Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate

At the last URJ Biennial, I was privileged to participate in a Shabbat luncheon program sponsored by the Women of Reform Judaism, reflecting on the forty-fifth anniversary of my ordination and celebrating the publication of "The Sacred Calling: Foud Decades of Women in the Rabbinate" (CCAR Press), a winner of the National Jewish Book Award. I appreciated the opportunity to sit on this panel with colleagues and friends. Together, we touched on many different topics including the history of women in the rabbinate, the story of Rabbi Regina Jonas, and the challenges faced by female rabbis, many of which continue even today.

I was delighted that this program coincided with the tenth anniversary of the publication of "The Torah: A Women's Commentary." It gave me an opportunity to congratulate and thank WRJ for its foresight in creating such an extraordinary volume. One cannot underestimate how much it has enriched all who study Torah, and I am confident it will continue to do so for many generations yet to come.

What I did not know was that the Women of Reform Judaism had a surprise for me: the establishment of the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Prize to be awarded annually to a female student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. It was indeed a surprise, a most generous gift marking the forty-fifth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Reform Jewish community, something I will always cherish. I extend my warmest congratulations to Allyson Resnik Jacobson, the first recipient.

Support for the Priesand Prize comes from the YES (Youth, Education, and Special Projects) Fund, the longstanding philanthropic arm of WRJ that, among so many other things, has provided scholarship funds for rabbinic students for many decades now. What that means is that every member of WRJ in every congregation and community throughout the world contributes to the strengthening of the Jewish people and the values we hold dear through support of the YES Fund. For that I am eternally grateful to each of you.

I am honored to have my name linked with the Women of Reform Judaism. Sometimes we forget the history that puts WRJ on the side of ordaining women as rabbis. I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. Not long after, I remember reading a newspaper article indicating that the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods had passed a resolution calling on the three institutions of our Movement to begin ordaining women.

Eight years earlier, at the UAHC biennial in 1957, the longtime executive director of NFTS Jane Evans z”l spoke passionately about this very topic, saying that “women are uniquely suited by temperament, intuition, and spiritual sensitivity to be rabbis.” It was my privilege to know Jane who I affectionately called the First Lady of Reform Judaism. I always admired her advocacy on behalf of so many social issues and her leadership in moving NFTS to be a voice on the national scene. She was an amazing woman whose courage and integrity set an example for all of us. I know she would be very proud of all that WRJ continues to do on behalf of the Jewish people and all people. I am too. 

Sally Jane Priesand (born June 27, 1946) is America's first female rabbi ordained by a rabbinical seminary, and the second formally ordained female rabbi in Jewish history, after Regina Jonas. Priesand was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on June 3, 1972, at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. After her ordination she served first as assistant and then as associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, and later led Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey until her retirement.

Published: 10/04/2018

Categories: Our Community, Women's Rights