Malka Simkovich
Malka Simkovich
Featured Post

Working hard for the money: Breaking the taboo of how we pay female Orthodox educators

Forget about Orthodox women rabbis (and what they should be called) for now; let's talk equal and transparent pay

When I was an undergraduate in college many years ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to start a women’s summer learning program in my hometown of Philadelphia.

I assumed it would be easy. Hire a bunch of women teachers, advertise, get the students. But it turned out to be a headache. Some of the women I wanted to hire did not ask what their compensation would be. But others surprised me by asking me what I would pay them. And one woman in particular (I withhold her name because she is a well-known educator on the East Coast, and I now believe that she deserves whatever income she makes, and more) had the temerity to ask for $250 a class.

$250 for one class? I was making $10 an hour at my college Writing Center!

The truth is, I had no plan. I figured I’d charge a couple of dollars per person per class, divide the money equally among the teachers, and be done with it. There was no way that I was going to come up with $250 per hour for each teacher. I wondered whether I could pay my staff different amounts, depending on what they asked for.

In the end, enrollment was higher than I thought it would be. I overcharged participants, paid the teachers what I thought was exorbitant compensation, and all was well.

Except that now I am one of those teachers.

I am someone who, until recently, has been scared to bring up the topic of compensation. I usually wait until someone representing the organizations hiring me — a synagogue, an organization, a school — informs me of what amount they will pay me to teach. Here’s is a list of figures of what I’ve made for an hour long lecture:









Oh, and $0.

This is the range of compensation for an hour of teaching that I have received, beginning in 2006, when I earned a masters in Hebrew Bible from Harvard, to when I earned a doctoral degree in Jewish Studies from Brandeis a year ago. I’d like to share two stories — one about the $0, and one about the $750.

The $750 story is very short: I received this honorarium by a Catholic organization who brought me in to speak at an interreligious event. Let me repeat that — Catholic.

The $0 story is longer, and representative of a number of times when I have not been paid at all. In 2011, when I was a graduate student at Brandeis, I was asked by a student group to give a lecture. I said yes, appreciative of the opportunity that they were offering. But soon after committing to give this talk on a weeknight, I realized that my husband wouldn’t be home from work in time for me to leave the house and give the lecture. Who would watch the kids? I sent an email to the event organizer and politely asked whether I would receive some compensation. I needed this compensation, I explained, because I had to pay for babysitting. The answer I received was: “No, we have neither the budget for an honorarium, nor the budget to cover your babysitting. See you next week!” (Some years later, I remembered this story when someone contacted me about giving a lecture series at an Orthodox synagogue, and assumed at the outset that all the compensation I expected was babysitting coverage. I didn’t have the courage to contradict her.)

While both male and female educators are both frequently underpaid, women often earn less than men, perhaps because of a prevailing assumption that their husband or another relative is providing their primary income. A woman I know tells the following story, she says, as often as she can, because it opened her eyes to a new perspective on this matter:

A while ago I was asked to speak on a panel, along with several men. It felt like a great honor, based on my esteemed company, and I never stopped to think about compensation. The panel was lovely and then a week later, a box arrived at my door. When I opened it up, it contained a thank you note and a babka. I was a bit taken aback. Sometimes no compensation is better than a crumb (literally) and I consulted one of my co-panelists to find out if he too had received a babka. He responded by telling me that he had in fact received a fairly sizable check!

When she contacted the event organizer regarding why her colleague received a check and she got a babka, she was told that he had asked to be paid. Whether this colleague really asked, or whether the organizers presumed that he would not participate in the panel unless he were paid, the point of this story is that there is a lack of concern for achieving consistency when it comes to compensating men and women for the same work.

We live in a world where valuable objects and experiences are reflected in their price-tag. We spend money on what is important to us. Yet Orthodox Jewish women are not compensated as much as men, and sometimes they are not compensated at all.

A new page in discourse needs to be turned, beginning with both male and female educators sharing how much they make with one another. I want to express gratitude to the rabbis of the synagogues in my community who have said to me, Look, we want to have you, we are excited to have you. This is what we can afford, and we hope that it works for you. I want to thank those community leaders who brought it up, and I take personal responsibility for being too scared to bring the topic of compensation up, so many times, when it was not brought up to me first.

We talk so much about women’s roles in the Orthodox community. We have been talking about their potential titles, leadership roles, and ways of achieving equity between men and women within halakhic parameters, although, inconveniently, many of us disagree as to what those parameters are.

Beyond this need for transparency concerning compensation, educators, especially women, must clearly and confidently advocate for themselves. Be like the teacher whom I hired in 2004: You have a rate, based on your experience and value. Ask for it. Don’t know how much to ask for? Ask a colleague. We should be sharing this information and supporting one another to make sure that no one is being undervalued. This is the time to show a united, supportive front, whether you are a high school teacher, yoetzet, maharat, or academic. synagogue and school leader. Pay men and women the same amount for the same job, and pay them all with an eye towards the amount of hours they dedicated to preparing for this event (assume that for every hour of lecture, the speaker is investing six hours of research time). If you can’t afford to do this, then charge people to attend, or cancel the event.

There are certainly times when it is appropriate to offer one’s services for free, especially at community events that feature many speakers. At these events, it is imperative that there is no disparity in compensation: either all speakers should be volunteers, or all speakers should be equally compensated. Moreover, a commitment to transparency on the part of synagogues, schools, and community organizations means that event organizers should proactively discuss terms with speakers before asking them to commit to what amounts to an expectation of volunteer service.

Modern Orthodox Judaism is spasming right now. Regardless of where the chips fall regarding the formal role of women’s halakhic leadership, a positive step forward would be to put a price on the value of our female educators, and to treat them with the integrity that they deserve. As one colleague has pointed out to me, fair and equal compensation of educators should be a bi-partisan cause that can help all Orthodox communities find common ground.

About the Author
Malka Simkovich has a Ph.D from Brandeis University in Second Temple Judaism. She earned an MA degree in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University and a BA in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Stern College of Yeshiva University. Her research focuses on universalist Jewish literature that emerged from Egypt under the Roman empire.
Related Topics
Related Posts