Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate
By Rabbi Hara E. Person
Two anecdotes, separated by about 30 years.
It’s 1974. I am 10 years old, sitting on the stoop of my Brooklyn synagogue. I am heavily into rabbi worship. I admire my rabbi and want to be like him when I grow up. My rabbi comes by and tells me that a few women rabbis are about to be ordained, and that the first one had been ordained only two years earlier. He says it like it’s a big deal and tells me about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi. I remember two things: being surprised that women hadn’t been rabbis previously, and wanting to be just like her.
Fast forward to 1995. My daughter is three years old. We are in the synagogue for a family program. Our rabbi is a woman. Our student cantor is also a woman. I myself, after a circuitous route, am now a rabbinic student. My daughter leans over to her father, pats him reassuringly on the arm, and says, “It’s ok, Abba, don’t worry – men can be rabbis too.”
How much has changed in these 40-plus years since the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained Sally Priesand! Young adults in the Reform and Conservative communities like my daughter know only a mixed-gender rabbinate. At the same time, however, after four decades of women in the rabbinate, we still have much work to do to bring about complete equality in many areas.
I am proud to be the Publisher of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, a collection of essays about these four decades. Once the idea for this book was suggested to me, it was obvious that the CCAR had to publish such a book. As the Reform Movement publisher, it is our job to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of these 40-or-so years, while also challenging the community to keep working toward full equality and the normalization of women in powerful positions in the Jewish community.
It came as a shock to my 10-year old self that women hadn’t been rabbis before Sally Priesand. It just hadn’t occurred to me that gender exclusion would exist. But then and there, despite not knowing Sally and having only an imagined picture of her in my mind, she became my hero.
As a girl I craved role models. I had plenty of male role models in life and in literature, but few women. Sally, or the idea of Sally, filled that need for me. I would guess that is true for many of my women colleagues.
There is a debt we all owe the early women rabbis, and much to be learned from their experiences. By their very presence, they changed the face of the rabbinate. Through their creativity and determination, they effected tremendous change within the community as a whole. They were trailblazers and warriors and role models and just regular everyday rabbis taking care of their congregations and communities and the Jewish people. And they were women.
All of us who worked on The Sacred Calling, including the editors Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Rabbi Alysa Mendelsohn Graf, and all the contributors and advisors and providers of inspiration, are proud to be a part of this important collection. There are many conversations that we hope will be sparked by this book.
We also want to pause in the middle of our busy lives and mark the tremendous change that has happened in these four decades. Imagine what the Jewish community would look like without women rabbis. Imagine what our synagogues would be like. What our religious schools and day schools and hospitals and hospices and healing centers and JCCs and boards of rabbis and youth groups and summer camps would be like. What our publications and our prayer books and our weddings and our baby namings and our b’nei mitzvah would be like. Actually, it’s impossible to imagine. Because in these four decades, women rabbis have left our mark on the Jewish world in indelible and transformative ways.
Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press and the Director of Strategic Communications at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.