By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
The sweet, unassuming voice on the other end of the line is warm and friendly. “We just celebrated my mother’s 101st birthday,” she says as she explains why she had just returned from Cleveland, Ohio, the city of her birth. While the voice might easily belong to that of a favorite aunt or a beloved schoolteacher, there is little to indicate it belongs to a figure of historic proportions in Judaism.
But Rabbi Sally Priesand is like that. She regards herself as a platitudinous figure, not as some might wrongly assume, a trailblazing feminist intent on becoming the first woman ordained a rabbi in America. “I didn’t do it to be a pioneer. I just wanted to be a rabbi and I was very fortunate because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi and that was what I was able to do,” she confesses. “You know, not everybody gets to have their dream come true.”
Since her 1972 ordination with the 35 other all-male class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, Priesand has had to bear the moniker of being first. It has been a mantle that she has worn with pride and humility, but also one that she has invariably found to be trying and challenging.
Today’s incoming rabbinic classes boast a much higher incidence of women than ever before. “I think obviously there are many more options available, but we still have a ways to go,” she reflects. “We’re been making progress, but it’s only been over the last two or three years, I would say, that congregations are really opening up to being able to welcome women as the senior rabbi in a large congregation.”
Priesand’s story and those of the more than 1,000 female rabbis who have followed her are found in a massive new volume of essays, remembrances and interviews published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement. Titled “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” this 776-page tome is broken down into seven segments, which feature essays by rabbis, laypersons and scholars examining the evolution and condition of women clergy within the body of Judaism.
“I do want to emphasize how important I feel this book – ‘The Sacred Calling’ – is,” Priesand says. “I’m just so excited about it and I think I said (in) my first sentence in the foreword ‘This is a book of history.’”
Priesand’s personal history is well documented in the book. While she has become a pivotal figure in Reform circles, few know that she first attended a Conservative synagogue. She became acquainted with ritual practice as a young lady.
Her family moved and she was affiliated with Beth Israel The West Temple in the eighth grade. “I remember the first time that I went to services there. A woman was reading from the Torah. I just couldn’t believe that,” she reflects with incredulity. “I thought it was terrible, because I came from my Conservative background.”
It wasn’t long, however, she began to alter those views, especially when exposed to the religious school run by volunteers, most of whom worked as NASA scientists during the workweek. “They taught me how important it is to have a temple family and also they taught me the importance of tikkun olam,” Priesand considers. “They were very involved with social action and they were really the founders of the Cleveland movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry.”
Encouraged to apply as a rabbinic student by famed archaeologist Herman Gleuck, the president of HUC-JIR, Priesand took exception to being referred to as a “special student” in letters sent to her. The explanation was simple. There were no existing facilities for women there. She would need to be housed off campus, for example.
Once she was enrolled, it was another matter for her to excel in matters never before tackled by a woman. “I felt that I had to be better and do better than everybody else,” she admits. “But I was also very focused on what the ultimate goal was and quite frankly when people used to tell me why there shouldn’t be women rabbis, I would never argue. I would just say ‘Thank you for sharing your opinion’ and walk away.”
Priesand also believes her timing at entering rabbinic school could not have been more fortuitous. It was, after all, the dawning of the nascent feminist movement. “I’ve always believed that in terms of feminism there have to be people out there speaking marching, etc. and then there have to be people who are doing the things,” she posits. “I always thought of myself more in the role of accomplishing something that could then become a role model.”
When she was formally ordained by Glueck’s successor Fred Gottschalk, she received a standing ovation from her class of male peers. “They were always great and encouraging and everything,” she notes. But her path was a lonely one and without the support of other women. “When I see today the wonderful kinship the women have with each another, I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Changing the mindset of Reform congregations to accept female clergy was also daunting for Priesand. In the book she recalls one incident where she interviewed via conference call for a temple position. When the interview concluded, they neglected to terminate the phone call properly on their end. Curious to hear how she did, she eavesdropped and was delighted when she overheard them declare how great a candidate she was. But she was crestfallen when, in the next breath, they agreed they would never hire a woman. She never revealed the incident until many years later.
“Well, obviously I was very upset, but I was also well aware that that was still the opinion,” Priesand demurs. “That was a long time ago. I think today there are probably very few congregations that would probably say something like that.”
After seven years at one temple as an assistant rabbi, she was passed over for promotions to a senior rabbi position. That led to her accepting a post at Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey, a Jewish community of 70,000. She served her community for 25 years before retiring.
“They always accepted me as their rabbi, not as the first woman rabbi. That was terrific,” she reflects.
Throughout her career, her being the first American woman rabbi manifested itself in many ways. “I never really remembered what my role is or was until I went to a biennial, for example, or a convention of some sort, where my congregants tell stories of people pushing them out of the way just so they could get to me,” Priesand continues.
