“[The Sacred Calling] is going to be an important document forever”
The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary, explains the personal and historical significance of an anthology that documents the journey of women in the rabbinate during the last four decades.
Q: How did you decide you wanted to be a rabbi? What part of the rabbi’s role made you want to fulfill this position?
A: I wanted to be a rabbi because I loved ritual and conducting services. When I was 16 and first came up with this idea, my temple encouraged me and let me do services and other kinds of things in the summer.
I am also very grateful to my parents because they didn’t throw up their hands and say, “What kind of a job is that for a nice Jewish girl?!” Instead, they said, “If that’s what you really want to do, you should do it.” And they gave me what I consider to be one of the most important gifts that any parent can give to a child: the courage to dare and the courage to dream.
Q: Do you see changes in Jewish life since the 1970s that can be attributed to women entering the rabbinate?
A: I think that women have changed the rabbinate in terms of leadership because of their desire for networking and establishing relationships; that’s really how women function. And I think they’ve brought that to the synagogue. When I was interviewed for my congregation, I told them that I wanted to come to be a partner with them. I wasn’t going to change anything about the way I am and the way I function in order to meet other people’s expectations. And I was very lucky, because they hired me.
When I was in rabbinic school, success seemed to mean that you had a big congregation. Everybody talked about it, and everybody talked about rabbis who never moved on from their first congregation as if they were failures. As the first women rabbi, I thought that I had to have a big congregation. When I first came to Monmouth Reform Temple, they thought it just a stepping stone. I did, too. I was always thinking, “I have to go to a really big congregation for the idea of women rabbis to become successful.” My congregation taught me that success doesn’t mean bigger. To me, success means, “Are we doing better today than we did yesterday?” My congregation helped me understand that.
Q: How have women in the rabbinate helped to shape people’s views of women in other leadership positions?
A: I do see a connection, and I think that, whenever anyone opens a door, it makes it possible for others to consider walking through that door, too. One of the lessons we learned from the Civil Rights Movement is that if you don’t see someone who looks like you in a position of authority or leadership, you don’t think it’s possible for you to do the same. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that today, because I believe that America needs a female president. Just seeing that someone was able to make a change should give anyone the courage to also make a change. You have to somehow gather the courage to move forward, and it’s always better if you have others to support you in that effort. And I think that the fact that we have so many women rabbis today is an encouragement that the Reform Movement supports others in fulfilling their dreams, too.
One thing that we still have a ways to go in is equal pay. I didn’t really know this until several years ago, when I discovered that women rabbis were being paid only 80% of what male rabbis were being paid. I was shocked, and said as much at a URJ board meeting. I don’t always say what people want to hear, but I feel I say what needs to be heard.
Q: What purpose do you think The Sacred Calling will serve? What do you believe is the importance of the book?
A: This book is going to be a very important document forever, because it is so well-rounded; it has so many different views, and talks about so many different topics, and it wasn’t just written by women but by men, and that’s important, too.
I believe, as I wrote in the preface, that this is a book of history. Women have been silenced for too many generations. We’re very fortunate to live in a time when women’s voices can be heard publically. When I retired, I asked all women rabbis of all denominations to donate their papers to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati so that there could be a place for scholars to learn about the history of women in the rabbinate. When I speak to a congregation that has a woman rabbi, I always say, “You’re a part of history, so gather your material and make sure it goes to the American Jewish Archives.” That is why I think The Sacred Calling is so important.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring female rabbis?
A: My advice is quite similar to the advice I would have given a long time ago: to be yourself, to maintain a sense of humor, and not to fear failure. Another important thing, that I think we’ve lost sight of, is trying to maintain a sense of humility. I believe very strongly that you should be proud of what you accomplish, but that you should always remember that you didn’t accomplish it alone. We should all live lives in such a way that makes a difference in the world. And rabbis have many extra opportunities to do that. And quite often, you’ll touch lives in ways that you will never know.
Q: What do you hope your legacy to be?
A: I want my legacy to remind people that any person can do or be whatever she or he wants to, and that you shouldn’t put your dreams aside even if they seem impossible.
Rabbi Sally J. Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Cincinnati in 1972, making her the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary. She served first as assistant and then associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City before leading Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey from 1981 until her retirement in 2006.
Rabbi Priesand will be a panelist at “The Sacred Calling: Then and Now” on Thursday, September 8th, 11:00 AM at HUC-JIR in New York.
Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling.