Rabbi Rona Shapiro remembers when she was a novelty.

In the mid-1990s, working as a rabbi at the university Hillel at Berkeley, Calif., she would frequently officiate weddings. “There were people who wanted to dance with me,” she recalls, “and they would say, ‘I want to dance with the rabbi; I want to kiss the rabbi. I’ve never kissed the rabbi before.’”

While at Berkeley, she says that “a very lovely board president patted me on the head. He said, ‘There, there, little girl.’ It is very offensive. You do that to children and dogs. You suspect that had your name been Ron instead of Rona, you might have gone further,” she adds.

Don’t get her wrong. She is delighted to serve as rabbi at Congregation Bethaynu (Conservative) and finds the opportunities for Jewish education to be exhilarating. But her suspicion lingers, reinforced, as it is, by national survey data.

A 2004 study commissioned by the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of Conservative rabbis, found that female rabbis earned an average of $42,000 less than male rabbis. The average salary for rabbis ordained since 1985 was $119,000 for men and $77,000 for women. Even when size of the synagogue and numbers of hours worked were statistically controlled, female rabbis were paid less than their male counterparts. Women were also less likely to serve as senior rabbis or to work full-time, the survey found.

Female rabbis at a conference of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary last fall did not believe that there had been improvements in the salary and status inequities over the past five years, according to a recent article in the Forward.

The Reform movement became the first denomination in American Jewry to ordain women when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained Cleveland-born Sally Priesand in 1972. The Reconstructionist and Conservative Movements followed by ordaining women in 1974 and 1985 respectively. Since then, increasing numbers of women have occupied leadership positions in Jewish organizations. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld currently serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The Orthodox Movement, with its more traditional interpretations of Jewish law, has been reluctant to ordain female rabbis, although women have begun to serve as congregational advisers and instructors in some Modern Orthodox synagogues. Last year Rabbi Avi Weiss, the influential Modern Orthodox rabbi who leads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City, created a stir when he announced he was creating a yeshiva to train women to become Orthodox religious leaders. In 2009 Sara Hurwitz was ordained as a spiritual leader. She was originally called a maharat, a title signifying she was serving as a spiritual guide and Torah scholar. Hurwitz was not formally designated as a rabbi in what was widely viewed as a compromise of sorts. However, last month Weiss switched gears and announced that Hurwitz would be called rabbah, a feminized variant of rabbi.

Over the past two decades, opportunities for women in all denominations of Judaism have improved substantially.

Bethaynu’s Shapiro still remembers the days when women were the new kids on the religious block.

“The (Jewish Theological) Seminary ordained women with great ambivalence. It tore the institution and movement apart at that time. In those days, teachers were often condescending to women. Some teachers really were not very happy that women were being ordained and were not particularly interested in teaching them.

“When I was ordained, a congregation could simply say that they were not going to accept a woman as a rabbi, and that was enough for the seminary not to send candidates. At no point did the seminary say, ‘Look, we’re going to send you the best candidates, and if you don’t like them, you don’t get a rabbi,’” she maintains.

Rabbi Rosette Haim of The Temple-Tifereth Israel (Reform) says she experienced relatively little sexist treatment while a student in the 1980s at Hebrew Union College. However, she says that when she came to The Temple some 20 years ago, members of a family conveyed that they were not comfortable with her performing their daughter’s bat mitzvah simply because she was a female rabbi.

“We (female rabbis) were an anomaly, and people didn’t know what to make of us in those first years,” she says. “But once they met us and we demonstrated competency, they welcomed us.” Haim notes that the family members have since become extremely supportive and asked her to perform all their life-cycle events.

Shapiro agrees that synagogues are significantly more comfortable with female rabbis now than they were two decades ago.

“The truth of it is there are enough of us now, and that’s what I really felt at the (November Jewish Theological Seminary) conference,” Shapiro remarked. “There are 270 women rabbis in the movement now; now we’re a force to be reckoned with. We’re not 10 people around a table frightened that we won’t get a job if we step out of line.”

Yet female rabbis say that discrimination exists in more subtle and institutional forms.

“I don’t say that everybody is a sexist,” says Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who coordinates a national support network for female rabbis. “No one in the Reform community would say, ‘I don’t want a woman to be a rabbi.’ It’s more subtle. They might say, ‘I want a real rabbi to do my father’s funeral.’”

