The First Four

The number 40 appears several times in the Bible. Most memorably, the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.

The number 40 took on another significance in June with a program to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Preisand, the first female rabbi in modern times (Reform, 1972). To celebrate, her temple of 25 years, Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ, invited Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist, 1974), Rabbi Amy Eilberg (Conservative, 1984), and Rabba Sara Hurwitz (Orthodox, 2009) to join her in a forum. Each of these women was the first female to be ordained rabbi in her movement.

The pioneering clergy shared their journeys, citing the tremendous support they’d received from family and teachers. And they spoke of how to dress properly, so that they wouldn’t appear too sexual, but feminine “enough;” how to balance family and career; how to sit on the bima; whether to kiss congregants “Shabbat Shalom;” the stress, and especially the loneliness. And the frustration that, when female rabbis get together, they still must discuss of parity with their male counterparts.

While each of the rabbis had many hurdles to surmount, it is not surprising that Rabba Hurwitz, both Orthodox and new to the pulpit, appears to be having the most frustration, noting that she feels bad for her children, “who will have to defend me all their lives.” She talked about her struggles, noting that she has been accused of trying to split the Orthodox movement, that she has been invited to teach and then had the invitation rescinded, and has been told to “leave her title at home.” It was touching to see how supportive these four women were with one another, especially when Priesand leaned over to Hurwitz and assured her that they all – her three predecessors – had been through the same thing.

Preisand shared that she wasn’t trying to be the “first woman rabbi” – she just wanted to be a rabbi. Sasso talked about her struggles bridging her feminist and Jewish sides – “I thought ‘Jewish feminist’ was an oxymoron,” she said. She told us how supportive her childhood rabbi had been, even in death: he instructed in his will that the wanted her to be one of the officiants at his funeral.

Forty years after the first woman was ordained, it’s thrilling to count many accomplishments: over 1000 women rabbis across the movements, four more Orthodox female rabbis to be ordained next year; Israel with its first government salaried female rabbi; and the chair of the New York Board of rabbis, and the Executive Director of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly are women.

The counting began with these four courageous, strong women, who turned the culture of Judaism towards egalitarianism, and a beginning of repairing the world.