I was drawn to the rabbinate as a young child. Among the dolls I played with as a young child was a rabbi figure—a man, of course—who was part of a set of dolls of other professions, like doctor and firefighter. Later, I was inspired by the rabbis who raised me and felt that the synagogue was a second home. But that image of the rabbi doll stayed with me.
I was also introduced to feminism early on by a long line of rebellious women, including my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, who were never happy with the limitations placed on them as women. Though I had a male rabbi doll, and though I had never seen a woman rabbi, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be rabbis until 1972, when my rabbi told me about the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand. I was eight years old, and I still remember exactly where I was when he told me. I remember being stunned. And I think that was when I began to really think about being a rabbi.
Despite my childhood decision to be a rabbi, my road to the rabbinate was not straightforward. For a while, I pursued another love and went to art school, earning a Masters in Fine Arts. I also got married and had the first of my two children. And only then did I decide that it was finally time to apply to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Going through HUC-JIR with one and then two small children was not easy. Balancing being a decent mother with being a professional was at times excruciatingly hard. My choices felt much more limited than many of my male colleagues.
Yet, I managed to carve out a career, albeit an unusual one, in Jewish publishing, working first at URJ and then at CCAR. And I loved it. I loved making Jewish books, and contributing to the future of Judaism in a unique way. For so much of my career, I was the only woman in the room. I had to learn quickly to speak up and use my voice. As an introvert it wasn’t easy, but my experience going to a formerly all-male college had also pushed me to claim space at the table. I learned to be outspoken—it was that or get overlooked. And I learned not only to have a voice but to have an opinion and not be afraid to express it. One of the things I learned through those experiences, and through working on groundbreaking publications like The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Mishkan HaNefesh was that it’s not just that we need more kinds of voices around the table, but that we also need a bigger table. The more voices, the more enriched we all are. No one should be made to feel like there isn’t room for them or that their perspective doesn’t matter. Don’t apologize for your voice or opinion. Don’t apologize for taking up space, and never minimize your contributions. Be courageously outspoken. Be respectfully but unapologetically loud. Listen, and insist on being listened to in return. That’s true on the bimah, in the boardroom, in the table of contents, or in the classroom.
In 2019, I was chosen to be the first woman chief executive to lead the CCAR. I had kept that rabbi doll all those years as a sort of talisman, even though I don’t look much like him. When I was thinking about this new role with the CCAR, I had thought a lot about this rabbi, what he represented, and how I might be both so different and yet connected to this historic image of a rabbi. I thought a lot about what it might be like to be the first woman in the role, to not look like the people before me.
Then an amazing thing happened. Much to my surprise, one of my colleagues gifted me with a matching female doll—created on his 3D printer—which looked like me. And when I gave my talk at Convention that year, my first one, I placed first him on the podium, and I said, “Here he is, my childhood image of a rabbi.” And then I placed her on the podium, and I said, “And here she is, a woman rabbi figure who (maybe) looks a lot like me. And here they are together, the old image of a rabbi, and the new. And here we are together—as we head into the future of the CCAR.”
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.
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 thought—and I guess I also thought—was 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 calledSally 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.
In 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. The resolution stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This was a groundbreaking moment in contemporary Jewish history, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah and leading the Jewish community. In 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who have followed her. Still, even today, the concept of women rabbis can be novel enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, in their geographical location, to serve on boards, and the list goes on. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. Here, we share the “firsts” of Rabbi Karen L. Fox, LMFT, ordained in 1978.The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
It’s quite amazing that 100 years ago the CCAR asserted the possibility of women’s inclusion as rabbis within the Reform community. Although at that time, most women had not come out from behind a mechitza in synagogue settings, and if they did it was to allow family seating in services. Stepping into Jewish leadership would break the halachic/Jewish legal boundaries, the social expectations of women, and the psychosocial transference that congregants project to their rabbis. And yes, change takes time…perhaps 100 years or more.
