Female Rabbis Contend Sexual Harassment Persists

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Whether it’s comments on appearances or lingering hugs, female rabbis have also experienced the sentiments expressed by the #MeToo movement.

“When the power invested in a rabbi is embodied by a woman, some people are still very uncomfortable with that and behave in ways that, consciously or unconsciously, are efforts to reduce their power,” said Barbara Breitman, who teaches a class on ethical boundaries at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). “One way of doing that is to relate to her like a sex object instead of like a Jewish spiritual leader and teacher.”

In recent months, the #MeToo movement has resulted in individuals across all industries coming out to tell their stories of sexual harassment. A private Facebook group called #GamAni was created for people in Jewish organizations to share their stories as well. Breitman said in light of this, more female rabbis are coming forward to add their voices.

Women have been rabbis in the United States since 1972, when Sally Jane Priesand received her ordination from Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion. Breitman said that despite decades of women rabbis, in addition to progress on women’s rights, some are still uncomfortable with seeing a woman in the role of a rabbi and respond by sexually harassing her.

One person who has written and spoken on this topic is Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)  Press and the CCAR director of strategic communications. In a JTA article, she described the harassment and gender bias female rabbis face.

“Women rabbis are counseled to wear lipstick or told not to wear lipstick,” Person wrote. “We are told that our clothing choices are too revealing or too dowdy. Our shoes are too sexy or too old-fashioned. Our voices are too soft or too strident. We’re too emotional or we’re too cold. We’re called by our first names while the male rabbi is called Rabbi LastName. We’re called kiddo, babe, sugar, sexy, honey. We’re advised to get home quickly from a board meeting so that we can make our husbands happy.”

In the article, Person mentioned a new CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. The idea for the task force had already been conceived when the allegations against Harvey Weinstein came out, so sexual harassment is not necessarily the focus of it, said Jill Maderer, senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom as well as one of the 22 members of the national task force.

The purpose of the group focuses more on the experiences of women in the rabbinate in general and how rabbis can help dismantle sexism. The task force is in the early stages of learning about the issues and figuring out what the outcome will be, but according to the CCAR’s page on the task force, female rabbis have reported experiencing gender-based bias, ranging from sexual assault to inappropriate comments.

Maderer said those comments devalue rabbis’ work.

“Women rabbis extremely frequently receive comments about their looks in their congregations, their clothes, their hair, every body part,” Maderer said. “Our male colleagues do not receive comments about their looks, and I don’t think there’s an awareness that those comments carry a message that devalues our work because people are first relating to us on how we look.”

Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum of Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, N.J., said that she has been the recipient of comments about her appearance and clothing options. She said other women have judged her outfit choices during Shabbat and High Holy Days, almost as if she was at an awards show.

Particularly when she was pregnant, she received a lot of comments about her body.

“We’re trying to have business dealings, but then it always becomes personal because it then goes into our bodies, and that’s a challenge,” she said. “I always want to keep an open, loving relationship and conversation going with people, but I feel like my body is off-limits. It’s mine. I’m doing what I want with it. I don’t have to discuss or explain to anyone about it.”   

Berenbaum said she has experienced more pushback from being a female rabbi than from being an African-American rabbi, with some directly telling her they took issue with her gender.

Rabbi David Teutsch, who teaches the RRC class with Breitman, said he has been brought into synagogues as a consultant to deal with sexual harassment issues.

He said he has confronted a donor himself who was behaving inappropriately toward a staff member.

In his experience, he said, female rabbis may experience “inappropriate comments about their appearance, hugs that are too close or last too long or disrespectful behavior at meetings.”

In addition to this particular class on ethical boundaries, the topic of sexual harassment comes up in two other classes Teutsch teaches — all of which are required classes at RRC. He wants his students to understand the role they can play in changing a culture of gender inequality that leads to sexual harassment. He especially encourages male students and allies to work to change the culture, a move that will benefit everyone, not just women.

He said creating and enforcing policy, and doing training based on the policy, is key to addressing this issue. Most Jewish organizations, he said, still do not have adequate policies on sexual harassment.

“Unless we continue to re-educate, this problem will occur because it comes to us from the general society in which we live,” Teutsch said.

Women rabbis don’t necessarily experience sexual harassment more than women in other professions, Maderer said. But unlike other spaces in American life, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have Jewish values to draw on.

“What makes the Jewish community special is that we have Jewish values, and we have wisdom from our traditions about how we should live our lives, and we want to hold ourselves to a high standard,” Maderer said. “It is an obligation of the Jewish community to think about not only how we can address the specific legal definition of sexual harassment, but how we can address every way that women are devalued in our society.”

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


  1. What a shame that this article only speaks of female rabbis. Female cantors are subject to the same harassment and inappropriate comments, and yet they are not even mentioned here. I was ordained in 1988 and have experienced this for 30 years.


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