“I was just always aware that I would get into an elevator at a hotel of a convention and people would whisper ‘That’s her. That’s her.’” She chuckles to herself.
Even at this past year’s biennial, her celebrity continues to soar. “I was going by myself (and) I thought, ‘Well, I’m older now and it’s probably not going to be a problem.’” She continues to chuckle. “I was quite surprised. I never took so many ‘selfies’ in my life!”
While Priesand deprecates her own importance to the rabbinate, she is quite attuned to providing historical perspective to those that will follow in the generations to come. That point was driven home when she and other women rabbis learned of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi, who was privately ordained in 1935 in Germany and was a victim of the Holocaust interred at Theresinstadt (Terezin) for two years and later killed at Auschwitz in 1944.
Priesand remembers examining the ordination papers and the only two photos of Jonas that are known to exist, which only surfaced after the reunification of Germany. She and several of her fellow American rabbis traveled to Terezin to deliver a plaque in memory of Jonas.
While in Germany, Priesand was overcome with emotion and several strikingly similar aspects in Jonas’s life and her own. “Her mentor died the year before she was supposed to be ordained and so did mine,” she muses. “She also made the decision not to marry and have children. She loved to preach and to teach, which I also love. She was also told to be patient; that’s a word I heard quite a lot. You know, there were so many similarities, it did kind of shake me up a bit.”
Jonas’s almost forgotten story brings her back to “The Sacred Calling” and the importance of cataloguing the history. “It’s so important to be able to have the history for future generations,” Priesand emphasizes. “The book is incredible. There’s so much in it and it lays a real foundation for the future for scholars who want to write about the history of women in the rabbinate.”
Part of the history involves the struggle of openly gay rabbinic students and the fight for LGBT equality at HUC-JIR and the Jewish Theological Seminary, which ordains Conservative rabbis. Aside from a pre-history and a full examination of the Reform movement’s commitment to the inclusivity of female rabbis, the work 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.
So that her entire history will be preserved, Priesand has arranged for all of her papers to be donated to the American Jewish Archives (in Cincinnati) at the time of her passing. She has invited all women rabbis of whatever domination to do the same.
In the tradition of social activism she learned as a youth, Priesand became a force for social action in Monmouth for decades. She still chairs Interfaith Neighbors, an organization founded to provide rental assistance for poor local workers, but which now provides programs for urban farming, business development and also encourages internships in the restaurant industry for at risk youth.
In her own community her rabbinic star rose throughout her tenure and eventual retirement at Monmouth Reform Temple. Early in her career another Reform rabbi was called away at the last moment at a community event. Priesand remembers being asked to lead the Kaddish prayer only moments before the invitation was unexpectedly rescinded due to objections from more observant quarters.
“I have a tendency to just forget the negative,” she confesses. “I kinda accepted that and continued to do my work and it was only when I was about to retire that we were having the Yom HaShoah service and they asked me to read El Mole (Rachamin) in Hebrew and the Orthodox rabbi would stand next to me and read it in English. That was big progress. Just even the visual was important.”
At the time of her retirement, there were questions about her health. “I’m in great health, but the truth is I’ve had cancer three times,” she confides. “I’m a great survivor.” Her voice resounds strongly and assured.
When she announced her retirement, she insisted she would devote herself to her artwork, a series of watercolors. “I tell people that I failed retirement. I didn’t learn how to say no,” she contends. “The first year I retired I got on five different boards in my community, each one of them had a project. Now I’m off all the boards except for Interfaith Neighbors and, you know, I’m hoping to get back to painting. It’s fun to match wits with the paint.”
The changes in the makeup of the rabbinate from entirely male-dominated to more accepting of women are deeply appreciated by Priesand. When the Orthodox Union came out with its statement opposing the ordination of women rabbis, she felt compelled to answer them publicly. She was also present at the ordination of Sara Hurwitz, who calls herself a rabba and is the co-founder with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Yeshivat Maharat, an Open Orthodox seminary in New York that ordains female clergy. “I think all of us should stick together,” she suggests. “We have to stand up for each another.”
As a means of illustrating how ingrained the concept of women rabbis in today’s culture has become, Priesand uses an example of a recent talk she gave to first graders at a Solomon Schecter Day School.
“I said ‘When I was just a little older than you, I wanted to be a rabbi. But there was a problem. Do you know what that problem was?’”
Seated on the floor, one little boy raised his hand and said ‘You were too young.’” Priesand responded with peals of laughter.
“The answers were just like that,” she beams. “It never occurred to these kids that a woman couldn’t be a rabbi and that was a great sign of progress.”
“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 p.