Finding courage In the 1920s, my great aunt Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger (Lotte)studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a PhD in Psychology. Her sisters also pushed the envelope for that time— Frida became a LCSW, and Trude, a partner in a citrus import-export business with her husband. My grandmother Berta wanted to go to medical school, but she married early and had two children; she certainly would have loved the medical profession and had the intellect to pursue it. The influence of these great aunts, the Tantes, and my grandmother gave me courage to enter the rabbinate when there was only one woman rabbi yet ordained.
Two male rabbis influenced me as well. Rabbi Haim Asa, a Bulgarian-born refugee became our family rabbi in Fullerton, California. He encouraged me to attend UAHC Camp Swig, and later to enter the rabbinate. His joy of Jewish people and community was contagious. Rabbi Richard Levy, the UCLA Hillel director while I was an undergraduate, also reflected joy and purpose in his love of the rabbinate, encouraging me, saying “It was fun!”
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, ‘None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.’ My response, ‘None of the other rabbis have been women before.’
Rabbi Karen Fox
Firsts, finally When I was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1978, I was approached by the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) to become an assistant regional director. That was clearly flattering—I only knew Reform Jewish life from my HUC-JIR studies, UAHC camps, and my home congregation. It was my opportunity to learn the administrative, social, and political agenda of Reform Judaism. And I grabbed it, also because I could stay in New York as a single woman.
What I now know is that most regional directors were experienced rabbis with pragmatic congregational, administrative, and financial experience they could share with congregations in their areas. Looking back, I believe my unspoken function, was to serve as an informal orientation to Reform congregations regarding women rabbis.
In the hundreds of congregations in the New York and later the New Jersey region, I was often the first women rabbi people would meet, asking me all the awkward woman rabbi questions. I was not offended by their naive or intrusive questions as I understood I was among the first to shift this rabbinic leadership culture. Often I was the only woman professional who was not a secretary or assistant in meetings, board rooms, or conferences.
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, “None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.” My response, “None of the other rabbis have been women before.”
I received three months and promptly shared this news with my women colleagues.
I felt passion to be the best rabbi I could be representing Reform Judaism at that time and promoting women in the rabbinate as part of my purpose of reseeding Jewish life in America.
I was supported by two outstanding colleagues at the UAHC—Rabbi Alan Bergman and Rabbi Sandy Selzer. Each suggested ways to handle the “old boys” network of the Union and the landmines of their agenda. My women colleagues were the angels to my right and left—especially Rabbi Rosalind Gold and Rabbi Deborah Prinz.
A first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple I was a first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and I’m grateful to two men for guiding my path. I came to the position as rabbi and camp director because of previous relationships. I knew Rabbi Harvey J. Fields from my New Jersey days, and he had recently become the senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Steve Breuer, the executive director, had hired me as a teen to work at Camp Hess Kramer. They both came to bat for me before it was common for women to be on the pulpit and worked with the lay leadership to welcome me as a rabbi there. At Wilshire, there were many firsts: funerals, when folks didn’t really want a woman; weddings for those who had been longtime congregants. Some began with resistance and ended in lifelong respectful and significant relationships. Developing programming for women business professionals, offering support for families experiencing infertility, guiding women to leadership in prayer practice through adult b’nei mitzvah and minyan leadership, celebrating women’s seders in the 1980s; all of these acts were new at the time, as was bringing additional women rabbis to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Family first My brother Steven A. Fox is also rabbi and was ordained two years after me, in 1980. He shared his 1980 ordination day with classmate Rabbi Michael Weinberg whose sister is Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (ordained HUC-JIR, 1979). I gave the invocation and she the benediction. Sharing the rabbinate has allowed us a shared language as siblings, a closeness within a circle of friends and family, and a commitment to common values.
I kvelled at his Installation to the CCAR as Chief Executive and cried at his retirement, knowing how proud our parents would have felt: Dave and Senta Salomons Fox came to American as European refugee survivors, as Dad said “with nothing,” and never imagined that their children would become significant Jewish leaders.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. It stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This resolution was groundbreaking, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah, behind the Torah, leading the Jewish community. In 1972, the peerless Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who’ve followed her. Still, to this day, the concept of women rabbis is new enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi in their town, first woman senior rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi to serve on boards. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
I grew up in Great Neck, New York assuming that the world was Jewish. Well, not the whole world. But my whole world. Every kid in school. Every house on my block. Every family I knew. “Old Mill Road” was known as “Temple Row.” For some peculiar reason, each of the synagogues were located on Old Mill Road. Every kid I knew went to either Great Neck Synagogue (it was Orthodox), or Temple Israel (it was Conservative), or Temple Beth El (it was Reform).
