Sally Jane Priesand 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 in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1972. 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 from 1981 till her retirement in 2006.
Life and career
Early life and education
Sally Jane Priesand was born June 27, 1946, in Cleveland, Ohio into a Jewish family. Her parents Irving Theodore, an engineer, and Rose Elizabeth (Welch) Priesand were not religiously observant but they were active in Jewish organizations. Her mother served as president of the sisterhood of their temple, her father was president of a B’nai B’rith lodge. Her family lit Shabbat candles, celebrated Chanukah and had a Passover Seder to which the children were encouraged to invite a non-Jewish friend to share the festivities and learn about Judaism. The family first attended a non-egalitarian Conservative synagogue, and later attended Beth Israel-West Temple, a Reform congregation on Cleveland’s West Side, where Priesand began to display a commitment to Judaism and Jewish life as a teenager. Priesand did not become Bat Mitzvah but was confirmed and continued her religious school education through the twelfth grade. At the age of 16, she decided she wanted to be a rabbi. She later described her decision to become a rabbi as “an affirmation of my belief in God, in the worth of each individual, and in Judaism as a way of life.”
While still in high school, she requested admission information from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati (HUC-JIR). In answer to her letter, the school responded:
“We are pleased to learn of your interest in our college…. Since you state in your letter that your interests lean specifically to the rabbinate, we would have to inform you candidly that we do not know what opportunities exist for women in the active rabbinate, since we have, as yet, not ordained any women.” And another letter stated: “…You might also ascertain from Rabbi Litt, and he in turn from other rabbis, just what would be the disposition of the rabbinate respecting someone like you who is interested in being ordained by the College-Institute. While we have had women students, none so far, has taken the full course of study which would lead to graduation and ordination as a rabbi. Therefore, some clear knowledge on your part of what it will mean to you to have graduated from our school is essential for you prior to your thinking about entering. The question of a woman as a rabbi is a question for the rabbis rather than for the school. There is no attempt on our part to discourage you but to direct your thinking….”
Entering the University of Cincinnati in 1964, she was accepted into the joint program of HUC-JIR and the University of Cincinnati. She graduated with a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from HUC-JIR and the University of Cincinnati in 1968.
Upon her graduation, she was admitted to HUC-JIR’s rabbinic school without undergoing a formal application process, being the only woman among 35 men. While still in rabbinical school, she received a great deal of attention from the media. In April 1971, she was the subject of an article in the New York Times, titled “Her Ambition Is to Become a Rabbi – And a Housewife”, in which she stated:
“I’m not an active supporter of women’s lib…. I don’t need it. But I do think the feminist movement is important because it is time for us to overcome psychological and emotional objections. We must fulfill our potential as creative individuals.”
Despite opposition – many said she was at HUC-JIR to marry a rabbi and become a rebbetzin rather than to officiate as a rabbi – she became the first woman at Hebrew Union College to make it to ordination, an accomplishment she credits to her parents and to Rabbi Nelson Glueck, the college’s president who died a few months before her ordination.
Her thesis for her Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters degree “Historic and Changing Role of the Jewish Woman”, published in 1975 under the title “Judaism and the New Woman”, highlighted the changing role of women in Jewish history and was meant to advance their emancipation in Jewish religious life.
Priesand was ordained on June 3, 1972, by Glueck’s successor as HUC-JIR’s president Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk at Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, making her the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States and believed to be only the second woman ever to be formally ordained in the history of Judaism.
Gottschalk called the ordination of Priesand “historic”, one that breaks stereotypes and allows “Jewish women to consider seeking the rabbinate” and a testament to Reform Judaism’s efforts at achieving “equality of women in the congregation of the Lord”. By acquiescing to women’s ordination at a time of social and political changes in American life, the Reform movement portrayed itself as continuing its historic project of adapting Judaism to respond to modernity while simultaneously demonstrating its commitment to women’s equality.
After her ordination, then member of Congress Bella Abzug arranged for her to deliver the opening prayer at the House of Representatives, being the first Jewish woman to do so.
Upon ordination, she was interviewed by some synagogues for her “public value, so they could say they were first”, as she says, but others would not speak to her, and she was the last of her class to get a job. She was offered a position at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, where she served for seven years under Rabbi Edward Klein, first as Assistant Rabbi and then as Associate Rabbi, leaving the congregation in 1979, when she realised that she would not succeed Klein as senior rabbi. Not able to find a full-time position, she served as part-time rabbi of Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, New Jersey and as Chaplain at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital till 1981, when she became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. She originally thought her “obligation was to get a bigger congregation”, but rejected the traditional model which encourages rabbis to look for larger pulpits and remained at Monmouth Reform Temple, a congregation of 365 families, where she “forged a creative partnership with … her congregation, acting upon her belief that a rabbi’s primary task is to help Jews take responsibility for their Judaism”.
During her rabbinate, Monmouth Reform Temple created a Social Action Committee which launched a nationally recognized gun safety campaign (Please ASK, which was given an award in 2003 by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism), was a leader in the fight against drunk driving, created a permanent Fund for the Homeless to support the work of Interfaith Neighbors, sponsored an annual food drive for The Center in Asbury Park, continued to host an annual Monmouth County arts festival, and instituted an annual “Mitzvah Day” of charitable volunteerism.
