Religion & Jewish Life

Pulpit pioneer: Sally Priesand ordained as first female rabbi in U.S. 40 years ago

Rabbi Sally Priesand (Courtesy Sally Priesand)

(Cleveland Jewish News) — When Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in the United States on June 3, 1972, she had no intention of being a pioneer. “I didn’t think about breaking any barriers or championing women’s rights,” Priesand told the Cleveland Jewish News from her home in New Jersey. “I just wanted to be a rabbi.” However, Priesand, now retired after serving three synagogues, including Monmouth Reform Temple in Trinton Falls, N.J., for 25 years, is often viewed as a pioneer and role model. About 1,000 women around the world have followed in her footsteps, including 648 ordained as she was, as Reform rabbis at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. The others were ordained in the Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox denominations.

To explain how she became so passionate about Judaism, Priesand looks back at her Cleveland roots. Priesand moved with her parents Rose and Irving Priesand and siblings to Cleveland’s West Side when she was in eighth grade. The Priesands were among the founding members of former Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Am, also known as Community Temple in Cleveland Heights. After moving, they joined Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland, which is Reform.

“Beth Israel was a special congregation,” Priesand said. “It taught me what it means to be a temple family and the important task of tikkun olam (repair of the world). Also, as I began to show an interest in Judaism, the temple let me do a lot of things – writing for the temple bulletin and helping to lead services in the summer.” When she was in eighth or ninth grade, The West Temple gave her a $100 scholarship to attend a Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism) camp. While she had been looking forward to attending a Girl Scout Roundup camp, Priesand thought she should represent her temple.

“It was the tipping point in my life,” Priesand said, adding with a laugh, “For $100, they got a lifelong commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.”

Her years at HUC-JIR, which then had a joint undergraduate program with the University of Cincinnati, presented some challenges to the first female rabbinical student, but they went quickly, recalled Priesand. She was able to complete her first year of rabbinical school at UC, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1968.

“One day I was an undergraduate, and the next day I was in the second year of rabbinical school,” Priesand said. “That’s when people woke up … She’s still there.”

Some thought she had entered the program to marry a rabbi, recalled Priesand, a three-time cancer survivor. However, she never married and devoted her life to her career. “I realized I couldn’t do both and do them well,” she said.

Nelson Glueck, who was president of HUC-JIR when Priesand arrived on campus, made the ordination of women possible, she said. “Dr. Glueck really wanted to ordain a woman. I never realized until recent years how much courage it took on his part.”

Glueck died the year before Priesand was ordained, but his successor Alfred Gottschalk, now deceased, followed through in ordaining her.

“I was the last person in my class to get a job, but in the end, I got the best job,” Priesand said about her first position as a rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. “It was appropriate for a congregation with a history of being committed to social justice” to appoint the first female rabbi, she said. “(The late) Rabbi Edward Klein took a lot of pride in being introduced as the first equal-opportunity employer.”

Priesand served first as assistant rabbi and then associate rabbi at Stephen Wise before moving on to a part-time pulpit at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1981, she became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple. Monmouth nearly doubled in size to 375 families under her tenure. She retired and became rabbi emerita of the congregation in 2006.

“I go to services every week and enjoy the view from my pew,” quipped Priesand, a founding member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and who serves on about five boards in the community and continues involvement in several Jewish organizations.

“One of the most satisfying things of being a rabbi is that you touch the lives of people in so many different ways and in ways you’re not even aware of,” Priesand said. For example, a couple that she had married at Stephen Wise asked her to officiate at their daughter’s wedding last year. “It was important for them to have me do the wedding.

“People still remember the sermons I gave,” said Priesand, who noted that her favorite part of being a rabbi was preaching. “I have always tried to look at it as a teaching moment.

“In today’s world, people are highly educated,” Priesand said, “and they want to learn more about Judaism. That’s my role as a teacher. In order to preach every week, you have to really keep on your toes. I got used to reading magazines and newspapers with a scissors next to me.”

While her dream was just to become a rabbi, Priesand said she realized the obligations that came with her role as being America’s first female rabbi.

“I used to make decisions based on what was best for women in the rabbinate,” Priesand said. “I have no regrets. I was conscious of the fact that people would judge the concept of women in the rabbinate with their concept of me. You try hard to do a good job.”

Priesand, whose mother, nearly 97, continues to live in Cleveland, shared a story of how last year, the young son of Cantor Gabrielle Clissold at Monmouth Reform Temple had invited the rabbi for Special Friends Day at Solomon Schechter Day School. Usually, the rabbi tried to remain in the background during such programs. However, she said, “that day was June 3 (ordination anniversary), so I decided to say a few things.

“When I was a little older than you, I decided I wanted to be a rabbi,” Priesand told the first-graders, “but there was a problem.” Did they know what that problem was? she asked them. “You were too little,” one student said. “You were too young,” another said. Priesand asked her young host to tell his classmates the answer. “You were a girl!” he said.

Priesand said it was amazing to her that the class didn’t think being female was an issue. “We are making changes. That’s a good thing,” she said.

This article is republished with permission of the Cleveland Jewish News (