Seeing a woman leading a Jewish congregation in prayer, an elderly male rabbi is said to have remarked that women have as much place in the pulpit "as an orange does on the Seder plate."

The story is an urban myth. But it has inspired some Jewish families to include an orange among the symbolic foods at the Passover meal. It also provides perspective on the step that North America's Reform rabbis are set to take today: electing the first female head of a major rabbinical association.

Meeting in Washington, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is scheduled to elect Rabbi Janet Ross Marder, 48, of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., to a two-year term as its president.

"The Reform movement has articulated the notion that men and women are religiously equal since the 19th century. But it wasn't until 1972 that we ordained a woman rabbi, and it took 30 years for a woman to be named president," Marder said in an interview. "So it's taken some time for those values to be translated into action."

Marder's election is a formality, because she has served for two years as vice president, placing her in line to succeed to the top post. Her ascension reflects the steadily growing number of women rabbis in the United States since the first, Sally J. Priesand of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., was ordained three decades ago.

Of the CCAR's 1,800 members, 377 are women. At the end of this week's convention, three of the organization's top six officers will be women, according to Rabbi Paul J. Menitoff, the organization's executive vice president and highest staff official. In 10 years, Menitoff predicted, nearly half of all Reform rabbis will be women, because roughly 50 percent of its current seminary students are female.

The Conservative branch of Judaism began ordaining women in 1985, and 11 percent of its rabbis are women. Orthodox seminaries do not ordain women, and in most Orthodox synagogues, women are not allowed to read publicly from the Torah. But almost all U.S. Orthodox congregations now hold bat mitzvah ceremonies for 12-year-old girls, and a handful are experimenting with egalitarian services that allow women as Torah readers under a controversial ruling by a Jerusalem rabbi.

Marder, ordained in 1979, has been a leader in another break from tradition, outreach to the gay community. In 1983, she became rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Los Angeles synagogue that was the first in the Reform movement to focus on gay congregants.

Marder said women are playing key roles in revising the Reform prayer book to allow more "truly participatory worship" by reducing rote responsive readings and emphasizing meditative prayer and singing.

"The 19th- and 20th-century style of worship was you experienced awe by sitting in a room with a high ceiling and hearing a choir or someone with a soaring voice. You felt very small, and that's how you experienced God," she said. "The contemporary style is you try to create community, make people feel connected to those around them, break down the divide between congregation and pulpit, and help people feel the real and living presence of God."