Rabbi Sally Priesand '72
First Woman Rabbi Ordained in North America
On June 3, 1972, Jewish and American history were made when Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the first woman rabbi in North America. A pioneer who opened the way for generations across all denominations and around the globe, Rabbi Priesand set in motion the first steps toward inclusion, diversity, equity, and empowerment of new cohorts redefining Jewish leadership over the past 50 years. As HUC-JIR launches a year-long celebration of 50 years of women in the rabbinate, we are honored that Rabbi Priesand has shared her reflections.
What was your journey to HUC-JIR?
I grew up in Cleveland, where my brothers and I were the only Jews in our high school. We first belonged to a Conservative synagogue, which imbued me with a love of ritual, but in the eighth grade we moved to the west side, where the only synagogue was Reform. The first time I saw a woman reading from the Torah it was shocking. But Beth Israel-The West Temple taught me a lot about what it means to be a temple family and the importance of tikkun olam. They also encouraged me to be a bar mitzvah tutor and help with summer services.
I’m probably the only student who never appeared before the HUC-JIR admissions committee. I think they never thought I was going to do it because I was in the undergraduate program at the University of Cincinnati, which allowed me to skip the first year of rabbinical school. So one year I was an undergraduate, and the next I was in the second year of rabbinical school. And everybody said, “She’s still here.” The Assistant Provost, Rabbi Joseph Karasick, had been a student rabbi in my congregation in Cleveland and knew me. I just got in.
What gave you the courage to be a pioneer?
I wasn’t looking to be a pioneer, and I didn’t think of myself that way. I just wanted to be a rabbi – something I decided when I was 16. And fortunately for me, my parents gave me what I consider to be one of the greatest gifts that a parent can give a child, and that is the courage to dare and to dream. That gave me the strength to do it.
Of course I was a feminist, but I didn’t do it to champion women’s rights. I believe you need the Gloria Steinems of the world who are speaking out, and then you need people, like me, who are actually accomplishing their goals and becoming role models to inspire others and show that it can be done. When HUC-JIR gave Betty Friedan an honorary doctorate, I was her sponsor. At dinner she asked me, “When did you decide you wanted to be a rabbi?” I said, “1962.” And she said, “Before my book?”
How did HUC-JIR prepare you for your calling?
HUC-JIR gave me the basics. I think that the curriculum now is very different than it was then, with better preparation now in terms of practical rabbinics. I was very fortunate to have a student pulpit in Hattiesburg, MS. My advisor, Dr. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, was publicly against women in the rabbinate, but every single time I came back from my pulpit, he sat with me, went over every sermon and reviewed every aspect of my visit. I learned a lot, and I don’t think my classmates got the same kind of attention. Dr. Mihaly changed his mind over the years and later installed me in my first pulpit after ordination. I also learned a lot about public speaking from Professor Lowell McCoy, z”l. Dean Kenneth Roseman, z”l, helped me navigate my student pulpit work, and I have fond memories of Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, z”l, who taught us about the survival of the Jews, saying we shouldn’t worry about the quantity of Jews but about the quality. And that has always stuck with me. I’m not worried if the Jewish people will survive – we will. I’m more worried about whether Judaism will survive. Humanity’s basic values are shared by all religions, they are universal. But I believe in particularism too. And not too many people believe in that anymore.
How did President Nelson Glueck support your journey?
Dr. Glueck died the year before my ordination, but he told his wife that one of the three things he wanted to live to do was to ordain me. He kept his eye on me, supported me, invited me to participate in services and speak at meetings of the Board of Governors. By my third year, he began to arrange for me to travel and speak across the country. It was a way of letting the Reform Movement and the larger Jewish community know that HUC-JIR had decided to ordain women rabbis when the world wasn’t prepared for it.
How did you get placed after ordination?
There were 35 men in my class and me. I was the last person to get a job. There were those who wanted to talk to me for my publicity value, and others who refused. In the end, I got the best job – the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City – where for seven years Rabbi Edward Klein taught me how to be a rabbi. He always took great pride in being introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate. After he had a stroke at a board meeting, things were never really the same. I had hoped to succeed him when he was ready to retire, but no synagogue was ready at that time to have a woman as the senior rabbi.
In my third year as a rabbi, I was on a panel at the CCAR convention, as the last speaker. They forgot to introduce me, forgot I was there. I was steaming. The speech I gave about not being made to feel welcome is now a historical document at HUC-JIR’s American Jewish Archives that Dr. Gary Zola uses to teach his American-Jewish history class.
What challenges did you face next?
I was the first to face everything. For two years, I couldn’t find a job. That was the only time I considered leaving the rabbinate. I accepted a part-time weekend rabbinical position at Temple Beth-El in Elizabeth, NJ, and during the week I was a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital. And then, Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ, opened up – a place I had never heard of before, but which has been my home ever since. At my interview, I explained that I wanted to be partners with the congregation. And that was the essence of my rabbinate, motivating, inspiring, and empowering my congregants.
