Singer dances in the center of a group of women, smiling and hosting a Torah scroll up over her head
Rabbi Beth Singer of S.F. Congregation Emanu-El dancing with a Torah during Women of the Wall's monthly service at the Western Wall, April 2015. (Photo/JTA-Flash90-Miriam Alster)

You’ve come a long way, rabbi: 40 years of women in the pulpit

By the time Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion accepted Melanie Aron as a rabbinic student in 1977, the Reform movement had been ordaining women for five years.

Still, the then-102-year-old seminary was not exactly a feminist bastion.

As Aron noticed right away, HUC-JIR had no women on the faculty or in high administrative posts, few women’s restrooms and nothing in the coursework by or for women entering the rabbinate.

“I was desperate to read something written by women,” recalled Aron, now the senior rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos. “We were thirsty to learn more about women, but all the scholarship was about men, written by men. There was a rabbi named Leslie and I remember being all excited, until I realized it was a man named Leslie.”

That was then. Today, 44 years after Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained in the Reform movement, female rabbis lead services on bimahs across the country.

According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, 772 women have been ordained by HUC-JIR since Priesand broke the glass pulpit. Currently, 391 female rabbis nationwide serve at Reform synagogues; 132 of them are solo rabbis and 28 are senior rabbis in large congregations.

Some of those trends also hold true in the Reconstructionist, Renewal and Conservative movements. The first time a female rabbi headed a Reconstructionist congregation was in 1977. The Conservative movement ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg in 1985 (she went on to co-found the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and now lives in Los Altos), and 10 years later Debra Newman Kamin became the first female senior rabbi at a Conservative shul, Congregation Am Yisrael in suburban Chicago. At Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, all three rabbis are women, led by Rabbi Susan Leider since 2012.

Changes have come even to Orthodox Judaism. In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale ordained Sara Hurwitz as a “rabba” but, after communal pushback, changed her title to “maharat” (someone trained as a spiritual leader and halachic authority). Around the same time, Weiss launched a four-year program called Yeshivat Maharat, which confirms (but does not ordain) women; Hurwitz is the dean. Victoria Sutton, an early graduate of the program, is maharat at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Today, the number of female rabbinical students equals or exceeds the number of male students at the seminaries of liberal Judaism, and women are senior rabbis at an ever-increasing number of synagogues. A J. survey showed that women serve as sole or senior rabbi in nearly a third of the synagogues from Santa Cruz to Mendocino.

Those rabbis include longtime local leaders such as Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and Aron, who has served her Los Gatos synagogue for 26 years.

The tally also includes women who more recently ascended to top posts. In February, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco approved Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf as its 10th senior rabbi, a first for the 165-year-old Reform synagogue.

Since succeeding Rabbi Larry Raphael on July 1, Graf, who grew up at Sherith Israel, has been delighted to find “so much support and enthusiasm” for her elevated role.

“Gender is irrelevant,” Graf told J. “[Female rabbis] from 40 years ago had to deal with normalizing women in the role. Now we’ve moved far enough from the newness of it, people can leave gender out of the equation.”

Rabbi Janet Marder

Or can they? Prominent Bay Area female rabbis told J. that although they have seen enormous strides toward equality and leadership, they have on occasion had to put up with vestiges of a more sexist past.

Though spanning generations, these rabbis tell overlapping tales of how their passion for the rabbinate intersected with the feminist movement.

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, the associate rabbi at Sherith Israel, does not consider herself a pioneer.

Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 2004, she figures at least half of her classmates at HUC-JIR were women, with several on the faculty by the time she commenced her studies in 1999.

When she joined the clergy at Sherith Israel, a liberal synagogue in the heart of liberal San Francisco, she never expected gender backlash. But even as late as the mid-2000s it reared its hoary head, she said.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

“In my first couple of years there were one or two times when a family specified they wanted a male rabbi to do a funeral,” she noted. “They just wanted to hear a male voice. I didn’t feel personally insulted. They didn’t know me, but I saw it as a flag alerting me that we hadn’t yet grown out of thinking rabbis were men.”

The synagogue acceded to the families’ wishes.

Other than that, Saxe-Taller said she experienced little overt sexism, though she recalled occasions when men addressed her “in a more familiar way, before knowing me at all. The general way men will relate to women, especially younger women, is as if they are their daughter, even when they are professionals in the synagogue.”

On the positive side, she believes women have influenced the rabbinate for the better. Prioritizing families and workplace issues, such as family and maternity leave, has accelerated since women started becoming rabbis. Pay equity remains a thorny issue, as the CCAR does not mandate salaries, and disparities remain.

