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In the Beginning

June 14, 2012
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On the cutting edge (from left): Rabbis Sally Priesand, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Amy Eilberg and Sara Hurwitz look back on the early days of their careers. Photo by George Bilyk

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Reform movement's ordination of the first female rabbi, the National Museum of American Jewish History last week brought together the first women ordained by the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as a modern Orthodox religious leader who was given the newly coined title, rabba. The following report includes an excerpt of the opening remarks delivered by Pamela S. Nadell, chair of the department of Jewish studies at American University and author of Women Who Would Be Rabbis, along with excerpts from the rabbis themselves.

It is so fitting that this conversation takes place in Philadelphia, because it was in this very city that Mary M. Cohen, a member of Mikveh Israel and a journalist, first raised the question. Writing on the front page of the <i>Jewish Exponent</i>, she asked, in 1889, employing the rhetorical conventions of her day, "Could not --our women -- be ministers?"

Cohen went on to elaborate almost all of the arguments others would raise over the course of the next century as a debate about women's ordination raged. She was convinced that women could preach and teach about these issues better than men; and that just as men now minister to both men and women, so, too, women could minister to both women and men. She was not, in her mind, advocating a radical innovation in Judaism: A host of female biblical role models -- Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah and Esther -- had led their people.

When someone scoffed that he knew of no woman capable of being a rabbi, she countered that she had friends who had "a strong inclination for the work" who only needed "due preparation and a little encouragement."

Moreover, she well knew that the Jewish people could adapt to this change. After all, Judaism had successfully changed; her own synagogue had embraced English-language sermons among other adaptations to modernity.

What is so striking about Cohen's piece is that she anticipated much of the rhetoric and most of the arguments (with the exception of the halachic, that is Jewish legal discourse) which would emerge every time the question of women's ordination would later surface.

Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained in 1972 at the age of 26 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. She had enrolled in a joint undergraduate program of HUC and the University of Cincinnati before the decision had been made to admit women to the rabbinic program. Priesand served on the pulpit at several congregations in New York City and New Jersey. She has also served on the boards of the Union for Reform Judaism, and HUC. After three decades in the rabbinate, Priesand retired in 2006.

"I decided to be a rabbi when I was 16 years old. Unfortunately, I do not remember why I wanted to be a rabbi. I always remember wanting to be a teacher. And whatever my favorite subject was it was what I was going to teach. One year, I was going to be an English teacher, one year a French teacher, one year a math teacher. And in the end, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism.

"On occasions such as this, I always want to give credit to the woman who was the first woman rabbi. Her name was Regina Jonas. She finished her theological studies at the Berlin Academy for the Science of Judaism in the mid-1930s. Her thesis topic was 'Can a woman become a rabbi?' And she set out to prove the affirmative. The faculty accepted her dissertation, but the professor of Talmud refused to ordain her. Rabbi Max Dienemann did so, and she practiced till 1940, primarily in homes for the elderly. The Germans then dispatched her to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and she later died in Auschwitz. I would like to think that our presence here this evening brings honor to her memory.

"In the early years of my rabbinate, I will admit to you, all the decisions that I made were not necessarily what was good for me but what was good for women in the rabbinate. And I was very conscious of the fact that everybody was watching me. If I failed, that would be bad for the idea of women in the rabbinate."

Philadelphia native Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, now in her mid-60s, was ordained in 1974 by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She's the author of children's books and several adult books on Judaism. She and her husband, Dennis Sasso, serve as co-leaders of Congregation Beth-Zedeck in Indianapolis.

"I was talking to my nearly 5-year-old grandson before I came here. I said what I was going to do and I said, 'What would you think if only men could be rabbis?' And he looked at me and he said, 'That would be funny.'

"The first interview I had at a congregation, it was a Reform congregation in Forest Hills, N.Y. I was prepared for the interview. I knew how I wanted to shape the community and what I wanted to teach. I got none of those questions. The first question was: 'Are you afraid to drive in the dark?' The second one was even better.: 'What happens if you get pregnant?' What I wanted to say is that I have a biology textbook at home. I restrained myself and instead I said, 'I believe in planned pulpithood.' I did not get a job."

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, also originally from Philadelphia, was ordained in 1985 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Soon after, she joined the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and became the assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, a position she left to be able to spend more time with her young daughter. Later, she co-founded the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, and served as founding co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction in St. Paul, Minn. She currently directs interfaith dialogue programs at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning in St. Paul, Minn., which is connected to the University of St. Thomas.

"There tends to be a buzz in these kinds of events about 'You guys were pioneers ... It was so hard for you ... ' But I want to say -- and I guess I can say on behalf of all of us -- there were challenging moments. There were plenty of challenging moments for sure. But it has been such a joy. Don't feel sorry for us for even a second. It has been such a joy!

"When my daughter was 2, I was at Har Zion Temple. My daughter was brilliant and she spoke her first full sentence that year. Her first full sentence that she ever spoke was 'Bye-bye Ema Shul.' And we did not find it funny. It was very painful."

Rabba Sara Hurwitz was born in South Africa and in 2010 was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a move that received a huge amount of media attention. Weiss was criticized by some for going too far and others for not going far enough. Hurwitz, now in her late 30s, is currently rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and dean of Riverdale's Yeshivat Maharat.

"I am just part of a natural evolution towards the inevitable. The inevitable phenomenon that Orthodox women are taking their knowledge, their Torah learning, and transitioning it and transforming it into Jewish leadership.

"It is all about presence. People are able to see you as their rabbi when you are there for them in their greatest moments of joy and difficulty and sadness. I remember Lilly. When Lilly's son suddenly passed away, I did what we all do -- I ran to meet her at the hospital. And I stood with her and I held her up as she sobbed. Lilly is a Holocaust survivor and losing her son was very difficult for her.

"After organizing and arranging the funeral, I came to her and I said, as I do with all families, I said, 'Lilly it would be my honor to officiate at the funeral for you but I would, of course, understand if you are more comfortable with somebody else.' And she looked at me and she said, 'I could not imagine anybody else being there for me.'

"I think that was the moment when I realized I was wrong -- the community is ready to accept Orthodox women to officiate even at life-cycle events."

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