May 20, 2006
Pioneering Rabbi Who Softly Made Her Way
By PAUL ZAKRZEWSKI
From the time she was a teenager, Sally J. Priesand says, her dream was to be a congregational rabbi. But when she became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States, on June 3, 1972, she helped transform contemporary Judaism in ways that at times still astonish her.
"On the whole, I'm a very private person," Rabbi Priesand said. "I became a rabbi not to champion women's rights. I didn't think about being a pioneer or any of those things."
Just 34 years later, 829 women have become rabbis among the three denominations - Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative - that accept women into the rabbinate. Across all three movements, women are being ordained in record numbers, a trend that is likely to further revolutionize the pulpit.
With her June 30 retirement approaching, Rabbi Priesand, 59, is modest about her legacy. "From the day I arrived here at my congregation, I've never been the first woman rabbi," she said. "I'm just the rabbi. It's when I go back out to the world that I'm reminded of the role I play."
Since 1981, she has led the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., with a congregation of 365 families.
The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which ordained her at its Cincinnati campus, has marked the anniversary at five-year intervals since 1992, with academic conferences, an honorary doctorate of divinity and an endowed professorship named after her. Each year, the college includes her in its graduation class photo. She receives dozens of requests for private meetings annually, many from college students working on research papers.
Rabbi Priesand, a native of Cleveland, said that when she was 16 she decided to become a rabbi. Despite opposition - especially among classmates and teachers who said she was in college to find a husband - she became the first woman at Hebrew Union to make it to ordination, an accomplishment she credits to her parents and to Nelson Glueck, then the college's president.
After graduation, Rabbi Priesand served as an assistant rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, leaving in 1979 when it became clear to her that she would not be promoted to succeed the ailing senior rabbi. Unable to find a full-time position, she served as the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, N.J., and as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan from 1979 to 1981.
She has never married or had children, something she says was a conscious decision. "I knew myself well enough to know I couldn't do both," Rabbi Priesand said.
Rabbi Shira Stern, who runs a private pastoral counseling center in New Jersey and is among the first generation of female rabbis, said, "The fact Sally was the first doesn't mean she wanted to be the first." Rabbi Stern added, "I think she was thrust into this position by circumstance, and the way she has grown into her rabbinate has been an extraordinary transformation."
Indeed, Rabbi Priesand is something of a reluctant pioneer, a fact that has not been lost on some colleagues who over the years have expressed dismay that she was not more aggressive in her efforts on behalf of female rabbis.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Priesand's retirement has provided her colleagues with a natural opportunity to reflect not only on her legacy, but also on the advances made by women. Many say her ordination not only helped to open the floodgates, but it also tapped into a revolution in Jewish feminist theology and liturgy that continues today.
Pamela S. Nadell, a historian, said the first women to become rabbis were in a unique position to bring feminism to American Judaism.
"They haven't been the innovators of Jewish feminism - that comes from theologians and scholars and poets - but they have disseminated those messages to their congregations because of their positions of leadership," said Dr. Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University.
Furthermore, women have helped transform what it means to be a pulpit rabbi, empowering their congregants in ways that the authoritarian model of the rabbinate did not permit. "They really believed they spoke in a different voice and that congregants related to them differently," Dr. Nadell said.
Rejecting a traditional model that encouraged rabbis to seek ever larger pulpits, Rabbi Priesand has remained at Monmouth, providing an unusually close relationship with her congregation and giving female rabbis an alternative model for success, her colleagues say.
"You'd be blown away by how well Sally has taught her lay leadership how to function ritually by themselves, how to be leaders in their community," Rabbi Stern said. "She is a hero for everyone who believes in the small congregational rabbinate."
Despite a record number of women being ordained in the Reform movement, they still trail the number of men. Only about a dozen women occupy senior rabbi positions at Reform congregations with more than 600 families, and they lag behind men in salary and benefits, according to Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women's Rabbinic Network, a caucus within the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Harry K. Danziger, the conference president, acknowledged that such issues remained. "But it seems that things like this are solved, at least in part, by example," he said. "The more women who are in larger congregations, the more the example can be pointed to." Women make up about one quarter of the 1,800-member conference.
Rabbi Priesand will stay involved at Monmouth, she said, though she is happy to pass the reins to the new rabbi, Jonathan Roos.
"It's only fair to the congregation that a young rabbi with lots of energy come in, to have the younger members grow with him the same way they grew with me," she said.
Still, she said she felt a certain tug when it came time to read the story of Exodus this year.
"Moses didn't get to go to the Promised Land, and it reminded me nobody ever gets to go to the Promised Land," she said. "You never accomplish everything that you want to accomplish. You do as much as you can to move things forward, and your consolation is knowing there's a Joshua to follow."