NEW YORK, May 15 (RNS)--When Esther Reed walks across the stage at the JewishTheological Seminary here on Thursday (May 17), she'll take her firststeps as a Conservative rabbi. She'll also enter a profession that haschanged considerably since the first Conservative woman rabbi, AmyEilberg, was ordained in 1985.

"There is now a large, spiritually powerful community of women inthe Rabbinical Assembly and in the seminary," said Eilberg, now apastoral counselor in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's wonderful that no oneneeds to be alone anymore."

Reed won't be alone because 11 other women will be ordained withher. When ordination at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in LosAngeles is completed later this month, 136 Conservative women rabbiswill have been ordained in the United States. These events take place 18years after the Jewish Theological Seminary, the largest Conservativeseminary in the world, voted to admit women to the rabbinical school. InJewish tradition, 18 is a significant number associated with life, andthis community of Conservative women rabbis seems to be full of life --and the struggles that come with it.

As Reed begins her first year as a rabbi, she's aware challenges lieahead.

"In many ways, my classmates are still pioneers," she said. "Thereare many places where women have not been."

In June, two groups will meet to discuss issues relating to womenrabbis. The meetings illustrate the effect women have had on the fieldand within the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional bodyof approximately 1,500 Conservative rabbis. The Assembly's Task Force onWomen Colleagues will meet for the first time to consider professionalissues, while the movement's Committee on Law and Standards will debatea complex point of Jewish law. The need to even consider questionsrelating to women rabbis suggests how things have changed.

Decades of debate preceded the ordination of Conservative women.(The Reform movement ordained its first woman in 1972, while theOrthodox movement still does not ordain women.)

"The first generation of women rabbis grew up being told this wasimpossible," said Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, an assistant dean at theJewish Theological Seminary, who was ordained in 1989.

Conservative women's ordination brought new possibilities within themovement.

"The image of the rabbi has changed, it's opened up people's eyes,"Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the Conservativemovement, said of women's ordination. "They have clearly made an impact,in part by creating role models for young Jewish women, and even youngJewish men."

They have also had an impact on the issues discussed in synagogues.Jewish women asked the first Conservative women rabbis for a religiousresponse to pregnancy loss, and they started new discussions in themovement.

"When we first entered those conversations, many of the men said,`I've been a rabbi for many years, and no one's ever asked me thatquestion,"' Eilberg said. "I was asked that question the first year Iwas a rabbi."

Conservative women rabbis cope with different issues than their malecounterparts, both religiously and professionally. At its June meeting,the law committee will discuss women rabbis serving as witnesses ondocuments relating to marriages and conversions. The task force willtackle questions of equal opportunity.

"There are still some congregations who struggle, either religiouslyor emotionally, to accept a woman rabbi," said Epstein.

Women rabbis lead synagogues and work as chaplains and in Jewishorganizations, but proportionately there are still fewer women in thepulpit than men. These women sometimes encounter a "stained glassceiling."

"Most of the women (in pulpits) are in entry level positions andhave a very hard time finding positions that aren't entry level, even ifthey have seniority," said Rabbi Susan Grossman, who was ordained in1989 and leads the Beth Shalom synagogue in Columbia, Md.

Gathering data on these issues will be a priority for the taskforce, said Rabbi Debra Cantor, who will chair the group of eight to 10members.

"We need hard numbers about why women are making the choices they'remaking, not just anecdotal evidence," she said. "We want to make surethere are as many possibilities for women as there are for men."

The anecdotal evidence suggests Conservative women rabbis face otherproblems, including sexual harassment, the balance of family andprofessional life, and frustrating attitudes.

Cantor, who was ordained in 1988 and was the first woman in aConservative pulpit in the Northeast, now works for the Bureau of JewishEducation for Greater Boston. Early in her career, some congregationmembers questioned her parenting skills when they saw her husband takingcare of their children during services.

"They'd come to the synagogue on Jewish holidays or Saturdaymornings, and I was officiating.

I was in the pulpit, preaching.Naturally, I wasn't playing with my children then, it would've beentotally inappropriate," she said.

Conservative women rabbis acknowledge that such attitudes persist,but most remain optimistic. Cantor said many find joy in their work thatcan best be described with a Hebrew term.

"`Sipuk nefesh' means a deep-seated sense of satisfaction, feelingrewarded by one's work," she said. "It means literally a contentment ofsoul."