Major pay gap for female rabbis in Reform movement

Reform female rabbis continue to trail their male counterparts dramatically in pay some 40 years after Sally Priesand became the movement’s first female rabbi.

Women earn up to $43,000 less per year than men, a study by the Central Conference of American Rabbis found. The study also documented the relatively small number of female rabbis leading large Reform congregations.

Priesand, who retired in 2006 after serving 25 years as spiritual leader of the 375-member Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton, N.J., said she had long been aware of pay disparities but until now did not have the precise data.

“We are fighting today for some of the same kind of issues I fought for 40 years ago — equal pay, [acceptance at] large congregations and maternity leave,” she said.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s CCAR, called the results “troubling but not surprising.”

“We knew anecdotally that there was a difference, but we certainly didn’t know how much. For me, personally, it is disappointing to see that this gap still exists,” he said, noting that the CCAR as early as 1928 advocated “equal pay for equal work.”

Nearly 600 of the CCAR’s 2,000 members are women.

Fox said he did not know why there were pay disparities between male and female rabbis, with men earning from $3,000 to $43,000 more than women, depending on the size of the congregation.

“It might be perhaps ingrained behavior from the society in which we live because we see pay differentials in other parts of society,” he said, noting that a survey released last month of 800 midcareer physicians found a $12,000 annual pay disparity between men and women.

More dramatically, a 2010 Jewish Communal Service Association survey found that women working in the Jewish community “significantly trail men in compensation,” with an average gap of $28,000 a year.

A 2004 study by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly found a salary gap among Conservative rabbis that ranged from $10,000 to $24,000.

Part of the reason for the pay disparity is that far fewer female rabbis head large congregations. Some opt out of such positions in favor of jobs with a better work-family balance. But discrimination in hiring practices may still linger. Priesand said she had been at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan after her ordination but left after seven years “when it became clear that I would never be allowed to become the senior rabbi.”

But she said things have changed. For one thing, she said, the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion had no women on its faculty when she studied there, and now has more than 40 “very respected women scholars — that’s a tremendous amount — and there has been at least one woman chairman of the board.”

Priesand said she believes congregational leaders may have been unaware of the pay disparity, because when it was disclosed at a Union for Reform Judaism board meeting in June, “people were shocked.”

The CCAR’s Fox said the Reform movement supports passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act that would end all gender pay disparity. The Senate rejected the bill on June 5, less than a week after the House rejected it. Opponents contend that a woman’s right to equal pay is already well protected and that additional legislation is not needed.

But Fox said that in helping rabbis negotiate new contracts several years ago, he learned the salaries of other area rabbis and found striking differences between male and female Reform rabbis. He said he then brought it to the attention of the local congregations.

The CCAR plans to release salary data by gender as part of its biennial study from now on, he said, “so we can track trends and understand what we need to do over time as we continue to advocate for women and congregations.” The Study of Rabbinic Compensation by Gender is available at