Until recently, Jewish day schools and Bais Yaakovs did not offer their female Judaic studies teachers a tax free housing allowance because the Orthodox Jewish world does not ordain women. Since its legality was first proposed over a decade ago, engendered discussion and endorsement by a national organization, yeshivas and day schools have considered and begun granting parsonage to female Judaic Studies teachers and administrators. To help schools understand how widespread the practice is and what standards schools are employing, Torah Educators Network did an anonymous survey of Modern Orthodox and yeshivish schools in the US. Over 50 schools responded, and these are the results.
Nearly all the schools surveyed are giving or considering giving Female Judaic Studies teachers parsonage
Schools began adopting this policy slowly, with 60% of the schools having begun granting this only in the past four years. It’s fair to say that female Judaic studies teacher parsonage is a widespread, but young trend.
The IRS Code says that “ministers of the gospel” who are “ordained, licensed and commissioned” can receive an income tax-free housing allowance. When the IRS challenged the right of a Conservative Jewish cantor to take parsonage, the courts ruled that the word “and” in the phrase “ordained, licensed and commissioned” should be read as “or”. Therefore, a professional Conservative cantor who is “licensed” by the Cantors Assembly and “commissioned” by his or her synagogue is not required by law the to be “ordained” as well.
Like cantors, Orthodox female Judaic studies teachers are not ordained. They are “commissioned” by the schools which hire them to teach religion. However, what “licensing” do they need to possess?
We asked schools what they require in terms of credentials. Half of the respondents said that even a teachers’ certificate awarded at the end of a one year-seminary program is enough. 14% required an undergraduate degree from a Jewishly sponsored college (such as Stern), and 22% said they required a degree or certificate from a graduate level program such as GPATS, Revel or Azrielli. The rationale for this last opinion is that semicha for men at Yeshiva University is a graduate level program.
10% of the schools responded that they did not require a degree or certificate of any kind, relying on the fact that these women are actively teaching Judaic studies. One school mentioned that they accept a certificate from Prizmah, which has been running training programs for Orthodox female Judaic studies teachers.
What responsibilities must a female Judaic studies faculty member have to be considered a “minister of the gospel”? Is teaching Judaic studies enough? How about an experiential program director who doesn’t teach any classes? A head of school, principal or assistant principal who doesn’t teach any class or run any programs? A religious guidance counselor? An executive director whose purview is the non-academic aspects of the school?
Treasury Regulation § 1.107-1(a) provides examples of specific services considered duties of a minister, including:
a. Performance of sacerdotal functions;
b. Conduct of religious worship;
c. Administration and maintenance of religious organizations and their integral agencies;
d. Performance of teaching and administrative duties at theological seminaries.
Teachers by definition fit the bill of “d”, assuming that our elementary and high schools (where students study Judaic studies for at least half of their academic day) would be considered theological seminaries. “C” clearly describes the role of an educational administrator. Any faculty member who supervises tefilla (whether or not it’s technically) falls under “b”.
Indeed, a good test for who can receive parsonage in this setting might be who is subject to a religious conduct test as an employee, where they are seen as a religious role model.
We asked schools to indicate which responsibilities female Judaic studies staff must have to receive parsonage at their institutions. All responding schools said teaching Judaic studies. 70% of schools said “Judaic or Schoolwide Administrator” would qualify an employee. 60% said “leading student davening” (assumedly for people who don’t teach Judaic studies). 43% of respondents said “serve as a religious counselor”. A third said “Run Student Activities (experiential religious programs)”.
We asked respondents if they grant parsonage to female early childhood educators. We may instinctively feel that because these teachers do not teach Judaic texts to their students, they are not “ministers of the gospel”. However, text study is peculiar to our religion and not required by the IRS to receive parsonage.
13 schools said “no”, they do not offer the income tax-free housing allowance to early childhood educators. 8 said “yes”, because they have specific preschool Judaic studies teachers. 16 said they that even though they their teachers teach both Judaic and general studies, they do not grant them parsonage.
When we asked Emory Law School professor Rabbi Dr. Michael Broyde (the author of the original article about womens parsonage) about his opinion about early childhood educators, he suggested that there are two prerequisites for early childhood teachers to receive parsonage. Because the IRS code mentions “sacerdotal duties” and “conduct of religious worship” when discussing who can receive parsonage, Rabbi Broyde felt that these teachers must lead the students in prayers (which most early childhood teachers do). Because parsonage is granted to a “minister of the gospel”, Rabbi Broyde also feels that being halachically observant must be a job requirement for an early childhood teacher (as it would be for an elementary, middle school or high school Judaic studies teacher, but might not be the case for an Ivrit teacher.)
For Further Research
In terms of affiliation, two thirds of the responding schools consider themselves Modern Orthodox, 12% yeshivish, 10% community and 4% Chabad. It's hard to draw conclusions about Chabad and yeshivish schools from such a small sample size.
We can, however, safely assume that Chabad and yeshivish schools accept on a one year Teachers Seminary degree, because university studies are not a sine qua non (certainly not for female Limudei Kodesh teachers) in those communities. I recommend an insightful article about Yeshivish Women Clergy which details the Charedi world's surprising comfort level with this moniker.
In retrospect, we should have asked schools if they grant parsonage to part time employees who hold these responsibilities. Because other religions have non-professional clergy who legally would not be granted parsonage, yeshivas may be concerned that a part time Limudei Kodesh may not be viewed by the IRS as a lesser "minister of the gospel".
We did ask about the numbers of female teachers receiving parsonage at each school. It would be instructive to learn what percentage of female Judaic Studies teachers have husbands who already receive parsonage, and therefore are ineligible to receive themselves. Is this relevant to 25%, 50% or 75% of female Judaic studies teachers? Nearly all the schools surveyed are giving or are considering giving parsonage to female Orthodox Judaic educators.