Four Firsts

by Rabbi Michelle Pearlman

Nate Manewith is in Pre-K. When asked to do a report about Women’s History Month, he created this adorable poster to tell his class about the pioneering achievements of Rabbi Sally Priesand.

Rabbi Priesand is our rabbi emerita. We at Monmouth Reform Temple are fortunate to have her with us at services each and every Shabbat.  She reads Torah, preaches, and teaches in our congregation when she is able. We do not think of her as the first woman rabbi, but rather as our rabbi. But to the world, even to this little boy in Pre-K, she has indeed achieved something remarkable. Rabbi Priesand is an important presence and source of inspiration to us all.

40 Years of Women on the BimahJust over a month ago, I attended the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Boston.  I love all of the sessions, but one of my favorite moments is always the roll call during our Women’s Rabbinic Network dinner at which we gather as women rabbis to share our experiences, professional interests and challenges. And we count down.  First, we welcome all of the rabbinic students in our midst. Then we congratulate all those who are newly ordained, counting back to each graduating class: 2011, 2010, 2009… It is incredible because as we count, the number of women who rise for each year gets smaller and smaller. They rise triumphantly though, and congratulate each other. Until we get to 1972. Then Rabbi Priesand rises alone.

The whole room of rabbis then leaps to its feet, all applauding. Her achievement has allowed so many of us to follow our calling. Rabbi Priesand stands alone, representing the women of the class of 1972. However, according to Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, executive director of WRN, there now are more than 650 female rabbis in the Reform Movement. One ordination has inspired 650 rabbis in just the past 40 years. Our reach spreads throughout North America and around the world. We work in pulpits and hospital settings, in universities and organizations. We have been able to realize our full potential as Jewish leaders because Rabbi Priesand had the courage to dare to embrace her own.

Here is what some of my colleagues are feeling as this important anniversary approaches:

  • Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder: “Even if I did not know it, even if I could not see it (having been raised in a Canadian Orthodox family), someone was making space for the future me.” (Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon and editor of Tzeh U’llimad at Hebrew Union College)
  • Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartel: “I was in high school when I heard about Rabbi Priesand’s ordination. It began a whole new direction of possibilities for me…the rabbinate was something I had not begun to consider until then.” (Temple Concord in Binghamton, N.Y.)
  • Rabbi Mindy Portnoy: “When I was studying in Israel during 1971-72, my mother sent me the famous article on Rabbi Priesand from the New York Times (I still have it in my files). Suddenly a new career and life opportunity opened before my eyes. I know that she does not like us to be too shmaltzy, but her ordination meant everything.” (Associate Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.)

The 40th anniversary of women in the rabbinate is an event important not only to Nate Manewith (and his mom, Rabbi Toby Manewith), not only to female rabbis, but to our entire Jewish world. We at MRT invite you to join us on June 3rd for Four Firsts, when Rabbi Priesand will join a distinguished panel that also includes the first Reconstructionist and Conservative women to be ordained as rabbis, as well as the pioneering woman who has been given the title Rabba under Orthodox auspices.

Our event committee, led by Gerald Reisner, is working in partnership with the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County to create an exciting and inspirational commemorative event.  Contributions will support MRT’s Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Endowment Fund for the Future and the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County. What a fitting tribute to a woman who has done so much to build our North American Jewish community and influence the Jewish world-at-large.

Rabbi Michelle Pearlman is the spiritual leader of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ.

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