In 1987, Priesand was diagnosed with breast cancer, which struck again eight years later, and in 2003, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She was able to continue working during her treatments for breast cancer, but the thyroid cancer treatments forced her to take a three-month leave of absence. Her illness affected her rabbinate, making her “more sensitive and aware of the needs of others who were dealing with health crises”, she said.
Priesand has served on the board of every major institutions of Reform Judaism, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a member of Jewish Women International, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. In her local community, she is an Honorary Vice President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County and President of Interfaith Neighbors, an organization whose primary purpose is to provide rental assistance and support services for those who are homeless. She also chairs the Clergy Advisory Committee of Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey and serves on the board of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College, and the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
Retirement and current life
Priesand retired from Monmouth Reform Temple on June 30, 2006, after 25 years of service to that congregation. She explained her retirement, saying: “I’m retiring by choice, because I believe that rabbis should know when to leave and when it’s time to inject ‘newness’ into synagogue life.” She intends to remain “a part of the temple family” as rabbi emerita, adding “being here has been the fulfillment of my dream to be a congregational rabbi, which is why I went to rabbinic school in the first place.” Upon her retirement, Monmouth Reform Temple set up the “Sally Priesand Endowment Fund for the Future” in her honor to preserve and protect the temple’s legacy.
Priesand lives in Ocean Township, New Jersey, with her Boston Terrier, Shadow. She intends to establish a Monmouth County kollel, a center for adult Jewish study. Her hobbies include photography and abstract watercolor. She had her first solo exhibition in the Backman Gallery at HUC-JIR in New York in 2002, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of her ordination, and exhibits annually in the Monmouth Festival of the Arts.
In 2007, she invited her female rabbinic colleagues of all denominations to join her in donating their professional and personal papers to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to document the history of women in the rabbinate. The first ever exhibit of the historical memorabilia of her career was displayed at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in the winter of 2010.
On December 6, 2010, at Temple Reyim in Newton, Massachusetts, Priesand and the other three first American ordained women rabbis of four denominations of American Judaism met for the first time in an event called “First Lights”, videotaped by the Los Angeles-based Story Archive of Women Rabbis, a project which videotapes interviews with women rabbis from all streams of Judaism and archives their stories online. Priesand together with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first Reconstructionist female rabbi ordained in 1974, Amy Eilberg, the first Conservative female rabbi ordained in 1985, and Sara Hurwitz, the first Open Orthodox female rabba ordained in 2009 lit Chanuka candles together with some 30 other women rabbis, and then spoke about their experiences.
- 40th anniversary of ordination
Priesand was honored in several events on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of her ordination in June 2012. In March 2012, the Annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis celebrated the 40th anniversary of women’s ordination by calling Priesand to the Torah at the Monday morning prayer service; through May 2012, the Union for Reform Judaism was running a blog to celebrate “Forty Years of Women” in honor of the anniversary; and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored her as special guest at the June 2, 2012 ordination ceremony at Plum Street Temple, during which 13 candidates were ordained – eight of them women. On the day of the anniversary on June 3, 2012, Priesand, Eisenberg Sasso, Eilberg, and Hurwitz met for a “Four First Women Rabbis” discussion at Monmouth Reform Temple for a celebration honoring the four first women rabbis ordained in North America in their respective denominations, and the 40th anniversary of Priesand’s ordination.
Priesand is the author of Judaism and the New Woman, and a contributor to Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration, and to A Treasury of Favorite Sermons by Leading American Rabbis. She is featured in numerous books including Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism and Fifty Jewish Women who Changed the World.
Awards and honors
In 1973, Priesand was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Florida International University.
In 1997, she received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). In the same year, the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Visiting Professorship in Jewish Women’s Studies was established in her honor at HUC-JIR.
On April 23, 2009, she received the prestigious Elizabeth Blackwell Award given by Hobart and William Smith Colleges in (Geneva, New York) to women whose life exemplify outstanding service to humanity. The award is named after Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the first woman in America to receive the Doctor of Medicine degree.
In 2010, in honor of its 125th anniversary, Good Housekeeping magazine named her one of “125 women who changed our world”.
Other women rabbis
All Jewish denominations aside from traditional Orthodox Judaism now ordain women as rabbis and cantors. In the 17th century, Asenath Barzani, the daughter of an eminent Kurdish rabbi held the title of Tanna’it, but was not ordained as a rabbi. The first formally though privately ordained female rabbi worldwide was Regina Jonas, who was ordained in 1935 in Berlin, Germany. Several women, including Paula Ackerman, served Jewish communities in the United States and in Canada in a rabbinical capacity before Priesand, but were never formally ordained. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974, and Amy Eilberg became the first female rabbi in Conservative Judaism in 1985. Lynn Gottlieb became the first female rabbi in Jewish Renewal in 1981, and Tamara Kolton became the first female rabbi in Humanistic Judaism in 1999. In 2009 Alysa Stanton became the world’s first African-American female rabbi. In Europe, Leo Baeck College had ordained 30 female rabbis by 2006 (out of 158 ordinations in total since 1956), starting with Jackie Tabick in 1975.