COVER STORY:Im not closing the door

“Adorable SWF, 45, ordained Conservative rabbi ISO the perfect mensch for LTR. I like long walks on the beach, officiating at weddings and davening. My ideal guy must be traditionally observant yet not feel threatened because I am a woman serving as spiritual leader of a 250-family Conservative congregation with a contentious board. N/s. Let’s meet for kreplach and kibitzing!”

There is no JDate.com just for female Conservative rabbis, but maybe there should be. For more than half of them, standing under the chuppah is a dream deferred.

A new study from the Conservative movement’s Rabbincal Assembly shows its women members marry at about half the rate of their male counterparts. It’s only one of many gender disparities within the Conservative rabbinate revealed by the study, but one that perhaps stings the most.

Statistics show 80 percent of male Conservative rabbis are married with children, compared with 42 percent of female rabbis. But this is much more than a dry number to real-life ordained people. For the women, it’s tough to find someone who measures up to the religious standards of a Conservative Jew yet doesn’t mind being the spouse of a rabbi.

“I’m not surprised,” says Amy Eilberg, a longtime Bay Area-based Conservative rabbi, newly married after years of singlehood. She had launched what she called “a national search” for a mate, and just recently relocated to Minneapolis to be with her husband. “Women rabbis are for the most part highly competent, accomplished, strong people. It is unfortunately still true that many men when looking for a partner aren’t looking for that.”

Most of the female Conservative rabbis in the Bay Area are married or engaged, bucking that national trend. But for those still single (and straight), the question remains: Where, oh, where can he be?

“I look at the ads,” says Rabbi Leah Sudran of Congregation B’nai Israel in Petaluma. Age 53 and divorced, Sudran still hopes to meet that special someone, but she acknowledges the odds are longer at this point. “As we become older, it becomes more difficult,” she adds. “We get set in our ways.”

Adds 52-year-old Rabbi Carol Stein of San Diego, “When they find out I’m a rabbi, it’s all over. We move from interest to admiration.”

For both Stein and Sudran, going into the rabbinate was a midlife career change. Stein had been a lawyer in Sacramento, while Sudran, a Bay Area native, had been a special-education teacher and community activist.

Sudran grew up in the Conservative movement, attending Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. She says she wanted to be a rabbi since the age of 13. As there were no female Conservative rabbis in those days, Sudran channeled her desire to repair the world into a teaching career in the San Francisco public school system and into social activism. In fact, she met her ex-husband while the two worked on behalf of Central American refugees in the 1980s.

“Through that work, I became more aware of the need to speak as a knowledgeable Jew,” she says. “I needed a voice with more authority. I realized I could do the work more effectively if I had a rabbinic degree.”

Sudran earned a master’s degree at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, then began pursuing her rabbinic training initially at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and later at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. That put a strain on her marriage.

“My husband had been raised Reform,” recalls Sudran. “When I became more observant, it was a big surprise to him. He was supportive, but as I had to go away to rabbinical school in L.A. and then in New York, we talked about him coming, but he couldn’t. It’s quite difficult for most men to pick up and follow their woman to another city.”

While living in New York, Sudran finalized her divorce. She was ordained in 1997 and for her first job she accepted a pulpit post at a Modesto synagogue. She lived and worked in the Central Valley for two years, but all the while had little time or opportunity to date.

“I wanted to meet someone,” she says, “but it just wasn’t possible. There were issues of what constitutes appropriate behavior. It’s difficult in smaller communities and congregations. You have fewer options and you have no anonymity in a relationship, whereas in a larger community you might.”

The just-completed study bears that out. Most Conservative women rabbis serve in small congregations, many in outlying towns and suburbs. Those areas tend to be guy-deficient (at least of guys the rabbis would consider datable).

That’s certainly been Sudran’s experience since she came to Congregation B’nai Israel three years ago. The pool of acceptable candidates for dating — Shomer Shabbat, kosher and available — has remained frustratingly small.

Stein found the same held true for her ever since her ordination a few years ago. The L.A. native grew up in what she calls a Jewishly “nothing household,” though she recalls going to temple on her own just to “talk to God in the sanctuary.” She went on

to law school, settling in Sacramento and establishing a private law

practice. “I was in love with the law,” she says. “I just didn’t understand it wasn’t only the laws of the state of California.”

Stein attended a Conservative synagogue in Sacramento just to be with fellow Jews, and though she liked living in the state capital, she soon realized she didn’t like being a lawyer. She also didn’t make much progress on the dating scene.

“I didn’t like lawyers and didn’t want to go out with them,” says Stein. “Most of the women I knew were married or involved with other lawyers.”

As her love for Judaism deepened, she began considering a new career. “I wanted to learn what the rabbis knew,” she remembers. “I thought I’d go into the chaplaincy.”

After a seven-year effort, which required moving first to Los Angeles and then to New York to attend JTS, Stein was ordained in 1999. Never interested in a pulpit position, she’s been an educator at the San Diego Jewish Academy ever since.

And single.

“I’ve pretty much given up,” says Stein. “If Mr. Right came along I wouldn’t say no. Maybe there’s a Mr. OK.”

In addition to geographical isolation and limited numbers of acceptable prospects, there may be one more explanation for the marriage gap. Says Sudran: “There are significant numbers of rabbis with another sexual orientation, but people are not allowed to apply to rabbinical school as openly gay or lesbian.”

While Conservative Judaism grapples with acceptance of homosexuality in the rabbinate, the issue of women becoming rabbis was settled long ago. But not without a struggle. “The Conservative movement is trying to keep its hold on to more traditional members,” says Sudran, “and there has been a drift. When they began ordaining women, they lost a lot of people.”

Some, in fact, broke off to form the Union for Traditional Judaism, an offshoot of Conservative Judaism with its own seminary (a men-only institution).

Meanwhile, rabbis like Sudran and Stein, while not desperately seeking Mr. Goodbar, still have their antennae up.

“I’m not single and childless because that’s what I wanted to be,” says Stein. “I expected to marry young, have five kids, and be the happiest woman in the world. Maybe when I turn 65, I’ll meet the perfect person.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.