Sally Jane Priesand
On June 3, 1972, Sally Jane Priesand became the first female ordained rabbi in America.
The daughter of Irving Theodore and Rose Elizabeth (Welch) Priesand, she was born on June 27, 1946, in Cleveland, Ohio. As a teenager at Beth Israel-West Temple, a Reform congregation on Cleveland’s West Side, she began to display an intense commitment to Judaism and Jewish life. Deeply spiritual and affected by the vision of Reform Judaism epitomized in its camps and youth groups in the early 1960s, she set her sights on becoming a rabbi long before an emerging women’s liberation movement raised anew the call for women’s access to traditionally male professions.
In 1964, Priesand entered the University of Cincinnati. She knew that its joint undergraduate program with neighboring Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR) would allow her to complete the first year of rabbinic school as an undergraduate. Accordingly, upon graduation from the University of Cincinnati in 1968, she was admitted to HUC–JIR’s rabbinic school.
As a rabbinic student, Priesand began to enjoy the rewards and experience the frustrations that would mark her career as the first female rabbi. Media attention swelled to a crescendo as she approached ordination, with headlines such as one reported in 1964, “Girl Sets Her Goal to be First Woman Rabbi.” Quickly, Priesand found herself standing before a wide spectrum of Jewish women as a symbol of the emerging feminism they were just then confronting. Her rabbinic thesis, published as Judaism and the New Woman (1975), highlighted the changing role of women in Jewish history and was meant to advance their emancipation in Jewish religious life.
As Priesand sought student pulpits and performed fieldwork in congregations unable to hire full-time rabbis, she discovered that synagogues refused to interview her—or interviewed her only for the novelty—claiming they could not possibly have a woman rabbi. Experiences in student pulpits in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Champaign, Illinois; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and at Cincinnati’s Isaac Mayer Wise Temple conveyed what Priesand would soon describe as “the unbelievable and almost unbearable pressures of being the first woman rabbi.”
In June 1972, when Alfred Gottschalk, president of HUC–JIR, ordained her as a rabbi, Priesand became the first woman in Judaism ever to earn seminary ordination. She found her first job at New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue as assistant and then associate rabbi (1972–1979). In 1979, she left the congregation when she was not promised that she would succeed its ailing senior rabbi.
In the next years, Priesand again found temple boards using her gender as an excuse not to hire her. Unable to secure a new position commensurate with her experience in the rabbinate, she took a part-time pulpit at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1979–1981) and worked as a chaplain at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. In 1981, she began working at Monmouth Reform Temple, in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. There Priesand forged a creative partnership with the 285 families in her congregation, acting upon her belief that a rabbi’s primary task is to help Jews take responsibility for their Judaism.
In the larger Reform Movement, she worked with the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate to try to smooth the way for the women who followed her. Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of her rabbinate in 1993, Priesand again voiced her long-standing critique that the institutions of Reform Judaism have still not fulfilled Reform’s historic commitment to equality of the sexes. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary, she received an honorary doctorate from the HUC-JIR, and her congregants contributed toward the establishment of the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Visiting Professorship in Jewish Women’s Studies at the College-Institute. The position in her name will help enable the Reform movement to fulfill Preisand’s mandate of religious egalitarianism. As the first female rabbi, Priesand has always stood in the forefront of those who have struggled to carve a place for women and their perspectives in contemporary Judaism.
After three decades in the rabbinate, Sally Priesand retired in 2006.
Judaism and the New Woman (1975); “Postscript.” In Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration. Papers Delivered at an Academic Conference Honoring Twenty years of Women in the Rabbinate, 1972–1992, edited by Gary P. Zola (1996); “Preparation for the Rabbinate—Yesterday, Tomorrow.” Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook 85 (1975): 162–164.
Hume, Jack. “Girl Sets Her Goal to Be First Woman Rabbi.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, March/April 1964; Mirsky, Norman. Unorthodox Judaism (1978); Nadell, Pamela S. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889–1985 (1998); Proctor, Priscilla, and William Proctor. Women in the Pulpit: Is God an Equal Opportunity Employer? (1976).