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Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sally Priesand Reflects on the Beauty, Struggle, and Sweetness of Being the First Woman Rabbi in North America

June 2022 brings the Reform Movement and the CCAR the distinct honor of celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi ordained by a seminary in North America. She paved the way for hundreds of women who followed in her footsteps as they were called to lead Jewish communities by becoming rabbis. June 2022 also marks the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking CCAR vote allowing that women could and should be ordained as rabbis, though it would take 50 more years for Rabbi Priesand to solidify her place in history.

Here, we share a conversation between Rabbi Hara Person, the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—and the first woman to hold that position in the history of the CCAR—and Rabbi Priesand. This interview was conducted at the March 2022 CCAR Convention in San Diego, the 133rd gathering of Reform rabbis.

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Watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

Rabbi Person: It’s a great honor and privilege to be able to ask you these questions. Can you tell us who or what gave you the hope that you could become a rabbi?

Rabbi Priesand: First of all, I want to say that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, I don’t remember why. I think it had something to do with the fact that I always wanted to be a teacher, and over the years, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism. And fortunately for me, my parents said, if that’s what you want, then you should do it. And they gave me one of the greatest gifts I think a parent can give to a child. And that is the courage to dare and to dream, because they were so positive and supportive. I did not think very much about the fact that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi in America. And I wasn’t that concerned about all the doubts I heard expressed in the Jewish community. I just put everything aside. And I think it’s important also to say that I didn’t want to be the first woman rabbi. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer. I wasn’t there to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi. And, I’ve not ever really said this very much, but I want you to know then I am probably the only person who never appeared before the admissions committee. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what if I did appear and they said, no? What would have happened? I’m not sure why that was. I think it was because I was in the undergraduate program with the University of Cincinnati. I think they didn’t believe that I was going to do it. I think they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.

I remember going out with one of my fellow students for a long time. And a professor went up to him one day and said, “Well, when are you going to marry or do the school of favor and get rid of her?” So there were a lot of things like that. I remember, never did I go into a social situation in which at least one person didn’t come up to me and say, and tell me why women shouldn’t be rabbis. And I would simply say, thank you for sharing your opinion, and I’d walk away, because I just don’t think that through arguing, you’re not going to get anywhere with somebody who has his or her mind already made up and you just have to do it. So that was how I handled that situation.

And the other bit of hope was, of course, the fact that Rabbi Nelson Glueck, at that time president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, wanted to ordain a woman. When I arrived on the scene, I guess he paid special attention. He followed my progress. He took care of a lot of little problems in the background that I never even heard about. And I remember that whenever the board of governors was in town, he made certain to call me out of class and say, give a prayer for the board of governors, no preparation or anything. Just give a prayer. And I do also remember leading services. I was the vice president of the student association, and my job was to make certain there were services every day for the whole year. I assigned everybody, but if someone didn’t show up, then I was responsible for doing the service. But it was a wonderful time in those days of experimenting. I actually remember doing a service that was totally on tape. I sat in the balcony, looked down, and the whole thing was on tape. We got to do lots of interesting things. At any rate, when the board of governors was there, Dr. Glueck made certain that I would do the service and the board of governors would see me and come to understand there was going to be a woman rabbi.

I know Rabbi Balin was talking to us, or somebody asked a question about the board of governors voting. I don’t remember any vote ever being taken. I do remember that this decision was a decision of the College–Institute under Dr. Glueck’s leadership. The CCAR, and the UAHC at that time, had nothing to do with it. And therefore our Movement did absolutely nothing to prepare people for the fact there were going to be women rabbis. And Dr. Glueck, I think had in his mind that there should be some preparation, because two years before I was ordained, he started sending me out to congregations around the country to speak.

I’m a very private person, and when you think back, I was twenty-three, and here I am going around the country. I remember specifically going to a Conservative congregation in Texas. A thousand people showed up. So I learned how to deal with questions and crowds and the media that followed me around a lot. I had press conferences at airports. And my goal always was to make it sound like no one ever asked me that question before.

Dr. Glueck unfortunately died the year before I was ordained. I was devastated because in those difficult moments—and people who are the first of something, there are difficult moments—I used to picture in my mind the day that he’s going to put his hands on my shoulders, and I’m going to be a rabbi in Israel. And so it was very difficult for me, but his wife 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. So he is the person who deserves the credit for laying the foundation for the ordination of women as rabbis.

You probably don’t know this because I only found it out a few years ago, but when Dr. Alfred Gottschalk became the president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, there were faculty members who tried to convince him not to ordain me, even though I had just had one year left, and I had completed the requirements. And fortunately for me, and for all of us, Dr. Gottschalk didn’t listen. And he said on June 3rd, 1972, that he was ordaining me with pride, dignity, and pleasure. And I want to thank my classmates, even though they didn’t show up at this Convention. It’s been a few years since they haven’t been coming; they go to NAORRR, and I always end up having to represent the class of 1972! But I want to thank my classmates, because they were supportive. They always made me feel like I was part of the class. Even if some of them didn’t think women should be rabbis, I didn’t feel any discrimination, or bullying, or any of that. And on the day of ordination, when I was called to the bimah, my classmates very spontaneously stood up to honor this moment in Jewish history. And that is a memory that I always cherish.

