40 Years of Women on the Bimah

Thoughts on Celebrating Rabbi Priesand’s Ordination

by Rabbi Denise L. Eger

On this 40th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination, I am reflecting on the impact of that moment on our own Reform Judaism, the larger Jewish world and the implications on my own life. Rabbi Priesand is not just the first woman rabbi of contemporary times, but she is a rabbi’s rabbi. She has guided both the men and women of our Movement with her grace, wisdom, and inspiration. She has mentored both rabbis and lay leaders with her deep thoughtfulness, sense of humor and her deep humility. She has taught all of us what it means to define the role of rabbi. But we forget just how radical that act was. We take for granted women in roles in leadership now because of her ordination and we notice when women lay leaders and women rabbis are absent at the helm of our Movement.

That is why it is so troubling when, in our own denominational settings, women are still falling behind. Women rabbis earn less, and proportionately, women rabbis are not being chosen to serve as senior rabbis of large congregations. After 40 years and after the numbers of women ordained, statistically, women are still not on equal footing, despite our progress. One would have hoped that like the Children of Israel, who needed 40years in the desert until they were ready to enter the Promised Land, that we in our own Movement would be ready to embrace women rabbis in more places of leadership in Reform Judaism. We should see this as a call to our lay leaders and fellow clergy members to continue to raise the issues of women’s equality in our Movement.

The effect on the larger Jewish world of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination continues to be felt throughout Jewish life. The Orthodox community has been influenced by that moment as women seek to be Torah scholars and serve rabbinic functions as Rosh Kehila (Spiritual Leader of a congregation) or using other titles such as Rabbah or Maharat. Forty years ago, we couldn’t have envisioned that Orthodox women would demand their rightful role in synagogue leadership both at the lay and rabbinic levels – but it is happening bit by bit. This revolution was made possible by that holy moment of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination.

Rabbi Denise Eger, far right, on the bimah with congregants of Congregation Kol Ami

This 40th anniversary is a moment of pride that I share, as well. It influenced my own choice to become a rabbi! I had the privilege of meeting some of the very first generation of women who became rabbis during my teen years opening the possibility to me that I might aspire to this calling as well. How grateful I am to be able to be a rabbi and serve the Jewish people. It is a wondrous and marvelous opportunity. Now, almost 25 years after my own Ordination, I know how grateful I am that Rabbi Priesand was ordained, and I can stand alongside her and my many women colleagues giving a different voice and face to the rabbinate.

One moment affects every other moment, and I know that on this occasion of the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination, I celebrate her and the impact of that sacred moment of her ordination had on so many levels.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA, and Vice-President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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3 Responses to “Thoughts on Celebrating Rabbi Priesand’s Ordination”

  1. avatar
    Jo Carroll Lewald Reply May 4, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I was thrilled to see this article. As a lay person I am leading the service at Congregation House of Israel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this evening The service is dedicated to Rabbi Priesand, and includes her first letters from HUC, comments at her ordination and the inscription put on the doors of Monmouth
    Reform Temple when she retired. Although
    personally unknown to my family, she is an
    inspiration. My daughter graduated from HUC 11 years ago.

  2. avatar
    Rabbi Jimmy Kessler Reply May 4, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    For 45 years I have been privileged to always identify myself as having been ordained with Rabbi Sally. It’s still an honor and a privilege.

  3. avatar

    More rabbis should be like her.

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