Facing a faith's glass ceiling: Trailblazing female rabbi losing her job

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2011 - 9:47 PM

Finding a job as a senior rabbi is a daunting task in today's market -- especially for a woman. Downsizing makes the job hunt all the harder for the nation's senior female rabbis.

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Senior Rabbi at B'Nai Ent Synagogue, Charni Flame Selch is losing her job when the St. Louis Park synagogue merges with Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Minnetonka.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Charni Flame Selch is in rare company. She's the only female senior Conservative rabbi in Minnesota -- and at least three other surrounding states.

The ranks of female senior rabbis will thin even more this week when Bnai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park merges with a Minnetonka congregation, putting Selch out of a job. "The market for women pulpit rabbis is so bleak," Selch said. "Senior pulpit positions that are going to women, no matter what their qualifications, are shrinking."

Selch's plight is becoming more common as a down economy conspires with long-held traditions.

A growing number of Jewish congregations across the country are downsizing, leaving fewer available rabbinical positions. Rabbis like Selch are finding it increasingly difficult to land such coveted jobs because many Conservative congregations often tend to hire married men with young children over women and other groups.

It's the latest reminder that religious leadership remains a male-dominated line of work in many synagogues and churches, observers say.

What a rabbi should be

Faced with declining membership and financial uncertainty, Bnai Emet's congregation decided to merge with Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Minnetonka. After merger plans were announced last year, Selch applied to a dozen congregations throughout the country.

Despite her nearly 15 years of pulpit experience, Selch couldn't land a senior rabbi job and accepted instead an education director position at a congregation in Massachusetts. Selch's position at Bnai Emet ends on Thursday.

"All of the congregations that interviewed me that have hired rabbis this year ... have all hired male rabbis," Selch said. "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," Selch said. "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."

Paul Tuchman, a member of the committee at Bnai who helped hire Selch nearly four years ago, said there's an "overall sadness" about the merger and Selch's departure.

"It wasn't meant as a judgment on Rabbi Selch at all," Tuchman said. "When you bring, as in our case, a much smaller congregation in with a much larger congregation that has clergy that have been there quite a few years ... the best of intentions can't always make things happen when you face financial and organizational realities you have to deal with."

Though Conservative congregations have become more open to hiring female rabbis in the past 25 years, this year "it's gone in a reverse direction," said Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, associate executive director for the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly. "And it's clear that's because of economic factors.

"Congregations are a little bit more nervous and anxious that it be a success," Schoenberg said. 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."

Still, the rabbinate is more diverse than it's ever been. The movement ordained its first female rabbi in 1986; worldwide, there are about 265 female rabbis out of a total of 1,650 rabbis who are members of the assembly, he said.

"It's men and women, young and older. Gay and straight, single and married," Schoenberg said. "However, the image many religious institutions ... still have is of a framework of a married male with small children. It is disappointing and frustrating that some of these institutions ... have not sort of caught up."

Economics, demographics

Ray Goldstein, interim director of the central district of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Selch is one of approximately eight female senior rabbis in a region that extends from Mexico to Canada and Pittsburgh to Denver. The district contains 109 Conservative congregations.

Mergers of Conservative synagogues are going on across the country, and it's "difficult for Conservative rabbis to find jobs now. Period," he said.

"Because of the economy, people are not retiring," he said. "Synagogues who used to have multiple rabbis are reducing the numbers. Last year there were 23 Conservative rabbis who did not find jobs at all." In previous years, that number has been about 10, he said.

Generational changes are compounding the economic problems, said Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, who's written extensively about female rabbis.

Younger Jews have shown a disinterest in traditional synagogues, she said, noting that the average age of a member of a Conservative synagogue is older than the average age of a member of an Orthodox or Reform synagogue.

"The Conservative movement for sure is shrinking," she said, though the number of Conservative rabbis has not.

The Reform movement has also had difficulty in placing all its seminary graduates recently because of a shortage of positions. Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish denominations also ordain female rabbis, though they too are outnumbered by their male counterparts.

"Those [congregations] who are hiring new rabbis are looking to appeal to the greatest number of their congregants," Nadell said. "And because the typical congregant is a married family with children, then they may be looking for someone who looks very similar to them."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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