Priesand, Sally Jane (1946—)

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Priesand, Sally Jane (1946—)

Jewish-American who in 1972 became the first woman in the history of Judaism to be ordained a rabbi. Born on June 27, 1946, in Cleveland, Ohio; daughter of Irving Theodore Priesand and Rosetta Elizabeth (Welch) Priesand; attended University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

By the time Sally Jane Priesand was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1946, a number of American-Jewish women had laid the groundwork for women rabbis or served non-officially in that capacity. As far back as 1889, in an article entitled "A Problem for Purim," which appeared on the front page of The Jewish Exponent, the Philadelphia journalist Mary M. Cohen asked whether or not women could contribute to the development of Judaism in the United States by becoming rabbis. By the early 1900s, a number of American Jews, particularly those allied to Reform Judaism, were openly debating the question raised by Cohen in 1889. In 1903, Henrietta Szold , the foremost American Jewish woman leader, approached Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary which was linked to Conservative Judaism, about the possibility of taking courses there. After Szold assured Schechter that she would not be "an aspirant after Rabbinical honors, he agreed to put no obstacles in my way."

Occasionally, and under extraordinary circumstances, a number of American-Jewish women did in fact serve informally in the role of rabbi. The first of these was doubtless Ray Frank , a pioneering woman rabbi who ministered to the tiny, scattered Jewish communities found in California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest in the closing decades of the 19th century. A Sabbath school principal often known as "the girl rabbi of the Golden West," Frank gained fame in the American-Jewish community as an itinerant preacher. In 1890, learning that there were to be no High Holiday services in Spokane, Washington, because a rabbi was not available, Frank had agreed to preach. From then until just before she married a decade later, she both preached and led religious services. Frank also studied at Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College. In her writings, she outlined what she would do if she became a rabbi, while at the same time indicating that she had no desire to actually become one.

Another situation emerged in 1950, when rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) Paula Ackerman , whose husband William Ackerman was rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, was widowed. Asked by the president of the congregation to be of assistance in the crisis, Ackerman agreed to fill in for her deceased spouse until a replacement could be found. She served "temporarily" for three years.

After World War I, a number of women from within the Reform Jewish tradition began to seriously consider preparing themselves for careers as rabbis. In 1921, 17-year-old Martha

Neumark requested admission to study at Hebrew Union College (HUC), sparking a debate lasting two years over whether or not the school would ordain women as rabbis. The emerging consensus was that a "woman cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination." This theoretical victory was canceled out when the HUC board of governors prevented Neumark from actually achieving her goal. Over the next two decades, a number of Jewish women, including Irma Levy Lindheim, Dora Askowith , and Helen Levinthal (later Helen Lyons), raised the same challenge. In the case of Levinthal, she was able to complete the entire rabbinical curriculum and had already written a thesis when in 1939 the Jewish Institute of Religion awarded her a master's degree in Hebrew literature, rather than the rabbinical ordination she had sought. Refusing to admit defeat, Levinthal, like Ray Frank more than a generation earlier, exercised informal rabbinic leadership which included preaching at High Holiday services in Brooklyn in 1939. Eventually, however, she bowed to stronger forces to enter the traditional world of being a wife, mother, and volunteer for Jewish causes.

This was the environment facing Sally Priesand as she grew up in postwar Cleveland. As a member of youth groups and Cleveland's Beth-Israel-West Temple, she began to display an intense commitment to Judaism and Jewish life. Her deep spirituality was compatible with the openness of Reform Judaism. While participating in Jewish summer camps in the early 1960s, Priesand saw becoming a rabbi as her life's goal, though no model for this career existed in the real world. She enrolled at the University of Cincinnati but also took courses offered by the neighboring Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR) that enabled her to complete the first year of rabbinic school while still an undergraduate. Upon graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1968, Priesand was admitted to the HUC—JIR rabbinic school.

Almost immediately after she began her full-time rabbinic studies, Priesand became the center of media attention. She was soon skilled at answering questions and explaining her goals and motivations. Even before completing her studies, Priesand began to experience discrimination. Student pulpits and congregations unable to hire full-time rabbis seemed much more sympathetic than did synagogues that had the resources for a professional rabbi. She discovered that some of her placement interviews were shams, done only for the novelty of it, with the actual response being that the congregation "could not possibly have a woman rabbi." Besides experiencing the normal stresses of being a graduate student, Priesand had to bear up to "the unbelievable and almost unbearable pressures" of being the woman who would soon be the first woman rabbi. Fortunately, during this often difficult time she had the full support and encouragement of HUC president Nelson Glueck, who, she said, "decided to act on what his predecessors had simply asserted, woman's right to ordination."

On June 3, 1972, Sally Priesand became the first female ordained rabbi in the world, the only other claimant to this honor being Regina Jonas , who died in the Holocaust and had never been ordained by a seminary. On that day, HUC president Dr. Alfred Gottschalk ordained Priesand in Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple. She found her first job as an assistant in Manhattan's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, eventually advancing to associate rabbi. However, when she was not promised that she would succeed the congregation's ailing senior rabbi, she left this post disappointed. In 1981, Priesand found a new position at the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. Here she continued her career under happier circumstances, working to fulfill what she believes is the primary task of any rabbi, namely "to help Jews take responsibility for their Judaism." Besides meeting the needs of her congregation, Priesand also serves on various boards and task forces, and supports the work of such organizations as the Institute for Creative Judaism, Hadassah, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, as well as Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hebrew Union College did not ordain another woman, Laura Geller , until 1976, and by the end of the 1970s there were only 12 women rabbis in the United States. But their numbers increased steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. By the late 1990s, women were 16% of Reform rabbis belonging to the Central Conference of American Rabbis. After Priesand opened the door to the rabbinate for women, other branches of Judaism followed suit. In 1974, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first woman rabbi within Reconstructionist Judaism, formerly the liberal wing of Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism ordained Amy Eilberg as its first woman rabbi in 1985. Priesand had initiated a sea change within American Judaism, for, according to The Jewish Advocate, by 1997 Hebrew Union College had graduated a total of 278 women rabbis. Half of the 1997 graduating class of HUC were women, with the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis registering 293 female rabbis. Of the graduating class of the Conservative movement's seminary the same year, 40% were women, and the Conservative rabbinical body, the Rabbinical Assembly, counted about 100 members. Rabbi Laura Geller, whose path at HUC had been broken four years earlier by Priesand, was in the late 1990s heading Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and as such was the first woman to lead a 900-plus-member congregation in the United States. As the new millennium dawned, only Orthodox Judaism held to its traditional prohibition against women becoming rabbis.


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related media:

Priesand, Sally. "A Woman Rabbi: Her Problems, Prerogatives and Principles" (audiocassette), Atlanta, GA: Catacomb Cassettes, 1976.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Priesand, Sally Jane (1946—)

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