Episode 74: A Half-Century of Women Rabbis

[Theme music plays]

Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet. This is the last in our three part anniversary series—the 50th anniversary of the first woman rabbi in America.

In 1968, Sally Priesand enrolled at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati.

Sally: Most people thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one, which had happened many times. Once I had been going out with one of my fellow students for a very long time, and a professor went up to him and said, “Well, when are you going to do the school a favor—marry her and get rid of her?”

Nahanni: They didn’t get rid of her, and at Sally’s ordination at Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple in 1972, her classmates spontaneously rose to their feet when she was called to the bimah as the first woman rabbi in America. It was a triumph, but it wasn’t the end of Sally’s challenges. All 35 men in her class got jobs before she did. She got hired as an assistant rabbi, but was passed up for promotion. She got flack for her miniskirts and long hair, the style of the time. Eventually Sally became the rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, where she stayed for 25 years until she retired.

Sally: Moses didn't get to go into the Promised Land, but he took great comfort in knowing that Joshua was following in his footsteps and would do his part. One of the things I've always been proudest of is that little girls can grow up knowing they could be rabbis if they want to. I've worked really hard not just to open the door, but to hold it open.

Nahanni: In this episode of Can We Talk?, we speak with women from three different Jewish denominations who have walked through that open door about the challenges they’ve faced and about how their presence in the rabbinate is shaping the Jewish community.   

[theme music fades]

Nahanni: Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1986. She’s currently an Associate Rabbi at Romemu Manhattan. She is the first woman rabbi from the Syrian Jewish community, a community Dianne describes as having very traditional gender expectations. Growing up, her relationship to Jewish practice was complicated. As a teenager, she found a spiritual home at summer camp, where she especially loved celebrating Shabbat.

Dianne: But the complication is, I grew up in a very traditional community that wasn't necessarily—or at least not uniformly—observant. And my parents were not observant of Shabbat. And I came back and was completely disappointed by my home life. And I was really hungry for something that I could not find and could not get in the rest of my life.

So I actually went in the complete opposite direction. I disconnected from Judaism, even though I went to an Orthodox yeshiva. I failed all my classes in Judaism in high school and aced all my secular classes. I rebelled to the point where I would meet a friend on Yom Kippur at a diner and eat unkosher food. I went all the way in the other direction.

Nahanni: So what, then, drew you back and eventually drew you to the rabbinate?

Dianne: So, you know, as I said, I went in the opposite direction, huge rebellion. By the time I got to college, I called myself an atheist Marxist, even though I didn't really know what those terms meant. And I started studying religion and I became turned on to the study of Judaism through studying religion.

Nahanni: And how did you see being a rabbi as something that you could do when, you know, growing up in the Syrian community, there were no other models of women doing it?

Dianne: Not only were there no models of women becoming rabbis—there were no models of women working. Like I was supposed to get married at 18, right, and not work outside the home. So it was a huge leap on several counts.

Right after college, I met a woman who was becoming a rabbi, Rabbi Sue Grossman. And I was just blown away. Really. I was just like, wow, this woman is becoming a rabbi. It was just so mysterious to me and so powerful. And so she represented that possibility for me.

Nahanni: And what was the reaction of the Syrian community when you were ordained?

Dianne: I mean, there was no collective reaction. Someone wanted to do an article about me, but I decided not to go in that direction, because I didn't want to shame my parents. Also, one rabbi, who I was fairly close to, who was on the modern end of things, he told me that the community would boil me in oil. Not that he was behind boiling me in oil, but he just said the community would boil me in oil. And my parents, for all the years I was in rabbinical school, told their friends, oh, she's studying. They never said what.

And when I told my parents, my father said, “Well, why don't you get married first and have a man put you through school?” And I told him I could put myself through school. And my mother said, “You know, I can imagine you as a social worker or a teacher, but I just can't imagine you as a rabbi.” And she never could—like, she never…she just died this past August, and, um, that was just something…she related to my getting married and having kids, but that was something she just really could not…

Nahanni: What was that like for you, that she never really appreciated that?