My family went to Temple Beth El. Or more aptly, my family belonged to Temple Beth El. (Interesting: today more people go to synagogue without becoming members. Back then, people joined synagogues but didn’t go.) My family was definitely among the “didn’t go-ers.” Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable not to be a member of a synagogue. My parents were the children of immigrants. Born and bred in Brooklyn. All of my grandparents, were from Poland and had left Poland for America in the early 1920s. My Uncle Aaron was born in Poland. His family was old-fashioned. They kept kosher. They were old-country. My parents were fiercely American. Even though they grew up speaking Yiddish in their home, my parents went to public school and became more American than the pope, to mix a few metaphors.
So I grew up in a household that was NOT observant and NOT religious and NOT kosher. We did NOT honor Shabbat in any way, but my parents were very proud of being Jewish. All their friends were Jewish. They joined a temple once they had children. And since they were blessed with two boys and a girl, they made sure that their two boys had bar mitzvahs. I still had to go to Sunday school, but when it came to the twice-a-week afternoon component that focused on Hebrew, I didn’t have to go. My brothers did. I was given a choice, and at the very wise age of seven, I said no. Besides, the only girl who went to Hebrew school was Marcie Harmon and she was the cantor’s daughter. Why would I do that?
A condition of my going only to Sunday school was that I had to stick it out through Confirmation in the 10th grade. I hated Sunday school. It didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t even where I could experience being Jewish because everybody in my public school was Jewish anyway.
When I got to Confirmation, there was a requirement that you had to go to services once a month. I lived for the onegs. The services were—sorry—unbearable. Somehow I learned, mid-year, that if you went to the youth group service, it would “count”’ for the monthly service requirement. I knew it’d be shorter (though I didn’t know if they had onegs there!) but I figured I’d try it.
I walked in, and there was a band on the bimah. Two guitars, a keyboard, and a drummer. They were playing “My Sweet Lord.” I guess you could say that George Harrison made me who I am today. I enjoyed the service, I liked the kids, and I got involved in the youth group. (Just this past February, we had a Zoom youth group reunion. Fifty of us were on the screen. Our youth advisors and our rabbis were also there.)
I had two rabbis: Rabbi Jacob Rudin and Rabbi Jerry Davidson. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rabbi Rudin was the senior rabbi. He looked like God. Or at least, if asked to draw a picture of God, I think everyone would have drawn a picture of Rabbi Rudin. Rabbi Davidson was the young, hip rabbi. Both were extraordinary rabbis.
To this day, I read Rabbi Rudin’s book of sermons every year before the High Holy Days to inspire me. I also quote him at every rabbinic installation I’ve ever been privileged to address. He first said these words to an ordination class of the Hebrew Union College in 1959. They have been in my heart ever since. He implored these about-to-be-rabbis with this advice:
“If you do not love those whom you serve, you will not be successful. If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”
It was in my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi. I had powerfully spiritual experiences in my youth group. My public high school allowed me to take Hebrew and Yiddish for my foreign language courses. I was also empowered to create my own curriculum and thereby study seriously, one-to-one, with my rabbi who introduced me to Rashi.
Both of my rabbis were great. It was 1971. There were no female rabbis….in the world. I had no female role models, except of course, my mother, who always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Being a rabbi was not what she had in mind. More like President of IBM or the United States. But she came along, and so did my father. They never ceased to be proud of me.
I had one secret though. I was gay. Ironically, I never worried that being female would keep me from being a rabbi. But being gay? That was another story. I worried. A lot. I confided in my friends. I wrote a letter (remember those?) to my high school confidante when we were each at our respective summer camps. I shared my anxiety. Her response—and this is a direct quote because I saved the letter: “What good does it do the Jewish faith for sincerely dedicated and concerned people like yourself to be alienated because of a Neanderthal attitude towards Lesbianism?”
