50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand – Rabbi Jill Maderer

Today marks the 50th anniversary of women rabbis in America. June 3, 1972, Sally Priesand becomes the 1st woman ordained in our country and the first woman ordained at a seminary.  And, now over 1000 women and non-binary rabbis later, we understand: even honored firsts, are complicated. 

There was a woman rabbi ordained before Sally. Rabbi Regina Jonas, history has since revealed, was the first woman in the world to be ordained. Although not from a seminary, Rabbi Jonas was ordained in Germany in 1935, served the community in Berlin, and then during the Holocaust, pastored in Terezin until she was murdered at Auschwitz. Jonas’ rabbinate cut tragically short by the Nazis, and her story buried, Rabbi Sally Priesand always reminds us: Rabbi Regina Jonas was the first.  But the history predates Rabbi Regina Jonas as well.  For, the story of “firsts,” is also the story of “almosts.”

Just several years ago, when Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform seminary, was in a search for a new president my teacher Rabbi Dr. Carole Balin applied and advanced as a finalist.  She did not get the job. After a different candidate—a man—was appointed president Dr. Balin reflected that when HUC eventually appoints a woman, some day in the future, her own achievement as a finalist will be a part of that story.  Often times, in the journey of social change, the almosts, take a next step.  Yes, with excitement I celebrate 50 years of women in the American rabbinate, and we should not be marking 50 years of women in the American rabbinate; we should be marking 100 years.

Our Rodeph Shalom Suffrage Project has uncovered the impact of women’s voting justice work. It is no coincidence that only one year after women get the vote in 1920 the Jewish community begins to take baby steps toward equality. In 1921, Martha Neumark is taking courses at HUC and applies to join an academic track towards ordination. 

In 1922 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) – the Reform rabbinic association, which is independent from our seminary – at its annual convention, attended by rabbis and their wives, debates the question: do rabbis need to be men?  In the middle of the men’s discussion, the meeting chair turns over the floor, to the wives– 3 women speak! It is then, 1922, that the men of the CCAR decide “Women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” 100 years ago. Because women spoke. How often social change is about, who gets a voice.

But, back at the seminary, that next year, even though the CCAR rabbinic association would accept her, the Hebrew Union College seminary Board of Governors votes it down.   Martha Neumark is denied a track to ordination.  Indeed, the story of “firsts,” is also the story of “almosts.”    

To be clear, Rabbi Sally Priesand, was almost an almost.  She later learned that the HUC president Dr. Nelson Glueck’s life-goal was to ordain her; apparently his Board still needed convincing. 

For in response to Sally’s first inquiry here is an excerpt from a letter from HUC, June 17, 1963:

Dear Miss Priesand, Women are welcome in any of our courses, and we would be glad to discuss with you the various programs in which you might be interested.  Since you state in your letter that your interests lean specifically to the rabbinate, we would have to inform you candidly, that we do not know what opportunities are available for women in the active rabbinate, since we have, as yet, not ordained any women. Most women prefer to enter the field of Jewish religious education.

Isn’t it a common motto of change resistance: Well they don’t want access anyway.

From a letter dated June 20, 1963:

Miss Priesand, Some clear knowledge on your part, of what it will mean to you, to have graduated from our school, is essential for you, prior to your thinking about entering.

Isn’t this a common strategy of change resistance: the waiting period – from Sally’s not-quite-admission letter, to limits on reproductive rights, it’s interesting to look at the waiting periods, that ask: are you sure you’ve really thought about this? — that show up in resistance to social change.

Three not-quite-admittance-you-can-enroll-but-we-probably-won’t-ordain-you letters later:

May 14, 1968: Dear Sally (first name basis-they must be old friends by now!)– Dear Sally: I am pleased to inform you officially, that you have been admitted to the Rabbinic School of Hebrew Union College. Dr. Glueck and the Faculty join me in welcoming you, and in expressing good wishes for your happiness and fulfillment, in your studies in the rabbinic department!

From that first letter in 1963, to Sally’s acceptance letter in 1968, Dr. Glueck must have very been busy. Finally, the Board of Governors is sufficiently convinced. 

