It is past time that the Jewish community welcomed women into leadership roles and valued our contributions. If we don’t do this, we will lose the next generation of Jewish leaders. I know this because I almost left myself.
I did not encounter overt sexism until I entered rabbinical school in 1994. That year, I was told in a job interview for a position at a bureau of Jewish education, “What are you in rabbinical school for? You should just get a degree in Jewish education and teach Hebrew school or day school. This is what you will wind up doing once you have children anyway.”
One professor told me, “More important than anything you learn in school will be to get married and have babies.” Another, asked how long an assignment should be, replied, “Like a woman’s skirt: Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting.”
I was shocked and appalled by these comments. This was 1994, not 1954! I seriously considered leaving school. Studying Jewish texts, which in and of themselves are patriarchal documents, combined with a sense that today’s community did not want to hear my voice because I was a woman, was almost too much to bear. My faith that God does not see me as less than my male counterparts propelled me through my years in rabbinical school.
I chose to focus my rabbinate in the Jewish communal nonprofit world. After ordination, I worked for eight years in a Jewish community center. I loved my position. I was able to experiment with new and cutting-edge programs. I learned management skills. I grew stronger in my identity as a rabbi. However, from day one, the power structure was clear.
The top three positions — executive director and two assistant executive directors — were men. Ninety percent of the rest of the JCC staff were women. The same was true in the local Jewish family service and the federation. In addition, the salary gap between the top positions and those below was as much as $100,000.
When I was ready for a new challenge and began looking for a new job two years ago, I again seriously considered leaving the Jewish communal professional world. Where was my growth potential? I entered the rabbinate because I wanted to be a leader in the Jewish world, but it seemed that my opportunities were slim. As a rabbi, I was directed to look (again) at Jewish education positions, not management positions. But this was not my career goal.
After eight years of managing a half-a-million-dollar budget, raising the bulk of the money needed for that budget, creating programs and supervising several staffers, I had strong management credentials. I was in a position to lead, and I wanted to use my talents as a female rabbi with management skills in our community. Luckily I found a position at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where I hope I can grow into my true potential. However, had this job not materialized, there is a very real chance that I would have left the Jewish communal field.
The world is in flux; borders everywhere are coming down. If the Jewish community wants to continue to be vital, exciting and attractive to postmodern American Jews, then we have to make way for different voices to be heard in our leadership structure. We need Jewish leaders who are female, gay, black and Asian. This is our community now. The face of the Jewish community is literally changing more and more each year, and the leadership needs to reflect these changes.
Frankly, the Jewish communal world needs to be shaken up. Now is the time to do it. The current economic crisis is an opportunity to turn old assumptions on their heads. It is time to turn in a new direction, take some risks and open our community to new ideas.
I am confident that we will benefit. I am also just as confident that we will lose very talented people to other communities and causes if we don’t do this.
My story is not atypical. There are hundreds of women, if not thousands, like me. I am asking you to support me, teach me and mentor me, so that I/we can be part of our collective future.
(Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.)