Dianne: I think it contributed to a sense of invisibility. Like who I was could not possibly be real.

Nahanni: And what about what it's like to be a rabbi from the Syrian community in mostly Ashkenazi settings?

Dianne: Yeah, not only mostly, but pretty much all. You know, it's interesting. When I went to JTS, I was like, OK, you know, I came from this very narrow, patriarchal,materialist community—I mean, it has a lot to recommend it also—you know, I felt like, oh, now I'll be liberated from my confines. And when I went to JTS, I found, oh, it's another narrow world, but in totally different ways. Like they knew nothing about non-Ashkenazic Judaism.

And I remember, um, one professor, I said to him, “Well, why aren't we learning anything about like Sephardic history or Mizrahi history”  And he said, “Well, Ashkenazi rabbis don't really need to know about that. They're going to be serving Ashkenazi congregations.” And I'm like, really?

And I remember, um, once asking another professor why we stopped studying Sephardic Jews once they leave Spain. And he said to me, “Well, Sephardic Jews haven't really left the medieval age. I'm like, oh… (laughs)

Nahanni: Oh my goodness (laughs).

Dianne: So, you know, I've always been like…I was a stranger in a strange land growing up, because I didn't really fit into my community. And it turns out, like, that's who I am. Like, there's no context I'll ever be completely at home, just because I've uprooted myself from one, and all the other ones will never sort of acknowledge, you know, the wholeness of who I am in terms of my background.

Nahanni: And as you've been working as a rabbi, do you feel like that continues to be true?

Dianne: Well, it's complicated. I mean, I bring my whole self in different ways. Like, I very much relate to George Steiner, the twentieth-century philosopher, saying “text is our homeland.” Like Torah itself, I feel, provides a home for me, and teaching Torah provides a home for me, but, sort of, the Ashkenazi culture and the presumptions of Ashkenazi culture, I do not feel at home in.

Nahanni: Going back to rabbinical school, you sort of talked about, and you just mentioned, that it was a narrow world in these other ways that you hadn't anticipated, but I've also heard you talk about how, um, it became very clear that it was a world that was also built for male rabbis.

Dianne: Yes, absolutely. So, in my senior year of rabbinical school, uh, the dean of the rabbinical school taught a class that sort of got into the logistics and practicalities of serving a congregation. And the dean put the schedule of the rabbi on the board, and I looked at the schedule and everything was really filled out, right? And I said, “You know, Rabbi XY, where do you get ready for Shabbat?”

And he pointed to a slot, like, on Wednesday morning, and goes, “Here. Here's where you write the sermon. And I said to him, “But when do you cook and clean, and, like, prepare for Shabbat?” And he was completely stumped. And I believe the reason why is the model of the rabbi was, like, the rabbi, the male rabbi and his wife, and the wife did all the homemaking, and, you know, the rabbi only focused on work. I think that's different now at JTS. That'a my strong sense.

Nahanni: Right. I mean, there was this conception of a pulpit rabbi, that it was a totally all-consuming job.

Dianne: Correct. And that remains true. I mean, I am an associate rabbi and, you know, given the fact that I've got two kids with disabilities and a third with medical issues, you know, I cannot imagine being the senior rabbi at a congregation, you know, as a primary caretaker, or even just as a parent.

Nahanni: How do you think that women's participation has changed the rabbinate?

Dianne: I think that women in the rabbinate have brought the Torah of the rest of life, not just, like, sort of cognitive Torah, but the Torah of what it means to be a full human being, a mother, an embodied person. Just thinking about, you know, the Torah of cooking. You know, Torah itself knows no bounds and the wisdom of a life knows no bounds. And to bring that to the pulpit and to the community, I feel, and I've experienced, is very powerful. So the way I teach Torah is we connect over exploring, you know, certain sacred texts, but then sort of let the connections to our lives also bubble up.

