America’s First Female Rabbi Reflects on Four Decades Since Ordination

In an interview with JointMedia News Service, Rabbi Sally Priesand discusses the obstacles she overcame to attain ordination and find her own pulpit, as well as how the presence of women has changed the nature of the rabbinate.

by Michele Alperin
JointMedia News Service

Rabbi Sally Priesand, America’s first seminary-ordained female rabbi, decided at age 16 to pursue her calling.

“I always wanted to be a teacher of whatever was my favorite subject,” she tells JointMedia News Service. “In the end, I decided to become a teacher of Judaism.”

June 3 will mark the 40th anniversary of Priesand’s historic ordination at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC). Fortunately, her parents were firmly behind her four decades ago.

“I feel that my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child: the courage to dare and to dream,” Priesand says.

As an undergraduate in a joint program between the University of Cincinnati and HUC, Priesand studied enough Hebrew to skip the first year of rabbinical school. Supporting her admission and ordination – something no woman had ever been granted by the school before – was HUC President Rabbi Nelson Glueck, and when he died, the subsequent president, Dr. Fred Gottschalk, took up her cause despite opposition from some faculty members. Looking back, Priesand says, “It wasn’t until recent years that I realized how much courage it took for him to accept someone else’s vision and move forward with it.”

Priesand was interviewed by some synagogues “for my public value, so they could say they were first,” but others would not speak to her. The last person in her class of 36 to get a job, she ended up with the best one, at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, but adds that she probably got the position because all her classmates were already employed when the job was posted. She served there for seven years under Rabbi Ed Klein, who she says loved “to be introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate.”

However, Priesand was not given the opportunity to be senior rabbi after Klein retired. Finding it hard to find another position, she ended up working part time at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, NJ, while serving as chaplain at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. But in 1981 she was hired as rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ, where she stayed for 25 years, leaving in 2006 as rabbi emerita. “I felt here like I was their rabbi and not the first woman rabbi,” she says.

Neither Priesand nor her congregation thought she would stay that long. “I always felt my obligation was to get a bigger congregation,” she says. However, her partnership with her congregation taught her that the drive to be first in everything would not lead to fulfillment. “My congregation really taught me that that is not the meaning of success,” she says. “Success just means you are doing better today than yesterday.”

After 25 years of being allowed to be creative, have ideas, and experiment with a congregation willing to accept her vision, she says, “I retired voluntarily because I believe you should leave when people still like you. I worship at my temple, but I sit in the pews, in the last row, and I’m enjoying the view from the pew.”

One early challenge Priesand faced was being accepted to officiate funerals. “Very often people would say, ‘My father was traditional – how can I have a woman rabbi at his funeral,’” she recalls. In cases like these, Rabbi Klein’s firm stance helped people adjust; he told congregants, “Rabbi Priesand is the rabbi, and she will do the funeral. If you don’t take her, you’re not going to get anybody from this synagogue.”

Looking back on the 40 years since her ordination, Priesand notes several ways women have changed the rabbinate. First, women have a different style of leadership that emphasizes networking and partnership, and this has initiated a rethinking of the top-down models that used to predominate. “When I grew up or even when I came to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, it was a generation in which the rabbi controlled everything and did everything,” Priesand recalls. “The rabbi would just say, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ and everyone would say, ‘Yes, rabbi.’” By contrast, Priesand says she always has given her congregants the opportunity to express their opinions, even when they are different from her own.

Secondly, she says women have brought new ways of looking at Judaism, including a new perspective on divinity. “They emphasized that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine,” says Priesand.

Women have also influenced changes in prayer language, making it more gender neutral. “For me, one of the important things is to address God as ‘you,’ not ‘he’ or ‘she,’ because there is a distance there,” says Priesand. “‘You’ is a very intimate way of addressing God, and it has been very helpful for me in liturgy I’ve created or things done I’ve here at the temple: it’s like you’re talking to a friend, not a distant personage.”

Finally, the existence of more female rabbis has allowed Jewish women to discover new role models. Priesand admires Regina Jonas, who was ordained privately in the 1930s in Germany – but not by the seminary, because the Talmud professor refused to give his okay. Rabbi Jonas served primarily in homes for the elderly and later died in a concentration camp. Says Priesand, “I am technically the first woman in world to be ordained by a theological seminary, but she really was the first, and I always feel that whenever we talk about these issues, we bring honor to her memory.”

Despite progress in these areas, few women have become senior rabbis, and work is being done on equal pay and all forms of sexual harassment. But whereas no woman has been president or chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman recently became the first female president of the New York Board of Rabbis. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has already had two female presidents, and HUC is bringing in women as faculty members and has had one woman chair its board of governors.

Regarding what the private lives of female rabbis are like, Priesand says that is up to each individual woman. When she was in rabbinical school, she intended to get married and have children, and planned to have a nursery next to her synagogue office. Reality turned out to be different. “When I got out in the real world, I realized that I just couldn’t do that; I would be torn between my family and my congregation,” she says. “But I can look back and know that all the children of the synagogue are in a sense my children and I’ve had an influence.”

Priesand says the satisfactions of her journey have far outweighed the obstacles – noting the opportunity to be welcomed into people’s lives at the most significant times, and the gratefulness she feels at having helped open doors for women.

“But at the same time,” she says, “let’s not forget the larger mission: to take the words and values of Torah and make them holy and make the world a better place for everyone, because I do believe we are partners with God in completing the world.”