Pittsburgh’s female rabbis reflect on 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate
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A shattered glass ceilingLooking back with respect and gratitude

Pittsburgh’s female rabbis reflect on 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate

In 1972, Sally Priesand, became the first woman in the United States ordained by a rabbinical seminary. More than 1000 women have followed.

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David in Monroeville. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Fisher)
Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David in Monroeville. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Fisher)

2022 marks 50 years since Sally Priesand became the first woman in the United States ordained by a rabbinical seminary. The year was 1972 — the height of the women’s liberation movement and the year that President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments into law, thereby prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal financial aid.

Priesand, then 25, was ordained by the Reform movement’s Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of the Hebrew Union College‐Jewish Institute of Religion.

Two years later, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist movement, and in 1985, the Conservative movement ordained its first female rabbi, Amy Eilberg.

Since 1972, more than 1000 female rabbis have been ordained by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. There are currently about a half dozen Orthodox women serving as spiritual leaders in modern Orthodox congregations — a practice which remains controversial in the wider Orthodox community — and are often given the title of rabba, maharat or rabbanit.

The Chronicle asked local female rabbis to share their reflections on the occasion of 50 years since Priesand forged the path leading to their own ordinations.

Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning for Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
It has been 25 years since my ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997. I remember my first encounter with a female rabbi when I was a child: an assistant rabbi at our Reform congregation in New York. As a college student at Columbia in the 1980s, I was aware that the Conservative movement up the street was beginning to ordain women. It became important to me to gain knowledge of the whole corpus of sacred texts that for many years were only accessible to men. Twenty-five years later, I am still studying Talmud and rabbinic literature, bringing my female-identified lived experience to this intergenerational conversation that spans centuries. Even in 1997, though, my classmates and I knew there were further frontiers to reach, where Jews of all gender identities and sexual orientations would have keys to the “kingdom.” As a parent of a transgender child, I am especially grateful that there are LGBTQ rabbis, including my classmate Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA, the vibrant queer yeshiva in Chicago. Torah and Jewish life are enriched by people of multiple identities that go well beyond the confines of the gender binary.

Rabbi Doris Dyen. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Doris Dyen.
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen, rabbi for Makom HaLev and board-certified hospital chaplain
“Did you always want to be a rabbi?” Since ordination, I’ve often been asked that question. And my answer is: “No! When I was a child, the idea never occurred to me because there were no women rabbis.”

Born in 1945 in Connecticut, I grew up in an era when Judaism did not encourage female religious leaders. When I attended religious school during the 1950s, even bat mitzvah was still uncommon. I became a bat mitzvah at age 42 through an adult b’nei mitzvah class — six women and one man — at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh.

That bat mitzvah experience shifted my relationship to Judaism. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to help other people deepen their understanding of Jewish traditions and heritage. In 1987, I joined Dor Hadash, a congregation affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. Over the next 20 years, assisted by other congregants, I learned to leyn Torah, experimented with leading services and continued studying Hebrew. Although Dor Hadash had no rabbi, I met Reconstructionist rabbis, women and men, who led Shabbat services and Torah study as guests. I began to think, “Maybe I could do that.”

In 2007 I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as the only student over 60. Almost half the students were women, and some faculty were as well. The training was rigorous and life-changing. In 2013, after commuting to Philadelphia for six years, I reentered Jewish Pittsburgh as a “young rabbi in an older body,” and a woman rabbi at that — in a kippah. A question I get asked now is: “Are women allowed to wear that?”

Currently I serve as the rabbi for the chavurah Makom HaLev and as a board-certified hospital chaplain; I’m also active in social justice and interfaith work. It’s been a rewarding challenge to create my own niche.

Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, associate rabbi and director of education at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills
When I became a bat mitzvah in the suburbs of Chicago in 1982, I knew that I wanted to become a rabbi. The way in which I connected with Judaism — the spirituality, the community, the history — was an undeniable part of who I was and who I am today. I didn’t realize until years later, when I was in rabbinical school, that at the time of my bat mitzvah I could not have become a rabbi because I was a woman in the Conservative movement. It was not until 1985 that the Conservative movement ordained its first female rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. I am indebted to those women who came before me who made my dream possible.

It has been my great privilege to serve as a rabbi for almost 25 years. People’s reactions to me have changed during that time, and I have changed. I can remember my first few years as a rabbi — the first female rabbi many were meeting — when I was often called rebbetzin (a rabbi’s wife). Technically they were correct, as I am married to another wonderful rabbi. For some women, this is a term of honor and I applaud it for those who cherish it. Hearing it used for me, though, felt like a negation of the six years of graduate studies I had just completed. For me, the proper term is rabbi.

These past 50 years, female rabbis have served as role models for many of the women in our congregations, inspiring them to participate in all aspects of Jewish life as equals. Seeing women as rabbis provides hope to many that we will be inclusive and welcoming to all.

I respect the myriad of ways in which women express their Judaism. I believe that I have a great deal to offer as a female rabbi. That is a part of my identity. I am a woman, a rabbi, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and a community member. Each of these roles inform and strengthen the others. I bring all of this to my rabbinate, and I believe, for me, it is different because I am a woman.