Nahanni: I love that. I love that…What do you hope for the rabbinate and women's role in it over the next 50 years?

Dianne: I would hope for new models of leadership. I would hope for, you know, much more shared leadership, and the work of home life and raising a family also to be more equally distributed, Um, and I guess, you know, it feels to me like what the world needs more than anything else right now is healing on so many levels. And there's something about women bringing their whole selves to the pulpit that in itself is healing.

[musical interlude]

Nahanni: Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the co-founder and president of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution in America to ordain Orthodox women. She is also on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York.  After college she studied at Drisha, an institute for high level Torah study

Sara said she never had an “aha moment” that she should become a rabbi, because as an Orthodox young woman, that wasn’t really an option. But she always loved going to synagogue and being part of the Jewish community.

Sara: And actually, when I was applying to college, my parents wanted me to take a vocational test to see where my skill set was best suited. And the results of the test showed that I was destined for clergy.

Nahanni: [Gasps]

Sara: And at the time we all laughed, because what was a young, Orthodox woman going to do with that information? So I put it aside, I pursued other things. And then it took until my senior year in college to realize that I wanted to work within the Jewish community. And so I went to Drisha, I studied there for three years, and when I graduated, I started working at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale with Rabbi Weiss, just as a congregational intern. And after being there for a year, we both started dreaming about the possibility of what it might look like to be accepted as a full member of the rabbinic staff. We knew I would have to spend more time learning to be taken seriously and to be seen as an authority. And so I studied for five more years and at the end of that, uh, we had a conferral ceremony and that's where I was ordained.

Nahanni: Can you tell me a little bit more about the two of you sort of dreaming this up together?

Sara: Well, I remember it very distinctly. We were walking to tashlich on a Rosh Hashanah afternoon, to get rid of those sins. And we both started thinking about whether the community was ready. And I, actually, my first instinct was I wasn't sure that the community would be able to see me as their rabbi. Generally, the image of rabbi is male, maybe a beard, and I didn't fit that description. And so I wasn't sure that they would come to me for life-cycle events, for moments of grief or joy.

But then I think we both realized that what drove people seeing me as a rabbi was relationships. And so while I was studying towards ordination, I was also working in the synagogue and deepened relationships with people. And it actually became quite natural for them to seek me out, whether it was to perform a funeral for a loved one or to co-officiate or officiate at a wedding. Um, and so I think what we discovered as facts on the ground is that being present and showing that the work was in service of the community and actually not that  controversial is what, I think, helped change hearts and minds.

Nahanni: So it sounds like you really felt a growing support for this in your immediate community, but I know that you did face opposition outside of that community. Can you talk about that?

Sara: I think having the support of my community was key to being able to withstand and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I remember I was ordained in 2009 and sort of by a private ceremony at HIR, uh, where we featured other women, other women teaching and teaching Torah. And it was really at that event that we realized that we wanted to begin Maharat. A woman came up to me and said, “How do I sign up?”

And at that time, my title was Maharat. Maharat is an acronym—it stands for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit, which is the description of the job of a rabbi, a leader in rabbinic and halakhic and Torah values, um, and pastoral values. And that felt like what I was doing. I think we understood that the Orthodox community was sensitive to language and title was the flashpoint. Um, and we determined that the community wasn't quite ready for a rabbinic-sounding title.

A few months later, we decided to change my title from Maharat to Rabba to better reflect what I was doing and who I was. And I wanted to help people see me as a rabbinic presence with that R-B sounding word. When we changed the title to Rabba, it was because there was very little pushback to my job and what I was doing. And we felt like there was certainly support from within my own community.

