CCAR’s ‘Sacred Calling’ details 40 years of women rabbis

Reviewed by ALAN SMASON, CCJN Editor

While the subject of ordaining women as rabbis still resonates very strongly today within the Orthodox community, the Reform movement has, with the ordination of Rabbi Sally Preisand in 1972, accepted women as rabbis. That is a historical fact. The story of her own struggle for personal acceptance and the path of those who followed her at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and, later, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement as rabbis, is detailed in “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.”

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“The Sacred Calling” is the latest in the CCAR’s Challenge and Change Series.

As part of its “Challenge and Change Series” of books, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has produced a massive collection of essays on a variety of subjects of interest to both Jewish women and men.

With a foreword by Preisand, the 776-page volume is edited by Rabbis Rebecca Einstein Shorr and Alysa Mendelson Graf and lists Rabbi Renee Edelman as a consulting editor.

There is much to be celebrated within these pages. Preisand stoically removes the title of pioneer from her mantle, insisting that her dream of becoming a rabbi was the path she chose and she just happened to be first. Becoming the first woman of any American Jewish movement to bear the title of rabbi in an environment where all the faculty and classmates were men was daunting to her and she came to find out that without the interdiction of several mentors and friends, her journey might never have brought fruit.

Preisand credits HUC-JIR president Rabbi Nelson Gleuck with encouraging her in her determination to become the first American woman rabbi, but when he died a year short of that goal, it was up to his successor, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, to realize that dream. Preisand learned later that his was not an easy battle to wage.

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson interviewed Preisand at a Women’s Rabbinic Network biennial conference in 2007. Priesand had agreed to grant the interview on the occasion of her recent retirement from the pulpit at Monmouth Reform Temple, where she had served for 25 years as senior rabbi. The transcript of that conversation is quite revealing and gives a reader much insight into the travails Preisand had to endure as a reluctant trailblazer.

It is through the efforts of other scholars that historic persons like Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained in history, became known. Jonas, a victim of Nazi persecution during the Holocaust had been ordained in 1935 in Germany and had donated her papers and only known photographs for safekeeping just before she was sent to Theresinstadt concentration camp, where she performed rabbinic duties and delivered lectures to inmates from 1942-44.

The struggle of openly gay rabbinic students and the fight for LGBT equality is also detailed in the work, which is subdivided into seven different sections including Women Rabbis and Feminism, Congregational Culture and Community Life, Image, Jewish Life and Ripple Effects: The Impact of Ordaining Jewish Women. Aside from the most respected of Reform rabbis, articles and remembrances are from noted and established historians of Jewish life such as Rabbi Gary Zola may be found represented in this volume as well as contemporary bloggers such as Rabbi Jordie Gerson.

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” – ©2016 CCAR Press (Challenge and Change Series) – New York, NY – Edited by Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf with Rabbi Renee Edelman – 776 pages.

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