Rabbi Hara E. Person is one of the coeditors of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, forthcoming from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses the importance of acknowledging the joys, challenges, and complexities that have characterized the half century since women have been included in the American rabbinate.
In many ways, the genesis of this book began with the groundbreaking ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand in 1972 from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. But we could also argue that it began with the ordination of Rabbiner Regina Jonas in Berlin in 1935. And further back again, this evolving story began with the many women who aspired to become rabbis throughout Jewish history, whose dreams were deferred by centuries of patriarchy, and who had to find alternative paths of service and leadership.
For me, this book begins on a brownstone stoop in Brooklyn, when my rabbi told me the first woman was being ordained. Until that moment, I had never thought about the fact that women couldn’t be rabbis—it had just never occurred to me that that option wouldn’t be open to me if that was something I wanted to do. And in that moment I was determined to meet this pioneer, this first woman rabbi, who became my hero right then and there. While it was years before I finally met Rabbi Priesand, as a child on that Brooklyn stoop I could not have imagined what her courageous act of opening the door to the rabbinate would mean for me, both personally and professionally. That is an essential debt that can only be paid forward. I hope the publication of this book stands as part of that gratitude, and I am grateful to have Rabbi Priesand’s essay, fittingly, at its start.
This collection serves as a mile marker along the journey, a momentary stopping place for reflection and commemoration. While we experience the evolution of women in the rabbinate as inevitable, that doesn’t mean it was easy. These pages likewise acknowledge challenges and complexities of these fifty years, identifying some of the detours and roadblocks that still lie ahead. Alongside tremendous gains and systemic changes, pain and inequity are not yet eradicated. Women rabbis still face bias, microaggressions, pay inequity, and other obstacles. Naming challenges is one of the ways that we are able to break through the barriers that keep us from getting to the goal of equity.
The work continues. In a mere half century, rabbinic leadership effected a dramatic turning point in Jewish history, an acknowledgment that the voices that were silent or silenced, marginalized, unheard and unseen, are an essential part of the rich and variegated fabric of the Jewish story and must be included. We now claim a richness of experience that nourishes us all, individuals of all genders, identities, and roles in our Jewish communities. Becoming the most beautifully diverse, inclusive, and thriving community of our highest aspirations, we all need to know what has led us here on the path to a healthy, equitable, and flourishing future.
Today we recognize that the rabbinate is made up not only of women and men but also rabbis with diverse gender identities. This knowledge, too, is grounded in Torah. For centuries, our scholars recognized that Genesis celebrates inclusivity: both heaven and earth and the heavenly bodies and angelic beings. God created humans and animals and everything in between. God created human beings in God’s image, a full spectrum of gender expressions and sexualities. Binary thinking has blinded us to a fuller appreciation of the beauty and power of God’s creations. The ongoing work of equity includes all rabbis of every identity, including the full spectrum of gender, sexual, and racial identities. One of the key learnings from these fifty years of change is that the door to opportunity and inclusion must not be opened just once with great fanfare, but must be held open continually for all who wish to enter. As Rabbi Priesand writes in her piece in this collection, “I would like to think that my opening the door for women in the Jewish community was a first step toward opening the door for all who would serve the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Hara E. Person is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Previously, she was the CCAR’s chief strategy officer, publisher of CCAR Press, and editor-in-chief of URJ Books and Music. Alongside Jessica Greenbaum and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, she is coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis (CCAR Press, 2023).