How did you do that?
I think it’s our rituals that make us Jewish and set us apart, just as the Hebrew word kodesh for holy means being separate. I brought my love for ritual to this very classical reform congregation and made a point of teaching rituals. Part of my philosophy was every year you should do a new mitzvah that you haven’t done before. People have said to me that this has meant a lot to them, because when you think about doing everything, it’s overwhelming, so you give up. Instead I would say, “Pick one.” One year, in my High Holy Day sermon I told my congregants that my mitzvah that year was to eat dinner in the temple sukkah every night and I invited them to pack a picnic basket and join me. People came in large numbers and looked forward to it from year to year. It provided a unique opportunity to get to know members in a casual setting. One year the Brotherhood surprised me and built a much larger sukkah to accommodate the crowd. I succeeded in motivating others to do something they had never done before.
How does this reflect your understanding of Reform Judaism?
I believe that being a Reform Jew is more difficult than any other kind of Jew because you have the freedom to decide what you’re going to follow. And in order to make an intelligent decision you have to learn about everything and experience everything. Judaism is an experiential religion. How would you know if you wanted to keep kosher if you never did it? When I was accepted as a special student at HUC-JIR, it was explained to me that there were no dormitories for women, I got an apartment down the street with Sherry Levy, z”l, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati and president of Hillel. She kept kosher and encouraged me to try it.
How did you strengthen your community?
I was able to bring Monmouth Reform Temple into the Reform Movement and the larger community. We joined Federation and got involved in URJ Biennials. We would hold an annual HUC-JIR Shabbat, and a World Union Shabbat in which the service was conducted in the many different languages of our Progressive Movement. Working with other faith communities, we founded Interfaith Neighbors to provide rental assistance and support services for the working poor in Monmouth County, and today we continue to make a difference by providing a Jewish presence in our community.
What about services and Torah?
I used to tell everyone that when you come to services you’re not always going to have a profound religious experience. You’ve been rushing all day, doing all the things you have to do in your life, and then you run into the sanctuary and say, “Rabbi, inspire me.” And I would say, “Well, it’s not always possible. But I want you always to remember that by your very presence here you are making it possible for a community to pray together. And that’s just as important.”
Keeping Shabbat is important to me, the pause after a difficult week. And Shabbat services are my favorite thing in the rabbinate. Reading Torah is the central part of the service, and I would read a verse in Hebrew, then translate it into English, which the congregation appreciated. I feel that in Torah we discover what God wants us to do and be. And so, Torah is the beginning of everything.
How did you decide it was time to retire?
I retired voluntarily on my 25th anniversary, and gave the temple notice nine years before. I truly believe that rabbis should know when to leave. And I have remained in the community, with the title of Rabbi Emerita, serving as the Temple historian, and attending services, but sitting in my preferred location in the back row where my nickname has evolved: Back Row Sally!
How do you feel about the 839 Reform women rabbis ordained to date?
I feel I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And by a quirk of history I was the first. But I very much admire all the women who have followed in my footsteps. And I’m so energized and inspired by their creativity. I learn a lot from them. I’ve been very fortunate that they treat me with great respect, including at the recent Women’s Rabbinic Network Jubilee. I am grateful that I’m here for the fiftieth anniversary. Because of my health issues – I have had cancer three times since I was 40 – I’m lucky I’m still here.
How have women transformed the rabbinate?
What we have accomplished has been as a group. Studies have shown that women are more into networking and partnering, and we’ve helped male rabbis to learn more about that and to do the same. We definitely changed a lot about liturgy and ritual, and we continue to do that.
I think we’ve been successful in letting people know that God has characteristics both masculine and feminine. The Torah Ark doors created by an artist for my Temple are blue with the burning bush in the center with the letter shin. I explain that the shin stands for Shaddai, the masculine name of God, meaning almighty. But it also stands for Shekhinah, the divine presence, which is feminine. And of course we know in our prayer book there are dozens of names for God. When the Torah says, “I will be what I will be,” it means that God will be whatever you need God to be at a particular time. So sometimes God will be a parent to give you unconditional love. Sometimes God will be a friend who listens. Sometimes God will be your rock, your strength.
Our creating new rituals for women that never existed before is also important, as is adding respected female scholars to the HUC-JIR faculty. I remember challenging the HUC-JIR faculty at a lunch in Cincinnati about why weren’t they educating the next generation of women scholars to join them. After all, that was how most of them got there!
