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The Trailblazing Legacy of Rabbi Sally Priesand
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The Trailblazing Legacy of Rabbi Sally Priesand

Interviews

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In the 1960s, American Jews struggled to define the place of women in communal and religious life. Then the question was whether women could become rabbis. It wasn't until 1972 that the reform movement ordained the first woman rabbi in the United States, Sally Priesand.

Rabbi Priesand retired last year after 25 years in the pulpit of Monmouth Reformed Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I spoke with her recently and asked her to reflect on her career as America's first woman rabbi. She recalled that she was just 16 when she requested an application from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the reform movement's flagship seminary. This was the school's response.

Unidentified Man: Dear Ms. Priesand. We are pleased to learn of your interest in our college. Since you state in your letter that your interest leans 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. Sincerely yours, Joseph Corrasick(ph), rabbi, assistant to the provost, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi SALLY PRESANT: My memory of when I received that letter is that it didn't really make that much of an impact. I still wanted to be a rabbi, and I knew that that's what I was going to do. I think when I arrived at the Hebrew Union College, that at first I perhaps was not taken all that seriously, and people thought that I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.

But I had a rule, and that was never to argue with anyone, so when I engaged in a conversation with someone about whether or not they thought women should be rabbis, I would listen and then I would say thank you for your opinion, and I would simply walk away.

ELLIOTT: Now, much was made of you becoming the first female rabbi, but we should be clear here that another woman had been ordained earlier in Germany, and you actually wrote about her in your thesis, Regina Jonas. When was she ordained? This was in the '30s or '40s?

Rabbi PRIESANT: Yes, '30s.

ELLIOTT: How did you find out about her?

Rabbi PRIESAND: I believe I found out about her from one of the professors on the faculty who came from Germany and had known her.

ELLIOTT: This was the 1960s. This was when the women's movement was gaining steam. At the time, did you think of yourself as a pioneer?

Rabbi PRIESAND: No, I did not. I just wanted to be a rabbi and I didn't go to the Hebrew Union College in order to break down any barriers or to champion women's rights. I truly wanted to be a rabbi. And in the early days and as feminism was unfolding, there are probably people who would say that I wasn't very much of a feminist, but there have to be some people who are on the front lines speaking out and marching, etc., and there have to be other people who are doing things to show that it's possible.

ELLIOTT: Now, what was your first experience in the pulpit? How did your congregation react to you?

Rabbi PRIESAND: Well, my first pulpit was the Stephan Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, and in the beginning the congregation welcomed me. I think that the one area in which some people had doubts was officiating at funerals, because some people would say, well, my father was very traditional. How could I have a woman rabbi at his funeral?

ELLIOTT: You know, was there one point in your early career where you thought, okay, that was it, I've hit my stride, I'm comfortable, this feels right?

Rabbi PRIESAND: I think I've always felt comfortable in doing what I was doing. I will say that there was only one time that I can remember when for a very brief amount of time I considered leaving the rabbinate. And that was when I left the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue after being there for seven years, and I had great difficulty in finding another congregation.

One of the things to remember is that because I was the first, I was also the first to face most of the challenges. And so seven years after I was ordained, there still weren't very many women rabbis, and having spent seven years at a major synagogue, I didn't think that that was going to be so difficult. I was wrong.

ELLIOTT: Did you feel pressure? Was there pressure on you to continue breaking down barriers and to seek more and more powerful positions because you were this first woman rabbi?

Rabbi PRIESAND: In the early years of my career, there was a lot of pressure, and I was very much aware of the fact that people judged women in the rabbinate by how I did. So for example, every Shabbat morning when we had a bar or baht mitzvah and the congregation was filled with visitors from all over the country, I knew that for many of them it was the first time they had ever experienced a woman rabbi. And if I did a great job, that was fine. If I didn't do so well that day, that was the memory that they were going to go home with.

So yes, in the early years especially, I felt a lot of pressure. And I often made decisions as to what was best for women in the rabbinate and not necessarily what was best for me.

ELLIOTT: Now, you never married. Was that a personal choice or was that because of...

Rabbi PRIESAND: It was a very conscious decision on my part because I did not feel that I could have children and be at my synagogue all the time. It's just, you have to know yourself, and I know that there are women who can do both. I'm not a person who can do both.

ELLIOTT: I read that the inclusion of women in the rabbinate has changed several things. What changes have you noticed?

Rabbi PRIESAND: Some of the changes that have been made are making certain that we don't think of God exclusively in male imagery, and that's true in traditional Judaism as well. For example, one of the words we use to describe God is Harachaman, the Merciful One. It's a female quality. It comes from the word raham, which means womb.

So God has both masculine and feminine qualities, and I think we are much more attune to that now. Rather than father, we speak of God as a parent. Rather than king, we talk of God as a ruler. I know that whenever I create liturgy, I always try, instead of using the word he or she, I always refer to God as you. Because to me, it's a more intimate kind of relationship and it's a way of thinking about God as being a friend.

ELLIOTT: You know, even today there are very few women as senior rabbis of large congregations, and you don't see many women represented well in the top levels of Jewish lay organizations, of community organizations. Are you surprised by that?

Rabbi PRIESAND: Sometimes I'm surprised. Sometimes I'm disappointed. But on the other hand, through my own experience I understand that perhaps not very many women want to be the rabbi of a huge congregation. I think women are much more interested in creating relationships and partnerships. And it sometimes is not possible to do that in a really large congregation. I'm not certain that even today large congregations welcome women.

And I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that when I announced my retirement, that women did not really apply for the position. And your point before about women not really being in the highest levels of leadership in lay organizations is true, and we still have a lot more work to do in that area.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think it is that large congregations don't welcome women more openly?

Rabbi PRIESAND: I guess if I had the answer to that, I'd work to change it.

ELLIOTT: Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States. Thank you for talking with us.

Rabbi PRIESAND: Thank you.

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