‘I not only envisioned it. I fought for it': The first female rabbi isn’t done yet

In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi by a Jewish seminary.

Most Reform and Conservative Jews today are used to seeing a woman leading services. The class that graduated this month from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary, included two more female rabbis than male rabbis.

But in 1963, when Priesand was still in high school and decided she wanted to become a rabbi, HUC-JIR didn’t know what to make of her letter.

“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,” an official at the college wrote to her, according to correspondence included in a new book about female rabbis. When Priesand was admitted, the school stamped her a “special student,” because all the dorms were for men, so she needed to live off campus.

Priesand made it to ordination, and then to a pulpit, though it took her longer than all of her male classmates to find a job. She went on to spend the majority of her career at Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey, where she helped the congregation grow from less than 200 families in 1981 to 380 families when she retired in 2006.

Meanwhile, a generation of women who became rabbis referred to the 44 years since her ordination with reverence. They mark time as “before Sally” and “after Sally.”

Those women have contributed to the book, The Sacred Calling, which comes out on June 1. The massive anthology of writing about women in the rabbinate, more than 800 pages long, touches on every topic imaginable for female rabbis, from the theology of gender to pregnancy at the pulpit to Regina Jonas, who may have been Priesand’s unknown predecessor — ordained privately by a rabbi in Germany in 1935, Jonas died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust and has only recently been a topic of study.

Priesand, now 69, wrote the foreword and figures prominently throughout the compendium. She talked to the Post about the book, and about her views on the challenges that remain for women in religion and in all workplaces. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Washington Post: Tell us about this book that you’re a part of.

Sally Priesand: To me it’s extraordinarily important as a book of history. For so many years, stories of women in our history have just been silenced. We haven’t really known about the countless women who have enriched our history, from biblical times on. One of the things I think feminism has brought to our society is the opportunity to discover people we’ve never known about. One of the reasons I wrote for this book and I supported this book was that I want to make sure future generations will know the story. So many people now, they’ve never known a world without women as rabbis. I think they really don’t understand what some of us went through, are still going through, to make that an option for little girls.

Some of that is still happening now. Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female Modern Orthodox rabbi — when I listen to her, I often think there are so many things she’s going through that I went through. When I first came to Hebrew Union College, they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one. I wasn’t really taken all that seriously at the beginning…. I always felt the need to be better, to do better than any of my classmates.

WP: And there was so much publicity — national newspapers were writing about your goal to become a rabbi when you had barely started school. This book says you were on the cover of People magazine.

SP: I’m a very private person, and it’s sort of the paradox of my personality that I chose a very public career. That is not something I ever, ever thought about. I just wanted to be a rabbi. There was a lot of publicity. That was probably the hardest part of everything. And also knowing that people judged the idea of women in the rabbinate by virtue of what I did and what their experience of me was. So in the early years of my career, I really did make decisions based on what was best for women in the rabbinate, not what was best for me….

If people came to the synagogue for a bar mitzvah, as a guest, and I was the preacher that day, what they thought of women rabbis when they walked out the door was going to be whether I gave a good sermon or not…. One of the other decisions I made was not to marry and have children. I always intended to. If you read early articles about me, I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a nursery in the synagogue next to my office.’ Somewhere along the way, I realized I was not going to be able to have a career and a family.

I think it wasn’t a hard choice. But if I look back now, I know every time that I could have gone one way, I went the other way and chose my career. My career always came first. And you know what? I’m not really sorry about that. Because I know all the people whose lives I’ve touched are part of my extended family.

WP: Do you think you would feel that way if you were starting out as a rabbi today? What should congregations be doing to make it possible for their clergy to have a family life?

SP: It’s up to every person to decide. And I do think, if you look at it, that many women rabbis choose to have smaller congregations, and one of the reasons for that, I think, is to enable them to have families. And to me, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want to have a large congregation, you should have an opportunity to do that….

I’m very, very fortunate really to have my dream of being a congregational rabbi fulfilled. That’s all I ever wanted to do, be a congregational rabbi. When I first came, I will admit, both I and the congregation and probably the whole Jewish community thought this was a stepping stone to go to a large congregation. I really did think that was my obligation. My congregation taught me that bigger does not always mean better. Success always means that we are doing better today than we did yesterday. We built a family here. I’m just a very fortunate person, and I’m not sorry I didn’t take a larger congregation.

