Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained in the Reform movement—in 1972—retired last year from her position as rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey. The Women’s Rabbinic Network, the official support and advocacy organization for women who are Reform rabbis and rabbinic students, decided to use this milestone occasion to ask our vatikot—our first-generation veteran Reform women rabbis—to reflect on their experiences. We wanted to honor Sally Priesand, but we had also become profoundly aware of the fact that our younger colleagues did not know the full “herstory” of women in the rabbinate.
The Jewish world has changed quite a lot in the 34 years since Rabbi Priesand was ordained. Women rabbis number in the hundreds. We have gifted women scholars teaching at Conservative and Reconstructionist and Reform seminaries. Ritual and prayer, academic scholarship and text commentary are created by women and now include female experiences. Even with this progress, the Women’s Rabbinic Network and similar groups still need to work hard to insure salary parity, advocate for equitable family leave policies, support women in part-time and portfolio-specific rabbinates, and guarantee equal opportunity in placement and salary negotiation.
We encouraged our pioneers to share their professional and personal experiences, even if painful. Despite all the difficulties of being “firsts,” our colleagues had only pride when they wrote of their desire to serve as religious leaders in the Jewish community.
We all feel enormous gratitude to Sally for taking the first, brave step toward equal access for women in the rabbinate. Mazal tov, Sally, and thank you.
-Rabbi Jackie Koch Ellenson, ordained in 1983, is the Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, and Chair of the Hadassah Foundation. Most of these comments appeared, in a different version, in WRN News.