch said.
"I think that I am greatly aided by my role as a mother, especially in dealing with families," said Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue’s HaLevy, who entered the rabbinate after her children were grown. "My son refused to wear anything but his favorite tennis shoes with holes in them to his own bar mitzvah, so I can relate to all those parents of 13-year-olds who wonder where the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has gone."
The setting of limits on one’s time is crucial to keeping one’s sanity, several rabbis commented. "I have very strong boundaries: If I’m working at night, I make sure I’m home in the middle of the day; if I have to work all day Sunday, I’m home all day Monday," Hirsch said.
Bender is more skeptical that rabbis have the ability to say no.
"How much power do you have to craft a rabbinate that lets you have a family life?" said the Temple Judea rabbi. "Do I ask to miss that meeting, or do I just say I’m going to miss that meeting? I think rabbis are afraid: ‘If I keep missing meetings, they’ll fire me.’"
"My joke is, ‘And I have a wife,’" said Bender, whose partner works part time. "Just because I have a wife doesn’t solve the problem."
However, the presence of mothers in the rabbinate is credited with raising congregations’ consciousness that all rabbis need to set limits on the time they give their synagogues, though that may contain a generational element as well, as younger men assert a need to spend time with their spouses and children.
Janet Marder, who recently became the first female president of the CCAR, suggested that when women rabbis set the example of making time for family life, they put in motion a new way of looking at the rabbinate.
The rabbi who sets time boundaries and doesn’t burn out "is better able to serve because you have more to give," she said. And the need for rabbis to pull away from synagogue demands, Marder added, has led to the empowerment of laypeople, who develop ritual and administrative skills to pick up the slack.
The perceived need for boundaries for both men and women, however, has fed a shortage of rabbis willing to take pulpits, especially the senior rabbi positions at large congregations, which historically have been seen as the most prestigious jobs but are also the most demanding.
The CCAR’s Sher said that the aspirations of male and female rabbis are becoming "pretty equal," with fewer men going into congregational work than ever before.
While Missaghieh loves her present job, she isn’t looking to move up. "I’m not interested in being a senior rabbi…. I really want to spend time being a mom, being a wife, and exploring my own strengths and weaknesses." Marder, who became senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, a 1,200-household temple in Northern California, in 1999, said she probably would not have applied for the position when her daughters, now 17 and 20, were younger.
On the other hand, Temple Emmanuel’s Geller, who became the first woman to lead a large congregation when she took her current job in 1994, says that once the temple hired an associate rabbi six years ago, they were able to divide up Friday nights and otherwise share responsibilities.
"Generally, you have some control over your time," Geller told The Journal. "The reason many women choose not to pursue senior rabbi positions has less to do with the job than with the ability to see it in a different way."
From Influence to Power?
Power at work is generally associated with presence at the top of a hierarchy and the ability to dictate standards, and by that definition, women have a distance to travel toward power in the Reform rabbinate.
HUC-JIR ordained equal numbers of men and women this year, but Sher says the rabbinical program does not strive for gender parity, and he doesn’t expect women to comprise 50 percent of Reform rabbis in his lifetime.
The CCAR is currently conducting a salary survey; Marder said that there’s no pay gap between newly ordained men and women, but salaries may diverge in later years. Locally, the Board of Rabbis’ Diamond sees a significant pay gap and knows of synagogues that have offered women lower salaries than to men for the same position.
Not every congregation offers maternity leave, Marder said, adding that many temples are reluctant to hire women of childbearing age because they don’t want to deal with the issue, a situation driven more by tight finances, she said, than by sexism.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said that over 25 years, she expected women to have more effect on pocketbook issues.
"The time for change has already come," she said. "I never thought you would have to keep asserting those questions."
Women do not hold top executive positions at HUC-JIR or the national headquarters of Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Reform movement’s synagogue arm. However, women have become a much stronger presence among HUC-JIR faculty of late, filling 10 of the 17 tenure-track positions open during the past seven years, and six of the UAHC’s 14 regional offices have female rabbis as directors.
Women Reform rabbis also are beginning lead large congregations. Although it took 22 years for a large Reform temple to hire a woman as senior rabbi, Sher estimates that 10 women currently lead congregations of 1,000 families or more.
"It’ll be interesting to see what happens when a lot of women rabbis are empty nesters," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said.
And it may be that the real revolution brought about by women in the rabbinate is not about top-down leadership but about liberal Judaism in each synagogue sanctuary, where women have already begun to bring about change — and to represent normative Judaism.
"I’ve made a huge impact on the congregation as a role model for mothers and daughters," Missaghieh said. "A lot of congregants see me up there with my daughter on my hip, and she’s sucking her thumb as I’m telling a story, and that tells them, OK, this is what Judaism is about."
"I look forward to women rabbis being old and gray and creased and being emeritas," Klein said, "because I believe that once there are enough of us who are elderly, with white hair and thick glasses, we will start to complete the landscape of clergy."