And I think we should understand that except for a few people, it’s really been only in the last two or three years that women have become senior rabbis of major congregations…. The latest survey of the rabbinic pay structure shows that women make about 80 percent of what men make. Just like the rest of America. We’re working on that still. There are still things that have to be done, and we’re working on that. And I think that in this book, The Sacred Calling, people will become more aware of the challenges — what they were and what they are.

WP: You’ve already touched on several of those challenges — equal pay, job prospects, time to raise children. What are the other challenges that the book highlights?

SP: Let me turn it the other way and say what I think we have learned. I think that the Jewish community is richer for the gifts that female rabbis bring — we have learned to rethink previous models of leadership, I think. We’ve really made it possible for partnership and networking and building relationships to take the place of hierarchy, which is really how synagogues used to be. I’m sure you probably know of examples where the rabbi just said, ‘This is how it is supposed to be, and that’s it.’ But I know when I came to this congregation, I was very open with them: ‘Look, I’m not here to be Jewish for you. I’m here to suggest ways that we can all be Jewish together.’

We’ve learned to accept new models of divinity. That’s really important, theologically, to know that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine. We’ve become more gender-aware. And one of the things that’s so wonderful is that we’ve welcomed to [HUC-JIR] repected female scholars. When I was at the school, there were no women on the faculty. That really is very incredible, that they’re welcomed and really that they’re expected.

WP: Did you envision that, when you were a student? That someday not only would you not be the only woman, but women would be the majority of Reform rabbinic students?

SP: I not only envisioned it. I fought for it….

WP: You mentioned Rabba Sara Hurwitz. What advice would you give to Orthodox communities that want to welcome female rabbis, or rabbas, or maharats, even if in a limited context?

I feel that the women of all movements should show their support. I went to the first graduation, the first ordination ceremony of the Yeshivat Maharat…. When I was in school, people would tell me why they thought women shouldn’t be rabbis. I would say, ‘Thank you for sharing your opinion,’ and I’d walk away. Because you’re not going to convince anybody by arguing. But when people experience it — I remember way back when, 40 years ago, people would go to my services and would say, ‘This isn’t so bad.’

You should, there are still people in Reform and Conservative Judaism who would still say, ‘I’ve never seen a woman rabbi before. You’re the first woman rabbi I’ve ever seen.’ And I would say, ‘I hope I won’t be the last.’

That’s in the book. Just everything that could be covered, they covered. I so admire and I’m so proud of the editors and the CCAR Press. They’ve done a fantastic job putting it together.

WP: Yes, the book discusses so many topics. The unique perspectives women bring to the rabbinate, the unique challenges women face. Are there any topics the book raised that particularly stood out to you as deserving of more recognition?

SP: I hope people will read about Regina Jonas. I’ve been quite taken by her story. The four firsts [the first female rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Modern Orthodox denominations] went to Germany the summer before last, followed in her footsteps and dedicated a plaque in her memory at Terezin. There were so many things that were similar in her life and my life. It just blew me away. I couldn’t believe it.

Right now I’ve been doing a lot of speaking around, and I always try to tell her story. She doesn’t get any recognition, and I’ll tell you what we’re trying to do. We don’t actually know when she died. But after researching it, we have determined that she was taken from Terezin and sent to Auschwitz. And the day she arrived, we assume she was murdered. And that day was Shabbat Bereshit [the week that the first portion of the Torah is read]. We’re trying to get all congregations of all denominations to remember her and say kaddish [the mourner’s prayer] for her on Shabbat Bereshit. Last year several congregations did it.

WP: Just this month, Pope Francis made news by saying he wanted to study the possibility of female deacons. After all this time, is it surprising to you that Catholics and so many evangelical and other denominations don’t have a clergy role for women?

SP: It’s not surprising to me. You know, the Catholic church is not that much different from Orthodox Judaism in regard to women being leaders. I feel that the day will come when they’ll be more than deacons…. I’m always looking forward, if you want to move forward.