I am grateful to Rabbi Priesand, Rabbi Eilberg, and all the women who made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of serving my people. I hope I can inspire and ease the journey of those who will travel the road after me.

Rabbi Sharyn Henry (File photo)
Rabbi Sharyn Henry, Rodef Shalom Congregation
In just 50 years, women rabbis have changed the way Jews engage in Judaism in exciting ways. The teachings that arise from our life experiences and through our eyes have enriched not only girls and women, but all Jews. There is much to celebrate. However, because much has been written about the contributions of women to the Jewish world, I would like to use this space to reflect on the doors that have opened since Sally Priesand first walked into Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the late 1960s. Even after Sally was joined by other women who would become what we affectionately call vatikot (pioneers), most students (and 100% of professors) were men. By the time I began HUC in 1983, half my classmates were women. But all 40 of us were white. There was one person who was a Jew by choice, any LGBTQ students were not out, and there were no deaf or blind students. Thankfully, all that has changed, and today’s rabbis share the wisdom and perspective that comes from a vast variety of life experiences. Judaism is richer and more nuanced as a result, and I am proud to be among the door-openers for all of today’s and future rabbis.

Rabbi Jessica Locketz (File photo)
Rabbi Jessica Locketz, area rabbi and educator
As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination, I am both amazed that it has already been 50 years, and surprised that it has been only 50 years. As I reflected on this momentous occasion, I realized there has never been a time in my life when I thought women could not become rabbis. I always assumed that women were equal partners in Jewish life and ritual. That female clergy have been around for such a short period of time does not conceptually fit the Judaism I embrace and observe. As a teen involved in many facets of synagogue and Jewish communal life, I was always encouraged to follow my passion for Judaism, and to reach for my dreams of becoming a rabbi. I thank Sally and those who followed for that; she and the other “firsts” paved the way for me and my colleagues. Her struggles and her accomplishments truly gave me the opportunity to serve the Jewish community. I am forever grateful for that gift.

Rabbi Emily Meyer (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Emily Meyer)
Rabbi Emily Meyer, educator and founder of Doodly Jew on Facebook
In a tradition that values pilpul and debate, ensuring that those at the pulpit reflect the diversity of the Jewish community strengthens our learning. Rabbi Sally Priesand and other trailblazers in the rabbinate helped to ensure a different set of life experiences, perspectives and opinions were heard and valued when interpreting, teaching and living Judaism. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been born into a world with women rabbis as they allowed me to see myself reflected in the leadership of Judaism from an early age. I hope we continue to follow in these pioneers’ footsteps, valuing a diverse group of leaders for the unique and important gifts they bring to the Jewish people.

Rabbi Sara Rae Perman
Rabbi Sara Rae Perman
Rabbi Sara Rae Perman, Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg (1986-2017)
I have spent a bit of time thinking about what I wanted to say on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand. I have to admit, I don’t recall much about how I felt when I heard she had been ordained, perhaps because I was busy with college and family issues. I will say part of me didn’t believe it would result in women’s ordination being so common.

When I applied to rabbinical school, I wasn’t sure I would be accepted. In 1975, as part of the first class that had a large number of women (12 out of 60) as opposed to just one or two, my colleagues and I did not believe all the women would finish the program. I vividly remember standing on a street corner in Jerusalem with male and female colleagues, saying “She won’t make it…and she won’t make it.” That class with which I started clearly proved the school was committed to ordaining women. Just as there were some women who did not finish the program, there were also some men who didn’t finish.

Over the years, I have come to believe Sally was the perfect first woman rabbi to be ordained in this country. She is quietly but forcefully strong in a non-threatening way. My experience has been that she has always been supportive of the rest of us women.

I am thrilled that she is able to celebrate 50 years as a rabbi and that her journey has led to so many other women rabbis being part of the Jewish world.

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, Temple David
When I was in middle school I considered becoming a rabbi. I had never met a female rabbi, yet I was well aware that Rabbi Sally Priesand had been ordained only a few years before so I knew it was possible. Since my synagogue, Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, New York, felt like a second home, I wanted to create that feeling for others and my European-ordained rabbi, Michael Szenes, fully encouraged me. My husband Ron and I (we met our first week at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem) were ordained in 1994. Just over 100 female rabbis had preceded us.

Now, 50 years after Rabbi Priesand’s ordination, I recognize it is a celebration that extends to the Jewish world. Rabbi Priesand opened a door and held it open for the rest of us. The ordination of women has led to a deepening of learning, wider inclusiveness and magnificent creativity, not only within the Reform movement but across Judaism. From female cantors to composers and liturgists, from the scholarship, insights and poetry of such volumes as “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” (CCAR Press), to the gifts of individual female rabbis on and off the bimah, to female leadership across the denominations and beyond, that single doorway has given way to removable walls.

I look at our daughter Ilana, a third-year rabbinical student, and I see a level of learning, creativity, empathy and commitment to social justice that I hope is the future of the rabbinate — and with it, Judaism in all its inspirational diversity. Thank you, Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, for opening the door. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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