But it was when that title change occurred that there was a firestorm, and the larger community, I guess, was concerned, or feared—or actually, I don't even really know all the reasons—for what this might do for the future of Orthodoxy. Actually, I remember I was in my office and the phone rang, I picked it up, and somebody said, “You're destroying the Orthodox community.” And he hung up. And I didn't want to be the destroyer of the Orthodox community, a community that I loved and I chose to be part of, that I felt like I was contributing to serving.

And so there were many days in that period that I wanted to crawl under the covers and not come out. But I think that with the support of Rabbi Weiss and with my immediate community, and also receiving letters from young women who now could see themselves as potential rabbis, or at least part of the Orthodox community as not just observers, but participants within the community, that's what propelled me to keep moving forward.

Nahanni: So it's the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi in America. How do you relate to that milestone?

Sara: I think the story of Rabbi Sally Priesand and, actually, all of the firsts in the other movements—Rabbi Sandy Sasso, Rabbi Amy Eilberg—are part of my story. I think that, um, the breakthrough that they each created in their communities paved the pathway for me to have the confidence to begin a yeshiva, an institution to ordain or Orthodox women within my community.

Nahanni: Rabbi Priesand faced all kinds of challenges. She became a rabbi in 1972 and in the Reform Movement, and I know that you have spoken to each other extensively about your experiences. How do they compare?

Sara: There's a few points of comparison that stick out. The first is that she and I had a male counterpart, a male mentor who believed in us and had the courage to step back to make space for us, to put  their names on the line to help us move forward. And I think that we've both spoken about how hard each of us had to work, um, in order to be accepted, or that the women had to be better than some of their male counterparts.

I think that one difference, perhaps, is that when the decision was made in each of the other movements to ordain women, that became—it wasn't a simple decision—but that became an institution-wide decision. Um, and I think that in the Orthodox community with Maharat, it's much more of a grassroots organization. And I think that many parts within the Orthodox community are coming around to support… it's becoming much more normative that changes, vast changes in relation to professionalizing women's leadership roles in the Orthodox community. But the change is much slower.

Nahanni: For a long time, there was a perception, I think, in every movement of Judaism, that the role of a pulpit rabbi should be all-consuming, you know, and then there was this perception, like, how could a woman do a job like that and also have a family, which of course was the expectation. And it's pretty telling that no one thought to ask that question of male rabbis, like, how can you do this job and have a family? Um, and I'm wondering if you also encountered this perception and how you dealt with it.

Rabba Sara: This is a live conversation for the graduates of Maharat right now. And I think it should be a community-wide decision around what the changing role of the rabbinate for those going into pulpits could look like. And I do think that it applies to men and women. Um, the idea that rabbis need to be available 24/7 makes it difficult for any person to function and to really service the community in a productive and healthy way.

I obviously believe that it's possible to do both, to have a family and to have a pulpit and to be a rabbi, and I am trying to create a communal conversation about how to create some shifts so that it's a more palatable job for anybody interested in pursuing this kind of service.

Nahanni: How would you describe your own contributions to the rabbinate and to your community?

Sara: I would say my proudest contribution is creating a credentialed pathway for other women to pursue their dreams and their passion. I think there were several women, when I was trying to pursue the rabbinate, that were doing it on their own, privately, secretly, um, begging, you know, trying to carve out a role for themselves in a very individual way. And I think my dream was to create a normative pathway with the support of the community and institution behind them. And I think that's what Maharat did. You know, 13 years later, we have 50 women out in the field, we have 50 women coming up through the pike, and it's very exciting to see the evolution of women becoming more normalized and normative in the community.

Nahanni: So on this 50th anniversary of the first woman rabbi in America, what's your vision in terms of gender for the next 50 years?

Sara: The dream is to not only have to talk about women and women rabbis and that gender um, isn't the defining factor of what makes a good or bad rabbi. I'm looking forward to the day where I don't have to make an argument for the fact that women belong. I know women belong. I'm looking forward to the time where I don't have to, uh, argue for my place in the community.