Rabbi Person: Thank you so much. Can we talk about the maror? That’s the hard one. What was bitter in your early rabbinate? And in what way has the taste changed or lasted?

Rabbi Preisand: Well there were thirty-five men in my class in Cincinnati. I was the last person to get a job, but I think I got the best job of all. And that was because the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York opened up late and they all had jobs. One of my very favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous.” So I always thought it was appropriate that I would go to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue because of its reputation for equality and social justice. And Rabbi Ed Klein, the senior rabbi, alav hashalom, he really taught me how to be a rabbi. And I owe a great deal to him. He was always very pleased to be introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate. I stayed at the Free Synagogue for seven years, which is probably longer than I should have stayed as an assistant. But quite frankly, if I think about it now, I didn’t really want to go through the placement process. And I said, I’m happy here. I might as well stay here. And then, Rabbi Klein suffered a stroke at a board meeting. I left with him to the hospital, and it was difficult. He had a lot of rehab, and he was never really the same again, but he still participated. I remember very specifically helping put his robe on him, and putting him in the wheelchair, wheeling him up to the bimah, getting everything ready, and he would do whatever he was able to do that particular day. In the meantime, basically, I was running the synagogue. I was hoping that when he was ready to retire, that I would be given a chance to be the senior rabbi. And that was not to be, and it was very messy and unpleasant and people went to him while he was in the hospital and said, “Sally is walking on your grave.”

And, you know, I loved him. It had nothing to do with any of that. I would have stayed another ten years as his associate if that’s what it took. But neither the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, nor any other synagogue, would accept a woman as the senior rabbi at that time. And I’m telling you the story, because for two years, I was not able to find a job, and I served as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital, and I accepted a part-time position at a synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey—a synagogue of older members who were always very warm and welcoming. At that time, that was the only time that I almost decided to leave the rabbinate. I was very frustrated, and I was very unhappy. I didn’t feel that our Movement did anything at all to prepare people for women as their spiritual leaders. And it was very difficult for me. And I remember going to the placement commission to meet with them. I walked into the room, there were sixteen men around the table, and I said, “I hope, you know, you’re part of the problem.”

I’ve never been afraid to be straightforward. And I went to see Rabbi Malcolm Stern, who was the placement director. At that time, I wrote a scathing article for Reform Judaism Magazine. He wrote, “You make some important points, but if you publish this article, your career is over. He said, “But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to rewrite the article for you, and it’ll come from me.” And he sat down right at that minute at his typewriter. That’s how long ago it was. And he changed the article around, and it was published under his name. So, I feel it’s very important to, in my case, being the first, to remember the men who helped along the way, because they were there. And I have always felt that it’s important for senior rabbis, for example, to help their female assistants or associates move on. And if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of senior rabbi that I had, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ready to take the next step. So that’s the only real bit of bitterness that I feel. Obviously, I’m grateful that I didn’t drop out of the rabbinate.

Rabbi Person: So are all of us. So let’s talk about matzah, really afikomen, which is about surprise or discovery. What surprises were there in your early rabbinate?

Rabbi Priesand: After those two years, when I couldn’t find a position, I ended up in Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I almost didn’t even go for the interview for a really stupid reason—the name. I said, “Tinton Falls? Where’s that?” So, I went there, I had a wonderful interview, I answered their questions, and I also told them that I wanted to be a partner with them.

Back when I was growing up, rabbis would say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And everyone would say, “Thank you, rabbi. Yes, that’s what we’re going to do.” And that was it. And I just wanted to be a partner and go to the committees and discuss with them what we’re going to do and move forward together. And they were willing to accept that. But one of the things that they thoughtand I guess I also thoughtwas that this was just going to be sort of a stepping stone. And when I was in rabbinic school, all they talked about in terms of success is you have to go to some large congregation somewhere that, you know, you got to move up to that “E congregation.” And I thought because I was the first that it was my obligation. People at Monmouth Reform Temple taught me a different message about success. And I think that was kind of a surprise for me. And that message to me was, “success is we doing better today than we did yesterday?” That’s it. And it’s, “are we growing? Are we doing our best? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we counting our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count?”

Monmouth Reform Temple helped me understand that. We created a temple family, and one of the things they miss about me now is they, they used to love hearing me say “I have an idea,” and they would work on it with me and follow through. And that is one of the reasons I stayed, because they allowed me to be creative and to experiment and to have ideas. And I am very fortunate to have had a wonderful rabbinate. I entered HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. Monmouth Reform Temple helped fulfill that dream to the fullest extent. They kept me grounded, and they never thought of me as the first woman rabbi. I was just their rabbi. But on the other hand, there were moments when they realized I had other responsibilities. And I will tell you that I am here because even though I’ve been ordained, I mean, I’ve been retired for fifteen years, my retirement contract says that the temple will continue to pay for me to come to all these conventions because they understand that it is important for me to do that.

