When synagogues downsize, women rabbis are the first to go
Rabbi Charni Flame Selch lost her job when her synagogue, Bnai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, merged with a nearby Minnetonka congregation. A recent article in the Star Tribune suggests that the economic recession is making the road even harder for female rabbis.
Rabbi Selch is the only senior female Conservative rabbi in Minnesota and three surrounding states. "The market for women pulpit rabbis is so bleak," Selch told the Star Tribune. "Senior pulpit positions that are going to women, no matter what their qualifications, are shrinking."
It seems that when faced with scarcity, some shuls can't find room in the budget for a commitment to gender equality. Rabbi Selch said:
"All of the congregations that interviewed me that have hired rabbis this year ... have all hired male rabbis. And quite frankly, some of them have less qualifications, less experience than I do."
"I think part of it is just that visceral reaction of what a stereotypical rabbi should be. I think when people look for religion, they are looking for a certain comfort level. And when we look for that kind of emotional comfort level, we kind of tap into our inner child. For many of us, the vision we have ... is that of a male rabbi because that's what we grew up with."
"Congregations are a little bit more nervous and anxious that it be a success," Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, associate executive director for the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, told the Star Tribune. "Hiring a married man with children is often viewed as the safer bet even though there's no statistical support, or any evidence, that makes that point."
Here at JWA, we celebrate the ordination of women like Sally Preisand, Amy Eilberg, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Laura Geller, Alysa Stanton and others who overcame countless barriers on the road to becoming a rabbi. Rabbi Selch's story reminds us that the story doesn't end at ordination.
Becoming ordained as a woman rabbi does not guarantee a pulpit position. Some congregations are glad to take a female rabbi in a junior or secondary position, but when there is only enough money for one, it's going to be a man. The implications are brutal. Are women rabbis seen as a luxury item to be welcomed in times of plenty and discarded in times of scarcity? Or are they merely figureheads -- tokens to signify that a congregation is egalitarian? Even in synagogues with a female rabbi, you're likely to find an entrenched patriarchy in the rest of the leadership and shul culture.
It's not enough to celebrate women's ordination. We must work towards changing shul culture to one in which female rabbis are just as desirable as young male rabbis with kids.