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller in Sherith Israel sanctuary photo/cathleen maclearie

Women also have had a dramatic impact on the spiritual life of congregations. Gender-neutral translations of the siddur (prayerbook) and other texts are increasingly the norm. Ceremonies marking Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of a new month, a time on the calendar traditionally connected to women), the expanded use of the ritual bath (mikvah) and women’s study groups are regular features of synagogue life today.

“We have congregants who regularly study from ‘The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,’ ” Saxe-Taller said, referring to the landmark 2007 tome commissioned by the Women of Reform Judaism, a comprehensive commentary on the Five Books of Moses authored only by women. “It’s a tremendous resource, meant not only for women, though it is by and about women.”

She also said male rabbis have learned from their female colleagues, sometimes in subtle ways. Saxe-Taller noted that strengths commonly associated with women, such as counseling, teaching, and offering sympathy for those experiencing pain, sickness and loss are skills that also fall under any pulpit rabbi’s job description.

Last year, Saxe-Taller joined the task force behind “The Sacred Calling,” a new 800-page book published by the CCAR. Subtitled “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” the book is a collection of essays by dozens of female rabbis who recount their journeys, experiences, struggles and triumphs.

Not only does it recount Sally Priesand’s story as the first rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, but it also goes back further into history. The first female rabbi was not Priesand but German-born Regina Jonas, a student at a liberal Berlin seminary in the 1930s who was ordained in 1935. However, no congregation would hire her, and she died in Auschwitz at age 42.

Rabbi Sally Priesand today

Among the contributors to “Sacred Calling” is Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. In her essay, she describes a personal experience while serving as a pulpit rabbi in Rochester, N.Y., several years ago. She announced to her congregation that she was pregnant, only to deliver a stillborn daughter at 23 weeks. The outpouring of love and sympathy from her congregants touched her, she wrote, even as she grieved.

“I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else at that point,” she told J. “It’s what filled my heart. Given the topic of the book, I had to put some thought into looking back at the initial experience. What were the dynamics of suffering over something very personal and private [that] at the same time wasn’t private?”

The daughter of a Rhode Island rabbi, Gutterman grew up steeped in a modern feminist ethos, believing she could be anything she wanted. It wasn’t until college that she started contemplating a career as a rabbi.

“I could look back on my upbringing and know it was second nature to be a rabbi and still have a full personal and family life,” Gutterman said. “I would come home from school and my dad might be working on a sermon or eulogy at the kitchen table, or reading in the hammock. I didn’t have the cognitive dissonance of wondering what being a congregational rabbi would be like.”

Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972 — the year she became the first woman ordained in the Reform movement — and (above left) today

She was ordained in 2004 and took over from B’nai Tikvah’s retiring Rabbi Raphael Asher in 2014. Now the mother of 4-month-old Jonah, Gutterman agrees that female rabbis in leadership positions have had a ripple effect throughout Jewish life.

Starting with the fact that the face of non-Orthodox clergy today is as likely to be a woman’s as it is a man’s.

“For some in the older generations, it is still something to get used to, but for many others, a rabbi can look like many people, just about anyone, not necessarily male, not necessarily white,” she said. “Particularly for kids, seeing those diverse reflections looking back at them, [this] communicates to them that this is an option.”

Rabbi Beth Singer serves as co-senior rabbi of the Bay Area’s largest synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, along with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Singer. But around the time of her bat mitzvah in 1973, Beth Singer had a role model of the sort Gutterman described: Sally Priesand herself.

As a teen, Singer eagerly followed the news of the Ohio native who defied tradition and became the Reform movement’s first ordained female rabbi. Though women had attended HUC-JIR as students for years, and though the ordination of women had been a topic of debate within the movement for decades, it wasn’t until Priesand applied for the rabbi track in 1968 that history was made.

Priesand was the only woman in a class of 36. After ordination in 1972, she found work as an educator and, eventually, as a longtime pulpit rabbi in New Jersey.

Rabbi Susan Leider

“I wrote her a letter,” Singer recalled. “I wrote that I had decided at my bat mitzvah that I wanted to be a rabbi, and I was so excited that she was one. She wrote back, ‘Dear Beth, so nice to hear from you. Keep your thoughts open to other career opportunities.’ I think she was having a bad day. It was kind of a tamp-down, but it didn’t stop me.”

Growing up in conservative Ventura in Southern California, Singer’s image of a rabbi was an austere man in a black robe who kept his distance from congregants. By the time she made it to rabbinical school in 1985, she encountered echoes of the old ways. She was one of only three women in her class, and all of her professors were men.

Ordained in 1989, Singer said over the course of her career she has, on occasion, experienced “microaggressions” related to sexism, such as inordinate comments on her appearance. But she tries to meet congregants “where they are,” she added.

