Celebrating the First Lights of Women Rabbis
On a cold New England night, as the first flurries of the season began to fall, members of the Jewish community in Boston piled into the sanctuary at Temple Reyim to kindle the lights of Hanukkah and celebrate four remarkable Jewish women. Sally Priesand, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Amy Eilberg, and Sara Hurwitz, the first-ordained North American Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative women rabbis and Open Orthodox rabba, respectively, gathered together for the first time, in an event cosponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive, to share their inspirational stories, to celebrate the progress that has been made across the Jewish movements, and to discuss what still needs to be done.
Sally Priesand, who became North America’s first woman rabbi when she was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1972, spoke first. She said that although she did not become a bat mitzvah or grow up in a particularly observant Jewish family, her parents gave her Jewish books and “the courage to dare and to dream.” As a 16-year-old, Priesand was sponsored by her congregation to attend a Jewish summer camp. It was this privilege and the debt of gratitude she felt towards her synagogue, she recalled, that made her decide to become a rabbi – a fact that proves, laughed Priesand, that “Jewish camp is good for Jewish kids.”
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who became the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi when she was ordained in 1974, said that her Christian colleagues often ask her when she was “called” to the rabbinate. Sasso joked that “being called didn’t feel very Jewish and certainly not very Reconstructionist.” But years later, she reflects, that is exactly what becoming a rabbi was and is for her. “I felt at home in the synagogue more than anywhere,” she said. Sasso also shared her experience of navigating the Jewish and feminist worlds, recalling how she sometimes felt ill at ease in both feminist culture because it often ignored religion, and in Jewish culture because it frequently didn’t address her feminist side. Sasso also told how as a rabbinical student she longed for a community of women – a desire that has since become a reality.
Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1985 when she graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Eilberg remembered that as an undergraduate at Brandeis University, where she studied psychology and Judaic Studies, she led a religious service and afterwards was told by Al Axelrod, the University’s Hillel rabbi, “You have to be rabbi.” Eilberg said that she saw the ordination of women rabbis not as a beginning, but as a culmination of the principal on which Conservative Judaism was founded – that Judaism should be able to embrace both tradition and modernity.
Sara Hurwitz, who became the first Open Orthodox rabba in 2009 after years of study, spoke next. “I am not a rebel,” she said. Instead, explained Hurwitz, she sees the role she occupies today as a natural evolution. Hurwitz’s family left South Africa in 1989 during Apartheid, and the rabba recalled that her parents taught her the importance of equality. Before she graduated from high school, Hurwitz shared, she took a career aptitude test. Sure enough, it predicted she was destined for a job in the clergy. She said she considers the role of women rabbis particularly important within the framework of Orthodox Judaism, where laws such as negiah govern for many members of the community the types of appropriate interactions that can occur between men and women. Hurwitz noted that now the women of her congregation have a leader that can dance arm-in-arm with them during lifecycle celebrations.
All four women also discussed what they consider the greatest challenges facing the Jewish community today. Priesand worried that true, intimate Jewish community could suffer if too much emphasis were placed on online pseudo-communities such as Facebook and Twitter. Sasso thought that while having a strong Jewish laity was commendable, congregations should continue to value the unique role and function of the clergy. Eilberg emphasized the importance of civil discourse in the Jewish community. Hurwitz said that justice is the most important tenet of humanity and that halakha should never be used as an excuse to avoid justice.
For me, the most moving part of the evening was the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Alan Teperow, the Executive Director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, called up all of the women rabbis present in the audience by decade of ordination. More than thirty women in total, including Priesand, Sasso, Eilberg, and Hurwitz, took their place on the bima and in a strong, unified mezzo-soprano, sang the two Hanukkah blessings while a young rabbinical student lit the menorah to symbolize the bright future of women in the rabbinate. Perhaps Hurwitz summed up the momentous feeling of the evening most eloquently: “We are still living history,” she said. “We are in the parshiyot of dreams.”