Rabbi Person: What a blessing.

Rabbi Priesand: It’s a very much a blessing.

Rabbi Person: Yes. And a good model for all of us. Standing at the sea, the Midrash teaches that women took timbrels when they left. What artifacts, texts, or pictures representing your early years have you brought with you or would you like to talk about, and what aspect of your journey does it represent?

Rabbi Priesand: I didn’t bring them with me because almost all of my memorabilia is now in Cincinnati at the American Jewish Archives, where they’re creating a major exhibit, which will be opening in May during Jewish heritage month and continuing, I believe throughout the rest of the year. Now, if you can get there, if you can take your congregation there, you should. Because it has everything. I mean, it has all these articles from the beginning: “Mini-skirted Rabbi,” and my mother always loved “My Daughter, the Rabbi,” and my favorite was “Rabbi Sally Came to Hollywood, and Hollywood Fell at Her Feet.” So, all of these things that have been packed away for a very long time and whatever I didn’t take there, is in Monmouth County right now, where I live. The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County has an exhibit of other memorabilia that I saved for them. The exhibit is on just the things that I did in Monmouth County, because one of my goals when I first came was to allow Monmouth Reform Temple to be a Jewish presence in the community. That was very important to me. And so I am involved still in a lot of community organizations. I tell people, look, I retired from the synagogue, but not from the community.

Rabbi Person: I wonder if you can just speak for just a minute about the trading card.

Rabbi Priesand: Yes. Those of us who were at the WRN celebrations got to see the trading card. I would have brought it, but it is in Cincinnati. It’s called Super Sisters cards. In 1979, two women who were teaching came up with an idea after I think one of their daughters said to them, “Why aren’t there things like trading cards, baseball cards for girls? Why don’t any of these cards have any women on them?” So these two women got a grant and came up with a stack of trading cards. On the front is a picture of the person. And on the back are what I always refer to as their stats. And they have a quote from the person. Sometimes you can still find it on eBay, which by the way, over the years, I’ve signed a lot of cards. People used to request them either in person, or they’d send me a photograph or ask would I send them a photograph that I autograph. Well, you know, I was very gracious about it. I tried to do all of that. And recently, I think I was looking for a Super Sisters card on eBay, and there’s my autograph on an envelope for $149.00. I was going to say it, just come to me. I’ll give you one for free!

Also, in terms of artifacts that are just two others that I want to mention quickly. After Rabbi Glueck died, his wife sent me a beautiful letter explaining how important my ordination would be. And I have always had that framed with a picture of Dr. Glueck ordaining someone above my desk. That’s also in Cincinnati.

And the other thing I remembered the other day; I don’t know how it was when you were ordained. I guess people sometimes call this the “cherish it” ceremony. To me it was meaningful. And I remember that we each held the Torah and said something. And, my quote that really has come with me throughout my life is “say little and do much.”

I have a letter opener that my family’s best friends—I grew up with their children, they lived next door, a Lebanese Catholic family. They had eight children, and we stayed friends all our lives. The mother of that family came to my mother’s 100th birthday. They’re the ones who gave me that letter opener with “say little and do much.” So that has been something that I have tried to do throughout my life. And it’s been very important to me.

Rabbi Person: It’s a beautiful thing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Now, I think you have some—I’m not going to call them artifacts, because they’re current— but some contemporary pieces you’d like to share.

Rabbi Priesand: Yes. I’m very happy to tell you that I heard from our colleague Sandy Sasso today, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network invited her to write a book about me. It’s a children’s book. You may be aware of her series about Regina Jonas called Regina Persisted. There’s Judy Led the Way, and mine is called Sally Opened Doors. The book is ready on Amazon. It’s all illustrations. It’s fun. And at the end I convinced them to put a picture of me with my dog Zeke sitting on the corner of the bimah. It’s going to be a great gift for kids. It really is. I hope you enjoy it. And the second thing, and I think Sandy may be listening in: Sandy, I love it. I consider you to be among my family, and I always feel your love and respect, and it means a lot to me. I cherish it. Thank you so much.

Rabbi Person: Thank you, Sally. Really. Thank you. I have something I want to share. First of all, I want to thank—you can see on the screens, these five women’s organizations that have sponsored this and the reception to come. And I’m so grateful to all of these organizations for their ongoing support and for all the incredibly important work that they do for all of us out in the community. I want to really say a special thank you to the sponsors. In addition, we have begun a project which is not done, but it will be done in 2022. And that is, we are publishing a book called The First 50 Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis. We’re really looking to make this a festive, celebratory way to mark what is an incredible moment in history.

And to that end, we have many, many, many people who have become sponsors not only of this program, but also of the book and whose names will appear in the book. And we are so grateful to everyone who is part of that in your honor and in honor of all of our Vatikot.

Thank you. And thank you to all of those women, our Vatikot, for everything you’ve done for the community and for all of us. Thank you.


For more on women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.

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