How do you celebrate 50 years of anything?
With a party, of course. And if you’re Jewish, the celebration is bound to include some form of Torah study.
That’s exactly what Temple David’s Rabbi Barbara Symons had in mind when she decided to commemorate Rabbi Sally Priesand as the first woman in the United States ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972.
Symons said she initially reached out to her female colleagues at the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium, who liked the idea and wanted to participate. They then extended an invitation to local Jewish spiritual leaders, including cantors, and the Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. A committee was created to plan the celebration.
In the end, more than 30 female spiritual leaders met on June 1 at the Temple David to celebrate Priesand and her legacy.
“We thought, ‘OK, how can we celebrate women’s ordination given that some Protestants have been doing so for a long time?” Symons said. “We thought, ‘What could work here?’”
As it turned out, Symons’ Christian associates wanted to learn more about Jewish prayer, so the midmorning event began with prayers led by Symons and Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation. Cantor Stefanie Greene chanted from the week’s Torah portion.
“It happened to be Parsha Naso, which has the priestly benediction — they would all be familiar with it,” Symons said. “The happenstance of that being the week’s Torah portion is beautiful because everyone shared that in some way.”
The spiritual leaders then gathered in small groups to discuss various topics. The first round included a conversation about “Women and Sacred Text.” The second round was focused on “What Women Bring to History,” followed by “Your Personal Journey as Women Clergy.”
The program ended with a prayer following lunch.
In addition to paying tribute to five decades of female ordination in the Reform movement, Symons said, the idea was to bring people together to gain insight, share laughter and build relationships.
To that end, she said, the afternoon was filled with both old and new connections.
One surprise for Symons was hearing Rabbi Emily Meyer present “What Women Bring to Ordination, Including a Quick History.” The subject was especially relevant for Meyer, a South Hills rabbi whose rabbinic thesis, “Sally Forth: An Analytical Study of the Experiences of the Pioneering Women of the Reform Rabbinate,” looked at female rabbis ordained from 1972 until 1981.
Meyer said that she enjoyed the event because she doesn’t yet have many deep relationships with Pittsburgh rabbis.
“It was really wonderful to get to make those connections and get to see people in person and not just on Zoom,” she said.
Meyer said she appreciated the opportunity to share stories, not just with Jewish clergy, but with spiritual leaders of different faiths.
“It was nice to have that communality, even though we come from different faith traditions, we have similar experiences,” she said.
Rev. Liddy Barlow is the executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. She was ordained in the United Church of Christ, a denomination whose tradition of ordaining women goes back to 1853, when Antoinette Brown was ordained — the first female pastor, according to the church’s website, to achieve that status since biblical times.
Barlow said there is some evidence of women in leadership positions since the New Testament, when Paul refers to some as “Deacon” in a letter. That title is a kind of ordination in the Christian tradition, Barlow said.
During the 1960s and 1970s, she said, the first generation of women leaders began to be ordained in the Protestant, Episcopalian and Lutheran faiths.
“I was ordained in 2008,” Barlow said. “In the progressive Protestant church, that puts me in the second generation of women who were ordained in large numbers.”
And while many women can be ordained across Christian faiths, Barlow said it wasn’t always so easy.
“There were Christian churches around the world that formally approved the ordination of women and then a few decades later took them back,” she said.
Rev. Linda Theophilus is the pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Eastmont. Ordained in 1985, she is a member of both the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium and the International Association of Women Ministers. The local chapter, she said, organized the Christian side of the celebration.
She said it was fascinating to hear each other’s stories.
“I felt a great hunger to tell and hear the stories and the history,” she said.
Not only did Theophilus attend and help plan the event, but she also picked out the gift the spiritual leaders received at its conclusion: a lint roller that said, “Brushing off the patriarchy.”
Stefanie Greene was ordained as a cantor in 2022. She was happy to have the opportunity to chant the Torah.
“A lot of the women who are ministers and pastors got to gather round and see the Torah up close, which isn’t a usual experience for them,” she said. “They said that was a really special moment for them.”
And while Greene was happy to celebrate the ordination of the first Reform female rabbi, she said, the first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, wasn’t ordained in the movement until 1975.
“So, we’re not even at the 50-year mark,” she said.
Though women have made strides in the clergy, Barlow said the work isn’t finished.
“We need to continue to articulate the gifts women bring to ordination,” she said. “I think our foundational commitments around our created humanity, the image of God that exists in both men and women and people of all genders, is what makes women qualified for leadership,” she said.
The pastor said that the event was just the first step and that more meetings will take place.
“The key thing people said was let’s do this again,” Symons said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.