Women in the rabbinate created new role models and discovered new models that were unheard of before. Unfortunately, women’s voices have been silenced for too long, and only now are we discovering these stories – including those of Regina Jonas, who was the first woman ordained a rabbi in Berlin in 1935 and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. For my fortieth anniversary, I asked my temple to invite the four “firsts” across the movements for a panel discussion: me, Rabbis Sandy Sasso and Amy Eilberg, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz. We traveled around the country doing these panels together. I thought it was really important for people to see four Jewish women of different denominations who could get along, respect each other, speak civilly on the same platform. We traveled together to follow Regina Jonas’ footsteps and dedicated a plaque to honor her memory at Terezin, where she provided comfort to her people during the Holocaust. We ask Jewish congregations of all denominations to join us in saying kaddish for her from year to year on Shabbat Bereishit.
What is your message to those seeking to follow their dreams today?
I have some rules. The first one is to know yourself and be yourself. Lots of people thought they knew what the first woman rabbi should be like, how she should dress, what she should do. I was myself. My skirts were up to here. My hair was down to there. I just was myself.
When I was in rabbinical school, I always thought I would marry and have children. I used to say that in my synagogue there would be a nursery next to my study. But when I was working, I decided I couldn’t do it. In the early years, I made all my decisions based not on what’s best for me, but what’s best for women in the rabbinate. I knew that every time anyone met me, saw me, heard me speak, they were judging the idea of women in the rabbinate. I felt a real responsibility. And so, the first year I was ordained, I spoke every Sunday somewhere around the country so people could see me and get used to the idea of having a female rabbi. I decided that I would not be able to have a career and a family and do both well. Other women can do it. I admire them, but I know myself well enough to know that I couldn’t do it.
Another rule is don’t be afraid to fail. You never know until you try something. There’s nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from your mistakes. And always try to do your best. The world moves forward every day because someone is willing to take a risk. I also have a ‘don’t worry’ rule. Sit down every morning and worry for 10 minutes, then forget about it, get up, accept all the good things that happen in the day, the growth, the goodness, and there’ll be 10 minutes tomorrow to worry again.
I believe it’s very important to live with humility, a forgotten virtue today. As our sages said, have two pieces of paper in your pockets: one saying “The world was created for my sake,” and the other one saying, “I’m but dust and ashes.” And take out whichever one you need. Being humble does not mean ignoring your accomplishments. It means understanding that you didn’t get here by yourself. And it’s very enriching to take a minute to thank God every day for giving you the power to create and do what you do, and to thank the other people who have walked with you along the way.
And finally, I would say maintain your sense of humor. Laughter is a great thing; it helps you not take yourself too seriously; it changes the atmosphere of a meeting and makes the world more pleasant for everybody.
What are your thoughts about the future?
I’m concerned about the survival of Judaism and not so much the Jewish people. And I don’t see younger people taking over the roles that their parents and grandparents had in synagogue life. To me, the synagogue is the most important Jewish institution. It’s the only institution that teaches Jews how to be Jewish. I think today that you really must reach out to people one-on-one, face-to-face, in all sizes of groups. Never ask anybody to do something you’re not willing to do first. Community is one of the things that we’re missing so much during COVID.
When I first came to Monmouth Reform Temple 40 years ago, I talked about the synagogue as a temple family. I used the words all the time until finally people were talking about that. On the High Holy Days, I would say, “I’m so happy to welcome you to our annual family reunion.” And I love taking little kids to see their parents’ photos on the confirmation wall and teaching them that there is something Jewish about everything we do, but you have to pay attention and figure it out. I always used to tell them, “When you smile you’re doing something Jewish,” because Pirkei Avot says, “Greet all people with cheerful countenance.” And, “When you take care of your dog you’re doing something Jewish,” because our tradition says tza’ar ba’alei chayim – that you should take care of your animals. I held my dog Shadow’s third birthday at the Temple in the social hall – and 25 dogs attended, with their owners making contributions to the Temple’s endowment fund.
Do you feel blessed?
When things are low I look for a rainbow. Rainbows are important to me because when I came to Monmouth Reform Temple to sign my contract, at dinner we looked out the window, and there was a rainbow. That to me was the sign that God was blessing our partnership. And there have been many moments in my life when things have gone wrong where a rainbow just suddenly appeared. So when I retired, I wanted to give the temple a gift. I commissioned Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller to write a song and said to her, “There are only two things that have to be in it: a rainbow and that God goes with us wherever we go.” So it’s called B’chol Makom (In Every Place).
Ever since I was sixteen years old, I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. I feel very fortunate to have had my dream come true. When I first came to Monmouth Reform Temple, everybody thought that because I was the first this was a steppingstone for a large congregation, but my congregants taught me that success doesn’t mean bigger. It just means are we doing better today than we did yesterday. How blessed I have been to be able to do what I wanted to do and to open new doors for women in the Jewish community. And I was very happy when we finally had other women rabbis and I could say to rabbinical search committees, “Go, talk to them.”