“Across the board, women rabbis have had an impact on what rabbis do and how they are perceived,” Singer said. “They tend to bring a less hierarchical and more relationship-based model of rabbinic leadership. Now more male rabbis relate that way, as well. Times have changed. People aren’t looking as much for the hierarchy or distance, but for a rabbi who is authentic, and who believes in Jewish tradition, rituals and values.”

Melanie Aron (second from right) at Simchat Torah services in 2013

For Singer, Priesand was a role model admired from afar. For Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland, female role models were much closer at hand.

At 16 she took part in a youth trip to Israel. Her guide: a young Stacy Friedman, today the senior rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. Around the same time, a young woman named Alice Goldfinger had accepted a rabbinic internship at Sherith Israel, Mates-Muchin’s synagogue as a youth in San Francisco.

Add it up and she knew early on that the rabbinate was a career path open to her.

“Whatever I said I wanted to do, people told me it was a great idea,” Mates-Muchin recalled. “My mom was an ob-gyn so I had an immediate female role model. No one ever said I shouldn’t [become a rabbi].”

She decided that for herself while in college, and by the time she enrolled at HUC-JIR in 1997, times had changed. Her class consisted of six women and one man. However, all of her professors happened to be men.

After her ordination, she served as an associate rabbi at Sinai under Rabbi Steven Chester for nine years, but was passed over when his replacement was picked. After the relatively short tenure of Rabbi Andrew Straus, the congregation elevated her in January of last year.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin

Accomplished as she is, Mates-Muchin, whose mother is Chinese American, runs up against preconceptions.

“People say ‘You don’t look like a rabbi’ or ‘You’re the prettiest rabbi I ever saw,’ ” she said. “Sometimes they are meant to be compliments, and so I try to take them as compliments. Oftentimes it’s not. It’s most difficult when I come across sexism I’m completely unprepared for. I’m also half Chinese. I’m all kinds of things people do not expect when they see a rabbi.”

One resource Mates-Muchin and her colleagues enjoy is the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a Reform movement organization that holds annual conferences and serves as a support system.

Mates-Muchin has attended several WRN conferences and appreciates the camaraderie and advocacy work the group does. Often at those conferences, trailblazers such as Priesand speak, offer advice and are lauded by younger admirers.

“It was interesting to see the pioneers, talk to them and see what they went through,” she said. “Sally Priesand told stories about how she would go to class [at HUC-JIR] and certain professors would never call on her. It was an ongoing test for her the entire time.”

Aron can relate. Many in her generation of newly ordained women in the early 1980s had to go through awkward job interviews with rabbi search committees, she recalled.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

“The questions we were asked, nobody would ask today,” she said, “yet we were so nervous we played it straight. ‘Would your husband let you go out at night? We notice you have a son and a daughter.’ The implication being: How would I deal with a pregnancy? I tell my daughter these stories and she’s appalled. But it was a different world.”

Times have changed, yet women who become rabbis are still being tested.

Graf remembered moments of what she called “quiet sexism” during her days as a rabbinic intern. That included comments about appearance, clothing and the like.

“A lot of congregants were uncomfortable having a young woman in the role of rabbi, particularly around end-of-life issues. People didn’t know what to make of a young woman rabbi,” she recalled. “[Male rabbis] would hear comments about their sermon, women about their shoes.”

As a mother of two, Graf said she and her congregants today more easily relate to one another. The stray gray hair, too, she sees as an asset.

“Now, as a parent, it’s much easier commenting on child-rearing topics,” she said. “They take it more seriously from me now that I’ve been through it. In synagogue life, it’s easier for congregants to have clergy resonate with them when they have more life experience.”

She believes the ripple effects of having women in the rabbinate are still being felt.

“There’s more tolerance for expression of emotion,” Graf said. “A willingness to put arms around each other. A lot of that informality is credited to women.”

And then there’s the awareness and concern that these rabbis have about the women who follow in their footsteps. Singer, for example, meets twice a month with three young rabbinical students, mentoring them as they move through their education. She said she loves sharing her experience and expertise.

She is unofficially mentoring one other rabbi-in-training: her 25-year-old daughter, Rena, who is studying at HUC-JIR in New York City. The Brandeis University graduate is on track for ordination in three years and has already interned at the same Reform synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, where her mother served years before.

A few weeks ago, Graf, who is on maternity leave, was out shopping when she saw a pink girl’s T-shirt for sale, emblazoned with the words “I don’t want to be a princess. I want to be president.” It reminded her of a joke about how there are now so many women in the rabbinate.

“The punch line,” she said, “is a girl telling her mother, ‘I hear a man can be rabbi.’ ”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.