I appreciated her logic. I decided to walk through that door. I had no idea what would hit me after I entered.
But first, I had to go to college. Kenyon College was the best choice I could have made. No Hillel. Barely any Jews, but a great Religion Department and the most Talmudic environment for learning that I have ever experienced.
Noted for its English department, I remember proudly turning in my first English paper— I believe it was on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When I got it back, it had a big red letter grade that did not make me happy. I had researched and researched. At the end of my paper, my professor had written: “What of it?” I went to speak with him after class and he said, and I am quoting from memory: “If I wanted to know what some important scholar has to say about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I could look it up myself. I want to know what YOU think.” That became a very important lesson in my life. Kenyon College taught me how to think.
I spent the first semester of my junior year in college in Israel, living on Kibbutz Usha, outside of Haifa. I picked a lot of grapefruit, ate a lot of falafel, learned Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan, and went twice a week to the University of Haifa. I fell in love with everything about Israel, and when I came back to the United States I explored joining Garin Arava, a group of young Reform Jewish Americans who were trying to establish the first-ever Reform kibbutz in Israel. Which path should I follow? Rabbi or Kibbutznik? Both afforded me the opportunity to live a serious, liberal Jewish life in community with others. Matthew Sperber, a Great Neck classmate of mine, was also in Garin Arava. He ended up starting what became Kibbutz Yahel in 1977. He still lives there. The headline of a recent article about his life reads: “His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz.” I decided to apply to rabbinical school.
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion has four campuses: New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. My family had moved from Great Neck to Santa Monica, so I figured I would go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles.
If I got in. I wasn’t worried about the academics and I wasn’t worried about the Hebrew. I was worried about the psychological testing you were required to undergo. Among the battery of tests was the Rorschach. In one of the inkblots, I saw two people kissing each other. I was convinced they would identify me as lesbian and there would be no rabbinical school for me. Oh, I neglected to say, but surely you realize—in 1977 there was NO CHANCE that a gay person would be accepted into rabbinical school. Zero. None.
I worried and worried, but a family friend who was also a psychologist, assured me that the inkblot was called, in the biz, “the love card.” “They just want to make sure you see love,” she said. Which I did.
I hated my first year of rabbinical school. I loved being in Jerusalem, but none of my classes did what Kenyon College had done. It wasn’t about thinking. It wasn’t about meaning. It was more about cramming and regurgitating. Thank God for Jerusalem. The city became my classroom and I was eager to learn.
Back in Los Angeles, school was better. But I was closeted. I still couldn’t be my whole self. So, I took a leave of absence to see if I was better suited to be a bank teller. I went to San Francisco for the year but never made it as a bank teller. I got a job with the Union for Reform Judaism and developed retreat programming for students all over the Bay Area so they might have a better time in Religious School than I had experienced.
I returned to rabbinical school, but this time in New York. The campus is right off of Washington Square and I figured that would be a better environment in which to plant myself. I was still closeted. The College made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they learned that a student was gay they would be expelled. I confided in friends, I came out to my parents, but while I didn’t fear that my good friends would break my confidence, they feared that my own yearning to be open would ruin me. As Rachel Kadish wrote in The Weight of Ink, her recent book about the Inquisition: “Truth-telling is a luxury for those whose lives aren’t at risk.”
I was ordained May 24, 1984. I stepped off the bimah at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York, and onto an airplane headed to Minnesota to become the assistant rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. My motto: “To know me is to love me.” Surely, once we get to know each other, everything will be okay.
I had a blessed four-year tenure at Mt. Zion Temple. I loved the temple and the people who comprised it. We flourished together. Though it was not yet an official federal policy, I think we lived happily together under the rubric of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Falling in love with Nancy Abramson changed all that. While Nancy and I still jointly adhered to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, our decision to live together pushed Mt. Zion members over the brink. Rumors started to fly and complaints started to be registered with the senior rabbi at the time. He and I had such a good relationship that I had shared my sexual orientation with him back in my first year, and he was okay with that, as long as it remained a secret. It wasn’t a secret anymore and there were an awful lot of complaints, he told me, and so, he told me, I would have to go. And now, get this: I understood! Of course, I would have to go.
