One open door, 40 years of teaching

Rabbi Sally Priesand celebrates ordination with Jewish living-history event


 Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi to be ordained in the U.S., will mark the 40th anniversary of her ordination at a forum that will include three other women rabbis who were the first to be ordained in their sects. The forum will be held June 3 at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi to be ordained in the U.S., will mark the 40th anniversary of her ordination at a forum that will include three other women rabbis who were the first to be ordained in their sects. The forum will be held June 3 at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. On June 3, 1972, the president of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati put his hands on Sally Priesand’s shoulders and gave her his blessing.

When she turned around, Priesand’s 35 classmates, all men, were on their feet applauding the first female rabbi to be ordained in the United States.

“I was very touched by that. It was a very special moment,” Priesand recalled in an interview on May 18.

Forty years later, the rabbi is being celebrated for her ordination along with three other women who were the first to be ordained in their respective sects of Judaism.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist 1974), Rabbi Amy Eilberg (Conservative 1985), and Rabba Sara Hurwitz (Orthodox 2009) will be joining Rabbi Priesand for a “Four First Women Rabbis” discussion at Monmouth Reform Temple (MRT) in Tinton Falls on June 3 at 4 p.m.

“It gives us an opportunity to think about the many doors that have been opened in the Jewish community over the past 40 years,” said Priesand, who was a rabbi at MRT for 25 years and is currently the rabbi emerita.

“It is wonderful to celebrate the fact that in the world today there are over 1,000 women rabbis at every denomination.”

Michael Berman, co-chair of the Four First event and co-president of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, said Priesand’s ordination was a big deal for women and the Jewish community in 1972.

“It certainly coincided with a strong push in the women’s movement as well as changes in Judaism. I think a willingness to accept a woman as a rabbi was pretty earthshattering to quite a few people,” said Berman.

“For me, as president of the museum and co-chair of the event, it’s about opening the door, and the people that followed are really just as important, if not more so, than the first. That is how you qualify the significance of something.”

Berman has known Priesand for the last six years and describes her as a motivated woman who was driven to become a rabbi through a strong connection to Judaism and also with the people who are part of that community.

“I realize she’s a strong person. She has a strong point of view, but she also knows how to listen. She’s a real person, somebody you can speak to openly, and very patient in her own way. She’s seen a lot in all her years, and it’s been special to be around her,” he said.

While she is proud to have been the first female rabbi in the country, Priesand described her moment as a “quirk in history.”

Growing up, she just wanted to be a teacher, and by age 16 she had decided she would teach Judaism, not because no other woman had done it before, but because it was simply something she wanted to do.

“I didn’t go into the rabbinate to champion women’s rights or be a pioneer or break down any barriers. I just wanted to be a rabbi, and I’m proud of the fact that today every little girl can grow up knowing that they can be a rabbi if they want to,” she said.

But at the time, she was hardly aware of the impact her ordination would make on the women’s movement across the country.

“I’m definitely a feminist, but I think in those early years, I didn’t always come across as one because I think that when you have a movement like the feminist movement, you have to have two kinds of people,” she explained.

“You have to have the people who are out speaking and marching and then you have to have those who are actually doing things, and I was more in that category.”

It may not be surprising then, to hear that her words to live by come from a spiritual verse that says, “Say little and do much.”

It was her love of Jewish literature and her respect for tradition that ultimately led her to become a rabbi, a word that means teacher in the Hebrew language.

“Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t throw up their hands and say, ‘What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?’ They said if you want to do it, you should do it. I’m grateful for my parents because they gave to me what I consider to be one of the most precious gifts that a parent could give to a child, and that is the courage to dare to dream,” Priesand said.

With that dream is the reality of numerous obstacles stationed along the path, which is why it is important to never forget how to laugh at life’s twists and turns.

“First of all, it’s very important to maintain your sense of humor. I would find myself in situations often where someone would want to tell me why a woman shouldn’t be a rabbi and instead of arguing I would just say, ‘Thank you for your opinion,’ and walk away,” she said.

“Everybody thought they knew how I should be because I was the first, and I just decided to be myself and it’s served me very well.”

Everybody also thought that Priesand studied at the Hebrew college just tomarry a rabbi. No one actually believed that she wanted to become one herself. “I really had to be better and do better than everyone else because I felt that if they wanted to find a way to get rid of me, it wouldn’t be because of my grades,” she said.

“People don’t always agree with me on things, but I think one of the reasons I was able to stay in my congregation for 25 years was because people respected me.”

As a rabbi, Preisand has had the privilege to name children, watch them grow up and get married and officiate their weddings. She has had the opportunity to share time with people and speak about social, and perhaps controversial, issues under the umbrella of Judaism.

“Rabbis have the ability to touch the lives of people in ways they’re not even aware of usually. I think that’s very special to be able to share with others moments of joy and also to be there as comfort in moments of sorrow. In the significant moments of life, rabbis have the privilege of sharing,” she said.

“You have to be there for people wherever they’re at in a particular moment.”

On June 3, people will have the opportunity to return the favor and celebrate Rabbi Sally Priesand opening the door, saying little and doing much.