As I reflect on the past fifty years, I am grateful to God that part of my life’s work has been to open new doors for women in the Jewish community, but at the same time, I have tried never to lose sight of the larger mission of the Jewish people—which is to derive from the words of Torah a set of values and a sense of holiness that will enable us always to be partners with God in completing the world.
Dr. Nelson Glueck, president of HUC-JIR, was the man most responsible for my ordination. He was passionate about those things that were important to him, and he had a certain charm that inspired others to dream bigger and do more. As someone once said, “He brushed away the ruts that others were prone to stumble in. He stepped right over them. He didn’t even see them. He had a higher horizon.” That horizon enabled him to envision a day when women would serve the Jewish people as rabbis. From the moment I arrived in Cincinnati I knew that he believed in me, and I was conscious of the fact that ordaining a woman as rabbi was a decision being made by the College-Institute itself under his leadership—the Union and the CCAR had nothing to do with it.
I was devastated when Dr. Glueck died a year and a half before my ordination, but his wife Helen, a distinguished physician and researcher in Cincinnati, told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. Throughout my career, I have had a picture of Dr. Glueck hanging above my desk, together with a letter from his wife dated March 19, 1971. The letter ends this way: “I have already told you how meaningful your ordination would have been for him and how he would have loved to have seen that day. I am sure when I see you ordained, in my mind’s eye I will see his hands on your shoulders, for no matter whose hands are there the meaning will be clear, the continuity of Jewish life and his immortality of spirit.”
I came to HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. That dream was fulfilled for me in 1981 when I became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, a position I was privileged to hold for twenty-five years, becoming Rabbi Emerita upon my retirement. Its members were warm and welcoming, open to new ideas and unafraid of new challenges. They allowed me to be myself, to experiment and be creative, and they were willing to take responsibility for their own Jewishness, one mitzvah at a time. Together we created a temple family and studied Torah hoping to discover what God would have us do and be. Our commitment to social justice grew from year to year, as we provided a Jewish presence in our community, joining with others in the task of tikkun olam. Without my temple family, my life would never be the same. They kept me grounded and treated me, not as the first, but simply as their rabbi.
My experience tells me that we are richer for the gifts that female rabbis bring to our shared task: rethinking previous models of leadership; empowering others to become more responsible for their own Jewishness; discovering new models of divinity, knowing that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine; training new leaders to be more gender aware by welcoming to our institutions of higher learning respected female scholars able to share with us lessons and insights unique to women; creating new role models and allowing to be heard—often for the first time—the stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long, the countless number of women who have enriched our people from biblical times on.
In conclusion, I want to thank my thirty-five classmates in Cincinnati for always making me feel like part of the class. To them I say: I have never forgotten that day of our ordination, when I was called to the bimah, and you very spontaneously stood up to honor this important moment in Jewish history. I think of that often and shall always be grateful for your kindness and friendship.
Rabbi Sally Priesand has the distinct honor of being the first woman rabbi in North America. She is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 222. CCAR rabbis can register here.