“The Sacred Calling is not just an important historical narrative—it is a call to action.”
The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Peter Berg, Senior Rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, GA, sits down to talk about the progress we’ve made in the last four decades and the distance we still have left to travel.
Q: In a chapter in the book titled “Creating Opportunities for the ‘Other,’” Rabbi Denise Eger states the significance of women’s ordination in the inclusion of the “other” in Judaism. What are the next challenges to be faced?
A: The ordination of women as rabbis opened up the door for the “other” in a way that we never could have fully understood. Today, we look at the community around us, and ask, “What is the next big hurdle before us?” I think it unfolds in the following way: first of all, as Rabbi Eger mentions in the book, gay and lesbian and transgender Jews do not get to enjoy the same equality in the placement process that female rabbis now enjoy. The second is Jews of color. We have so many Jews of color here in Atlanta, and it won’t be long before some decide to go to rabbinic school. They are great teachers and great scholars, and we’ll have to figure out how we, as a Reform Movement, will accept more Jews of color as part of our rabbinate. The third and final area that I think we have to look at is Jews who converted to Judaism earlier in their life, and now are rabbis. We have members of our congregation who are looking at rabbinical school who are converts, and there’s incredible discrimination in the Jewish community towards those who converted and are therefore perceived as not fully authentic.
Q: What barriers still exist for women rabbis?
A: There are many challenges that our female colleagues face, and I’ll just enumerate a few of them. The first, I think, is salary discrepancy. It’s far more pronounced in the rabbinate than most people believe. Women clergy earn 76 cents on the dollar, and the reason why that’s so problematic is that the national average pay gap is 83 cents. So women clergy are earning less on the dollar than they would with most other jobs in the United States.
The second would be in paid family leave. We’ve really only just begun the conversations about paid family leave. All of our European counterparts figured out a long time ago that paid family leave benefits not only the mother, but also the congregation when the rabbi comes back to work. I believe we have a long way to go in not just tolerating paid family leave, but encouraging it, and speaking about it with the support that it deserves.
The third area of challenge is in the placement process. We have come a long way over the years, and if you look at the demographics in the country today, so many women rabbis serve in some of the greatest congregations in the country. But there are still some areas of the country where women have a far more difficult time in the placement process than their male counterparts.
A final challenge that I think our female colleagues face is acceptance in the wider Jewish community. We’re fortunate here in Atlanta that our Modern Orthodox colleagues sit at the table with our women rabbis. They call them “rabbi,” and they work with them with great honor. But in many places in the country, this is not the case, and our female colleagues are not afforded the same honor that our male colleagues enjoy. And I think we have a responsibility to try to equal the playing field on that front.
I believe that men and male rabbis can be feminist rabbis as well. It’s a different kind of feminist rabbi, obviously, but we have a responsibility to make sure that our female colleagues enjoy the same benefits and the same options in the placement system that male rabbis have enjoyed for many, many decades.
Q: What purpose do you believe The Sacred Calling to serve? What is the importance of the book?
A: The Sacred Calling is as much a historical perspective as it is a calling to all of us today. I believe it is required reading for all rabbis, for all cantors, for all Jewish educators, and all Jewish professionals. Every single congregational leader has a responsibility to read this important book.
Most people don’t know our history; they don’t understand that it was in the early ‘70s that Sally Priesand first became a rabbi. So the first important reason that we need this book is to help our congregants understand the significance of women becoming rabbis. And the second is to figure out what we can do now to make sure that the challenges that are on the table for women rabbis – pay equity, the placement process, acceptance in the wider community, paid family medical leave – all of these challenges are addressed and understood, and that they truly are one of the social justice issues of our time. This book is the moral calling that will help us understand not just the historical perspective, but also how we can take those challenges that still exist and build a better rabbinate for the future.
Rabbi Peter Berg serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling. Watch the official trailer now.