Rabbi Sally Priesand at her 1972 ordination (Photo/File)
Rabbi Sally Priesand at her 1972 ordination (Photo/File)

The first woman rabbi in the U.S. was ordained 50 years ago — I owe her so much

In 1972, when Sally Priesand was ordained as the first woman rabbi in America, Richard Nixon was president of the United States, Congress voted to send the Equal Rights Amendment to the states for ratification, the U.S. intensified its war against the people of Vietnam, and Republican operatives broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in Watergate. It was truly a different world.

In retrospect, it is amazing that Sally Priesand, as a 16-year-old, dared to dream of becoming a rabbi. (She dimly knew that Regina Jonas had already been granted private ordination — not by a rabbinical seminary — in Berlin in 1935. Rabbi Jonas was killed at Auschwitz in October 1944, and her story went underground for many years.) Knowing Sally as I do, I know that she formulated and pursued her goal not out of personal ambition or ideology, but because of a deep conviction that she was meant to serve as a rabbi for the Jewish people.

In the intervening years, some 1,500 women rabbis have been ordained — in the Reform movement (starting in 1972), in the Reconstructionist movement (starting in 1974), in the Conservative movement (starting in 1985), and in part of the Modern Orthodox movement (starting in 2009). Through the leadership of these pioneering women and countless other women serving as Jewish leaders in other ways, the Jewish community underwent a profound transformation.

At first, Jewish feminism — a core belief in the equality of women — demanded that women have equal access to roles of leadership and authority in religious life, including receiving honors during the Torah service and being counted in the minyan. The demand for equality also extended to the leadership of Jewish communal and educational organizations.

By the mid-1970s, Jewish feminism moved beyond the call for equal access and began generating transformative new realities in Jewish life. Jewish women produced a flowering of new rituals, celebrating milestones in women’s lives that had not previously been recognized in a Judaism predominantly centered on the male experience. Jewish feminism inspired a range of new commentary on sacred Jewish texts, as women saw and felt things in response to the ancient sources that had not been noticed before. New frontiers were opened in Jewish theology as well, as women and men awakened to the reality that seeing and describing God in exclusively male terms was both harmful and blasphemous.

The Jewish community and Jewish tradition itself were immeasurably enriched by hearing the voices of 50% of the community whose perspectives and wisdom had not been welcomed before. It became possible to embrace women as equals in participation and in leadership. And the innovations that women brought in ritual, textual commentary and theology ushered in a new phase of Jewish history.

The work of achieving full equality and inclusion, of course, is not complete. Sexism is alive and well in the Jewish community, as women rabbis are still afforded less pay and less respect than their male colleagues, and often struggle (believe it or not, well into the 21st century) to find congregations “ready” to hire a woman. Jewish communal organizations are still predominantly led by men, though the tide is surely turning.

More recently, the success of Jewish feminism served to encourage LGBTQ Jews to demand the recognition and embrace of the community as well. I am happy to say that all of the non-Orthodox movements have now opened to the contributions of LGBTQ rabbis (and there is even rigorous conversation in some Orthodox circles about LGBTQ inclusion in communities), though of course there is much more work to be done.

In our time, the frontier in inclusion work calls for radical embrace of Jews of color in our communities: breaking down the assumption that “the Jewish community” is entirely white and Ashkenazi, and seriously grappling with the painful experiences so many Jews of color have in Jewish spaces. I have recently heard many painful stories of Jews of color harassed by synagogue security guards, bombarded with insensitive “how are you Jewish?” questions and presumed to be kitchen staff, and a Latina rabbi I know being asked whether she was the nanny for the child on her lap — the rabbi’s own daughter.

I have been listening deeply to the pain of Jews of color, marginalized and demeaned because they are not presumed to “belong,” and I remember what it felt like to be treated in this way as a woman in the Jewish community. Racism may be a harder problem to address than sexism was, but I want to believe that the Jewish community will do the work that is needed (albeit, for some, too slowly).

Still, it has been a great privilege to witness these profound advances in the Jewish community, and to play a role in leading communities through difficult change. I owe a great debt to Rabbi Regina Jonas and to Rabbi Sally Priesand for leading the way. I am grateful beyond measure that our community has substantially risen to the challenge. I pray that we will continue to respond to the issues that face us with grace and wisdom.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Conservative movement, receiving her ordination in 1985 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.