Once Sally is enrolled at HUC, Dr. Glueck is determined to help her, and women, become accepted by the Reform Movement.  He invites her to lead a prayer at the Board of Governors meeting, and to lead services when they are in town. And knowing congregations may be slow to invite her to lead, Dr. Glueck arranges for speaking engagements to help prepare the field for her ordination. True wisdom- he helps her pave the path through inequitable circumstance. 

Still, what a burden Sally Priesand carries through the wilderness of those early years, and all with no peers –no women classmates or colleagues, with whom she could share. During her student years, there are classmates who pose dating and marriage options and there are faculty who encourage it, because they think: maybe if we can get her married, we can get rid of her.

Beyond the initial achievement, being the first, means stretching people’s imagination about identity–can they see you as a rabbi and as a non-male, all at once? –as a woman, a mother, a wife, a CEO, and a religious authority?  Being the first means climbing out of the boxes of definition, such as gender roles. It is not a coincidence that in her daily climb, to be respected as a rabbinic leader, Sally does not find space to marry and have children, as she originally thought she might. I believe she knows how harshly she may have been judged, had she integrated the identities beyond people’s imagination.

As a student and then as a rabbi, instead, her focus is on, being the best–for being first means there is no room for mediocrity. She always feels she needs to be better. We owe her a debt…for her sacrifice, but most of all for her lessons.

Rabbi Priesand teaches humor—and if she can maintain a sense of humor, we all can.

Rabbi Priesand teaches us to appreciate the allies, from Dr. Glueck to her own classmates — who she likes to share, all spontaneously stood in solidarity at her moment of ordination — to the head of job placement who, when she could not get hired and wanted to write a pointed article, told her it would destroy her career, and instead, he would take the risk — he would write an article with these points, to use his power, to open people’s eyes.

Rabbi Priesand teaches us to not lead with ego.  A symbol of controversy, she does not get sucked into conflict.  In response to offensive comments, she just says “Thank you for your opinion” and walks away. 

To the B’nai Mitzvah guests, who say “you’re the first woman rabbi I’ve ever seen” she responds: “I hope I won’t be the last.” And that has been the essence of her rabbinate.  Rabbi Priesand always says: I’ve tried to not only open the door, but also to hold it open, for others to follow in my footsteps.

We at Rodeph Shalom have felt the impact of Rabbi Priesand, holding open the door for others.

I recently had the privilege, of interviewing the 2 women who served as rabbis at RS before my time here.  Our first, Rabbi Patrice Heller, began in 1981 and served for 5 years; our second, Rabbi Ellen Greenspan, began in 1986 and served for 4 years.  As much as Rabbi Heller and Rabbi Greenspan found their work here meaningful, and loved their connections with congregants, it was not easy for these vatikot—these early women.  No doubt, I owe them a debt.  We all do.  And I honor their contribution to our journey.

Last night, in a national gathering of female-identifying and non-binary rabbis Rabbi Priesand, now well into retirement, shared: she would have thought, we would have made, more progress by now.

Indeed, the journey continues, in the work of: pay equity, career advancement, family leave, Reform Movement leadership, and combatting gender misconduct and bias…and in the work of: belonging for all marginalized identities, that we may build a Jewish clergy and community, that reflects the multi-gender, multi-ability, multi-racial, multi-generational diversity of the Jewish People.

I honor 50 years of women in the American rabbinate, and we should not be marking 50 years; we should be marking 100 years, at least. So, as we celebrate the firsts and the almosts, their stories compel us to ask: What should the Jewish community have understood and acted upon 100 years ago, and today, what should we understand and act upon now, for the sake of community, equity, and the future of the Jewish people?  Our work, for the next year, and the next 50, is to understand, who are the firsts and the almosts, who need to show us the future. 

Rabbi Sally Priesand opened doors. 

For gender justice and beyond,

may we be inspired to open doors,

and to hold them open,

for those who followed Rabbi Priesand,

and for those who will follow us.

Shabbat Shalom.


*Drawing on: Sacred Calling, Jewish Women’s Archives, Teachings of Rabbi Dr. Carole Balin, Women Who Would be Rabbis, Dr. Pamela Nadel