[musical interlude]

Nahanni: Rabbi Sandra Lawson was one of the first queer, Black women to become a rabbi. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2018 and then became Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University in North Carolina. She’s now the inaugural director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism.

Jen Richler spoke with Rabbi Sandra, who said that women like Alyssa Stanton, the first Black woman to be ordained by the Reform movement, and Debra Bowen, who leads a Black congregation outside Philadelphia, showed her that the rabbinate was possible for her. She also sees the first generation of women rabbis as role models, including Sandy Sasso, who was the first woman to be ordained in the Reconstructionist Movement in 1974.

Sandra: She laid the groundwork for me, you know—I wouldn't be possible without Sandy Sasso. That first generation of female rabbis completely made it possible for me.

Jen: And Sally—Sally Priesand—you know, one of the things that's interesting when you hear her talk is all the expectations she had to contend with about how a rabbi should be and how a rabbi should look. I'm curious what expectations you've encountered.

Sandra: I have had a variety of experiences that are… tons of experiences that are positive. And also some of the negatives, you know, some of them are quite funny. You know, I'll lead services and I've had people come up to me…“Wow. That was… that was a normal service.” I was like, yeah….

Jen: What did they think you were going to do?

Sandra:  I don't know! (laughs). I don't know, you know, I really don't know what goes through people's minds when they see me as a Black woman um, leading services. And also keep in mind, I'm Black, I'm a woman and I’m queer. So I get the intersectionality of all those things, which causes people to create new forms of discrimination.

Um, I've also… I mean, I love my male brothers as rabbis, but seriously, some of the things that they can do and get away with that are just mediocre and not have it questioned at all, um, and just taken for granted. Meanwhile, you know, I might be given a drash or, you know, talking some Torah—and I'm not saying people shouldn't question, I believe they should— but some of the  questions, you know, that, when I say some of the most basic things, like, you would not question a male rabbi on this.

Jen: Something I’ve come across in things I’ve read and heard is a certain discomfort with the idea of a woman as a rabbi. What do you think that’s about?

Sandra: One of the reasons that people say that they can't see a female rabbi— the woman's voice or women, you know, leading—has a lot to do with the images that we have in our synagogues, a lot to do with the images that we still have in our liturgy, in our books. I can't tell you how many progressive… so-called progressive communities I have walked in and I have seen art on the wall and all the art is a man with a beard, a black kippah, a tallit and tefillin and some tiny little prayer book, and nobody in the community looks like that.

And so, like, and then we wonder why people say that they can't see women be rabbis or Black people be rabbis or queer people be rabbis is because these synagogues are still beholden to an era that didn’t actually ever exist in their community.

Jen: Something else that you bring to the table, I think, is the fact that you chose Judaism, right? I guess I wonder, you know, how that has shaped your perspective on what it means to be a Jew and specifically what it means to be a Jewish leader.

Sandra: Adopting into this tradition, I got all the cool stuff, but none of the trauma. You know what I mean? Like I got trauma, don't get me wrong. I’ve got queer trauma living in United States and Black trauma, but I didn't get any of the Jewish trauma. So I don't approach Judaism in the same way. And so I didn't grow up with this tradition. I learned this tradition and I learned it the best way you can, I think, as a rabbi. And I have a broader perspective of things without all of the “we have to do it this way, because this is the only way we've had to do it.”

For the longest time, you know, we only had one group of people looking at our texts, leading services, translating our texts, and those people were men. And let's just say those people in the United States were white men. And, um, when you only have one lens, you only see things one way. When women en masse during the second wave of feminism started to be ordained as rabbis, cantors, educators, you know, PhD in Jewish Studies, writing books, translating, all that good stuff—now we're seeing all of our history and our religion and our text, not just through the eyes of men, but the eyes of women. And so that gives us a fuller picture of Judaism.

Jen: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your social media presence...

