Rabbinic Work and the Second Shift

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz officiating at a Bat Mitzvah. This image appears courtesy of the author and can be found on leahrachelberkowitz.com.

Recently, I fielded two calls in one week about the under-representation of women rabbis: one was from an academic journal, the other was from a non-profit organization assembling a delegation of rabbis for a service-learning trip. Both of them needed more women to participate in their programs.

I said no.

I used to say yes to everything, in part because I started my career young. I felt an overwhelming need to prove myself, signing on for fellowships, unpaid writing opportunities, even a second master's’ degree while I was still in seminary.

Nine years in, I’m finally secure enough in my credentials and abilities to occasionally say no (though I still feel guilty about it). I’m also at a point in my career where I need to make intentional choices about what I want to take on. I am a solo rabbi at a mostly lay-run institution. Anything I do “on the side” takes away from the time I spend attending to the congregation’s needs, not to mention attending to my own needs so that I can serve them properly.

This challenge cannot be unique to me, if these callers were unable to find any women to participate in their programs. But I knew why they were calling me. Many women rabbis my age have young children at home and couldn’t commit to travel, especially, in this case, to a country where there was still a risk of contracting the Zika virus.

What was my excuse?

When I asked some of my colleagues about their reasons for declining opportunities like these, many of them did cite child-care concerns. But I came away from our conversations with a few other theories.

It might also be that the rabbinate itself is changing. As the rabbinate becomes increasingly relationship-based, shutting oneself up in one’s office, spending a lot of time at the statehouse, or leaving the country for a week can cost major social capital.

It might also be that, children or no children, women’s rabbinates still look different from men’s. I have not been able to do the extensive research that would prove this theory (I welcome any of my sociologist friends to try). So I will just ask a question: Is it possible that women rabbis are more likely to inhabit professional positions where they don’t have as much support as those of their male colleagues?

While the stained-glass ceiling has definitely been shattered in the Reform movement, women are still more likely to inhabit the positions at the bottom or middle of the ladder (though per Sheryl Sandberg, I prefer to think of it as a jungle gym). Many of us stay much longer in associate-type positions than our male colleagues, or work in non-profits, hospitals, and schools (I’ve also been in on conversations about why women aren’t applying for the top rabbinical positions, but I haven’t heard any conclusive answers). These positions often don’t provide the same budgets for professional development. Many of us are freelancing which, ironically, means we can’t take do too many things for free.

In these positions, we may be less likely to have an administrative assistant, an executive director, or a clergy partner to share the load with. This makes it more difficult to carve out time to shut oneself up in one’s office to research and write an article, and even more challenging to set aside ten days for international travel (or even an afternoon to go to the doctor for antimalarial drugs).

While I don’t have any answers right now, it’s important that we ask the question of why women are saying no. During my conversation with my colleagues, a more experienced rabbi warned that, regardless of work-life balance concerns, we needed to say yes as much as we could. This is in part because these opportunities are sometimes necessary to advance our own careers, if we want to. But it is also so that women can be properly represented. Because if we aren’t willing to participate ourselves, we can’t complain that there were no women on a panel, in a publication, or on a delegation overseas.

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How to cite this page

Berkowitz , Leah. "Rabbinic Work and the Second Shift." 15 November 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/rabbinic-work-and-second-shift>.