Last week the AVODAH blog posted a letter written by Rachel Lee, an alum of the corps, about the gender gap in the world of Jewish service work. Just a few days later, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009), weighed in on a different aspect of the issue in “Making Jewish Paychecks Fair,” which was published in The Forward – namely, that female Jewish communal professionals earn $28,000 less than men working in the field. Though Jacobs’ article didn’t address Lee’s directly, the two pieces seem to speak to each other. The former explains how so many women end up working in the nonprofit service world and the latter shows how they’re sometimes unfairly treated once they arrive there.

Lee discusses why women choose service work in the first place:

For as long as women have been socially relegated to a separate ‘sphere’ from men, we have turned to teaching and care work when we did not want to or could not afford to be full time mothers and wives. These fields have historically given us a degree of financial independence and self-worth. We learn from a young age that this is the work that is appropriate for us to do. While our brothers and male peers were getting their first jobs mowing lawns, we were looking for babysitting gigs. We discovered early that this was the kind of work where we would be allowed to succeed, where we could leave the female sphere without having our femininity questioned.

Jacobs’ article also highlights the disproportionate number of women in the Jewish nonprofit sector (which is not just limited to organizations involved in social justice work but obviously includes them) but she is more interested in the income disparity between men and women with similar backgrounds and experience. She also discusses the paucity of women in leadership positions. Although they account for more than 70 percent of the rank and file, they fill just 14 percent of the top posts. She suggests several ways to correct these disparities, one of which is transparency:

The burden is on organizations to create transparent salary scales, and to offer women the same salaries given to men. We can start by listing salaries in job announcements, rather than using the protection of “salary commensurate with experience” to pay men more.

In general, when we talk about service work, we don’t often talk about paychecks. After all, “repairing the world” feels like a noble mission that should be above pecuniary concerns. But people cannot live off of air alone, not even those who are firmly committed to their causes. We have to ask ourselves — are we making the service career path a viable one for a whole generation of change makers, regardless of gender?

And furthermore, what of fairness? We are taught, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”. (Justice, justice you shall pursue.) It’s not just about going across the globe to help people in foreign countries or to inner city communities to do antipoverty work. Sometimes it means looking into our own backyard for ways to improve ourselves.

Marilyn Sneiderman, the executive director of AVODAH, draws her optimism for the future of women in service from a vibrant past. “Jewish women from Sarah and Miriam to Rose Schneiderman and Ruth Messinger have all been pioneers in defying the limits of patriarchy, challenging the glass ceiling and inspiring other women to play leading roles in repairing the world,” she says. “The fiery young women of AVODAH are up and coming leaders committed to not only breaking the glass ceiling, but also to challenging all of the barriers society has erected to trap people in poverty and hopelessness.”

If we do manage to make the needed changes, the returns will be well worth our efforts. Jacobs writes that “the result will be a community that benefits from the wisdom and skills of the best possible professional staff.” This is essential both to ourselves and those we wish to serve.