Sandra: (laughs)

Jen:... because you know, you've been called the Snapchat Rabbi, you've got a large following on various social media platforms, and I wonder if you see your social media presence as part of, or an extension of, your rabbinical work, and if so, how?

Sandra: So, um, I got kind of tired as a student of going on interviews for internships. I was frustrated because I'd go on job interviews and people couldn't see past my race. And so what I started to do was, um, I wrote like a long bio, um, or created a Facebook page. I would write a cover letter, my resume, and I would send a link to my Facebook page or the bio or whatever, and both of those had a picture of me or a description of me. I knew that if I went on a job interview and they were shocked at who was before them, they didn't read anything that I sent them.

So I started using social media as a rabbinical student to share my experiences as a rabbinical student—not necessarily just share my black experiences, but “Hey, I wrote this paper today on blah, blah, blah” or “You know, let me tell you what the Torah says about food, what I learned today in class.” So that when I graduated from RRC, I wouldn't have to keep doing that. I was hoping that it would have.. people would know, like, Oh, you're that Black rabbi, that's fine. But you know I’m a rabbi, you know Black people can be rabbis, so that's progress. So that is part of the reason why my platform has grown, because I have used it to share my experiences of being a rabbi, and to tell that story.

Jen: What contribution would you say you're proudest of as a rabbi?

Sandra: Hmm. Wow…I want to believe that I am showing people what's possible and I'm showing people how radically inclusive Judaism actually is. And I say that largely because I still have a lot of young people reach out to me and say, and old people too, say things that sound like, You know, I left Judaism. I —seriously, I could show you my phone and I get messages like this regularly— I left Judaism, but you have shown me that it wasn't Judaism. I just had, you know, people who didn't see me….

Jen: Wow.

Sandra: …or didn't validate my experience as a queer person or as a Black person.

Jen: Looking forward, what do you hope to see as in the rabbinate, as far as women's role, as far as queer people's role, Black people's role.

Sandra: There are some people out there who are very scared. They’re scared, um, because they feel like this diversity, they don't recognize Judaism. They're scared because you know, um, there's more Black and brown people out there, more women leading, whatever. And so for some people, people like me are scary for that reason.

There are other people who are not scared, but uncomfortable. They don't know what to do with it. And there's another group of people who are like, Oh, this is so awesome. Like, you’re a rabbi–it’s so awesome.

And people who want to say things like “You're destroying Judaism”...Like no, Judaism is evolving. That's what we do. We've always done that. That's what we did after the Second Temple was destroyed—we evolved.

And so the future of the rabbinate, it's going to have more women. It's already happening. There are more women, I think, enrolled in rabbinical school, that outnumber men in some of these schools. And people who continue to say that that is destroying Judaism— actually, by keeping these people out is going to destroy us. If we don't embrace where we actually are, we're not going to survive. But instead, let's lean into what's actually happening.

The people who are uncomfortable, I beg them, tell them, like, “Just hold on. That uncomfortableness you're feeling, I promise you it will get better. Just go with me. After a while you get used to it, watch me lead services, watch me teach—you'll just get used to it. It won't be so bad.” And also, for the people who find it exciting, that's the future.

[Theme music plays]

Outro: Just as Rabbi Sally Priesand held open the door for many more women rabbis to follow, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, and Rabbi Sandra Lawson have inspired other women to pursue this sacred calling.  Their diverse life experiences, their wisdom, and their commitment to Jewish life have enriched the rabbinate and the Jewish community.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Jen Richler and me. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode and to Rabbi Carole Balin, for the excerpts of her 2021 interview with Rabbi Sally Priesand. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard Color Country by The Balloonist from Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode concludes our anniversary series. You can learn about the history of the Bat Mitzvah in America, and hear how a small group of women called Ezrat Nashim influenced hundreds of male rabbis in previous episodes at jwa.org/canwetalk.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!




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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 74: A Half-Century of Women Rabbis." (Viewed on September 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-74-half-century-women-rabbis>.


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