But thankfully, when my departure was announced, there were members of the congregation who did NOT understand. There was a ruckus. On Thursday, February 18, 1988, I received a phone call from Clark Morphew. He was the religion editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We had a relationship over the years. He told me, not unkindly, that there was going to be an article in the next day’s paper.
There was a lot of snow on the ground when I woke up that next day. I walked down our driveway and pulled the newspaper out of the mailbox. I opened it. My knees started shaking. Front page. Headline. Lesbian Rabbi Fired. So much for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
First worry: our kids. They were in fourth grade and seventh grade. What would happen to them? That evening, Jill’s best friend’s parents came over with flowers. Charlie’s best friend’s parents came with a box of chocolates. Nancy and I cried. So much hate, and so much love.
Our family’s world was imploding and exploding around us. But I truly felt the fierce power of the biblical words: those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). And at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened: those congregants at Mt. Zion Temple who felt they’d lost their spiritual home created a new one. They called it Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope. In June of 1988, Shir Tikvah became the first mainstream congregation to hire an openly gay rabbi. Together, over twenty years, we grew the congregation from 40 households to 400 households.
I loved my congregation, and I poured myself into my work. We were true partners in creating meaning in people’s lives, shifting the world towards justice, and living and breathing Jewish values and teachings. Nancy and I assumed we’d one day retire in Minnesota, she from her amazing career in mental health, and me from Shir Tikvah. We’d live happily ever after and one day be buried in that beautiful Jewish cemetery around the corner from where we lived.
But that was not to happen. Out of the blue, I received a phone call one day from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I was recruited to be a Vice President at the URJ. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being the rabbi of one congregation, I would be rabbi to the 900 congregations that formed the URJ. Besides: our daughter and son-in-law now lived in New York and my parents had come back to New York, where my mother was now living with terminal cancer. It had always plagued me that I wouldn’t be able to walk with her through her final days and this was an opportunity to do just that.
Nancy and I packed up our Prius and moved to New York City. We did have more time with our children, and yes, our first grandchild was born and we were able to be right there. Nancy and I spent time with my mother daily. She died ten weeks after we came to New York.
I missed synagogue life. I missed holding the Torah. I missed being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a bureaucrat, I discovered, was not for me.
But what to do? Shir Tikvah had been my “one and only.” I wasn’t convinced that I could go back to synagogue life. So I decided to try it out by serving as an interim rabbi at Adath Emanuel, a congregation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I loved my time at Adath. I loved being back at the synagogue, standing on the bimah before the open ark. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to seek a long-term relationship with a congregation.
And that is where Temple Beth Tikvah comes into the story. It felt like a match made in heaven. The people. The values. The potential. The history. The hope. Nancy and I were taken with it all.
You are all a part of the rest of the story. Nancy and I have treasured our years with you. We have grown together and learned together and been challenged together. There have been births and b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death. There has been illness and recovery. There has been a pandemic, and still, we are building and growing.
And soon, there will be a new chapter. A new chapter for Temple Beth Tikvah and a new chapter for Nancy and me. In Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the rabbis discuss the proper relationship with the Torah. It counsels that the Torah should never be a kardom lachpor, the Torah should never be a spade to dig with. In other words, don’t use it to make a living. Rather, the best experience of Torah, the best learning of Torah, is torah lishmah, Torah that is learned for its own sake (Pirkei Avot 4:5).
It’s a tricky path, but I have been blessed to have my life’s work be Torah. And soon, upon retirement, I look forward to the sweetest Torah of all, that which is lishmah, Torah for its own sake.
I feel twice blessed. It has been a privilege to make a career of Torah and to be personally sustained and anchored by Torah at the very same time.
Rabbi Stacy Offner served as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah from 2012 – 2021. Rabbi Offner is also the Founding Rabbi Emerita of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Kenyon College, Rabbi Offner earned both her M.A. and Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.For more about women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.