Shapiro explains that this belief is rooted in a stereotyped attitude about Jewish tradition. “Judaism for most people is about tradition and nostalgia, and so even if they themselves are not necessarily traditional in their practice, when they come to synagogue, they want it to be like it was. And ‘like it was’ is not with a woman on the bimah,” she says.

Shapiro adds that when people see female rabbis performing religious ceremonies, their attitudes change. “Because they somehow imagine that a woman rabbi is going to be very different and you’re going to get up there and you’re going to use a different prayer book and speak a different language and it’s going to be a whole different experience. And once they see that it’s not, they’re okay. I’ve had a lot people say that to me when they were at a wedding. ‘I never saw a woman rabbi before, but it was just like a wedding.’ Well, no kidding, it was just like a wedding. It was a wedding!” she says with a laugh.

Few would disagree that the playing field for female rabbis has become significantly more egalitarian in recent years. However, interpretations differ on why inequalities remain.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the Braun Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says “one group looks at the raw numbers and says women are paid less than men for the identical job. Another group says women make different choices than men. Many women prefer smaller congregations. Some people say that is because of prejudice, and other people say that women have made a different set of choices than men did.”

Shapiro holds to the first point of view. “If (Conservative) women have been ordained for 24 years, there ought to be some women in senior positions at this point. Is it really because they don’t want the leadership? I don’t think so.”

Others argue the problem female rabbis face is rooted in complicated social-structural factors. Ellenson of the national support network says women are not taught to negotiate as aggressively as men. She contends that female rabbis do not negotiate as strategically for salary as do their male counterparts and are not as skilled as they might be in negotiating for maternity leave.

To assist women, Ellenson offers guidance. “In any given day, I have between 10 and 25 e-mails. We’re trying to plan our next convention,” she adds.

The issue of female rabbis is more contentious in Orthodox circles. On one hand, women are more involved than ever before in Orthodox synagogues. Women are gaining training as halachic advisers, offering advice to female congregants, a province that used to be reserved for men. They also are serving as advocates in rabbinic courts, says Green Road’s Rabbi Melvin Granatstein. “This is exciting and it’s very powerful and it enhances Jewish religious life,” he notes.

But he also acknowledges that “we don’t have women rabbis, and there is a sense of clear differentiation in roles between men and women in terms of Judaism as a religion.”

The notion of female rabbis has rankled some in the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Raphael Davidovich of Heights Jewish Center (Orthodox) weighed in on the complexities. “The whole issue is one that is based on a premise that is different from Orthodoxy. It is based on a philosophical premise that men and women are equal and should have the same opportunities to enter any career or job of their choosing because they are equal. It flows from that premise that if men can become rabbis, women should have the opportunity to become rabbis.

“Traditional Orthodox Judaism from the time of the Torah all through the Talmud accepts a different premise, which is that women and men are spiritually very different beings. Given that the Torah and the Talmud and all subsequent generations have seen this overall meta-premise that men and women relate to God differently and relate to the community differently and relate to each other differently, it flows from that that the roles should not be the same, just as they have never really been the same,” he explains.

Rabbi David Silber, dean of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City, takes a somewhat different perspective. (The Drisha Institute offers women advanced training in the study of classical Jewish texts.) “From a purely halachic standpoint, I don’t think there is a problem,” he says. Silber, who was trained as an Orthodox rabbi, notes that “there are many reasons why societies assign roles to men and women, and these are not necessarily fixed.” He emphasizes that that a synagogue is best served by hiring individuals who have the ability to perform the rabbinical role; in his view, this can be either a woman or a man.

“What I’m comfortable with is honesty, “he adds. “If someone functions as a rabbi, she should be called a rabbi. If a woman functions as a rabbi, to call her anything else is disingenuous. In the evolving role of the American synagogue rabbi, I see no reason to exclude women.”

Viewing the issue from an historical perspective, Brandeis’s Sarna says that we are seeing “women taking all sorts of roles in Orthodoxy that they did not hold a generation ago.” In his view, “the male rabbinate will be a marker of division between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Orthodoxy will keep that distinction especially if there are other traditional religious roles women can fulfill that bring them respect.” But given recent history, he says he will not be surprised if women assume increasingly substantial roles in contemporary Orthodoxy.

Rick Perloff is director and professor at the School of Communication, Cleveland State University.

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