September 25, 2003
Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families
Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand's ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination's Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg's ordination in 1985.
Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA's membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They've had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.
"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.
"I've been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I've never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it's on my own or through networking."
Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she's currently associate rabbi at Beit T'Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.
She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it's been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."
As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.
"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."
Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren't women here, this would never have happened."
Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.
"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.
"Now, I think there's more of a realization ... that for many of us, there are some positions that aren't worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."
Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it's a very slow process."
Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she's frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it's deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they're a long way from where they were."