40 Years of Women on the Bimah

Forty Years of Women

by Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination this coming June 3rd, I add my voice to the chorus in wishing her my heartfelt Mazal Tov.

Sally was gracious enough to come to Union Temple of Brooklyn this past March to deliver the keynote address at my installation as President of the New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR). I am the first woman to hold that position since the organization was founded in 1881.

In her remarks that evening, Sally told us a story that many of us had never heard before. Apparently, when she arrived in New York 40 years ago to assume the position of Assistant Rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, she applied for membership in the NYBR. Crisis ensued. An Orthodox contingent threatened to quit the Board. Upon hearing of this, Rabbi Edward Klein and Rabbi Alfred Gottshalk, zichronam liv’rachah, threatened to quit as well, in protest to the Orthodox threat. At this, the leadership of the Board ostensibly sat down together in the mutually respectful fashion generally emblematic of the Board, to discuss what was now a new reality for the Jewish world, and how to respond appropriately. They understood that Sally had blazed a trail that many more were sure to follow. Either they accept Sally’s application, or they effectively kill the New York Board of Rabbis, a long respected, centrist group of rabbis from all over the Metropolitan Area, where rabbis of alldenominations meet in an atmosphere of mutual respect and collegiality, despite our obvious differences.

I’m grateful that the Board’s leadership made the right decision, and welcomed Sally to the Board. Now, 40 years later, the Board has elected a woman as President for the first time, and Rabbi Sally Priesand was invited to be the keynote speaker at the installation. In my introduction of Sally that evening I said in part: “Rabbi Priesand – Sally – I can’t begin to express what it means to me, and to all of us, to have to you here with us on this evening. First, because you’re my friend, and you are a warm and kind friend – to all of us. And you are my colleague, and you’ve been a wonderful and encouraging colleague – to all of us. But, in fact, a few paragraphs on a sheet of paper cannot possibly portray the breadth of your accomplishments, and the effects of your personal courage, and your love for our people and our faith, upon every single one of us, upon the entire Jewish world, and particularly upon women everywhere, whether Jewish or not, as we celebrate Women’s History Month at this very time. When there’s something that no one has ever done before, how does it occur to someone that they could do that? You wanted to be a rabbi. But most of us had been taught that women weren’t allowed to be rabbis.  So how does it occur to a young woman from Ohio that she’s going to be a rabbi?!

For many of us, to be sure, the road has not been an easy one to navigate. It takes an awful lot to break down a wall. But because you were already there, because you led the way, for those who followed you, it would never be quite as hard again. Of course, it was 1972, and the Women’s Movement was in high gear.  And I guess it’s pretty safe to assume that if it had not been Sally, it probably would have been someone else, eventually. But it was Sally. And she has blessed us. Thank you so very much for coming, Sally, and we all wish you our warmest Mazal Tov on your 40th anniversary in the Rabbinate.”

The trail that Sally blazed has led over 800 of us now into the Rabbinate. Whatever shape our careers have taken, we understand and cherish what an extraordinary gift it is to serve the Jewish people as rabbis, and to bring our experiences and perspectives as women into that service. We all understand what a tremendous responsibility that places upon us. As teachers of our tradition, we embrace our responsibility to continue to study and grow, and wrestle with the most confounding questions of human existence, and the meaning of our own lives.

We embrace our role as voices of our tradition as we see it, as we speak out on matters of social justice: whether in the State Legislatures, or in Washington, or in our communities, as our tradition demands that we work for a more just and compassionate society.

And most importantly, we embrace the relationships that we form with our congregants, and those we serve in other rabbinic capacities. It is an extraordinary gift and blessing to be the one responsible for holding things together, as a family in the depths of sadness and loss must say goodbye to someone they loved. For people to let us into their lives at those most sensitive moments, that indeed is an awesome responsibility, but also a sacred gift; and in its way, one of the blessings of our tradition.

It is an extraordinary gift and blessing to share in the joy of a couple under the chuppah, as they look starry-eyed at each other, filled with love and hope for the home and the future they will build together. The bar and bat mitzvahs, the first day of religious school, bestowing a name upon a new baby. And, those really incredible moments when, of their own free will, men and women take the step of casting in their lot with the Jewish people, and we are the ones who take their hands.

All of these are sacred moments, and they are in our hands. We know how important it is for us to do it right.

If I may be presumptuous enough to say so, I suspect that Sally would not want to be aggrandized into a superhuman being. On the contrary, it is Sally’s very humanity that has been such a gift to us. Nevertheless, what she did was extraordinary, and heroic.   So we all say Shehecheyanu. We thank God that we have witnessed and experienced this remarkable moment in history, and that Sally Priesand is our rabbi, and our friend. Mazal Tov once again Sally, and thank you.

Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman serves as Rabbi of Union Temple of Brooklyn in New York.  On March 14, 2012, Rabbi Goodman was installed as President of the New   York Board of Rabbis, an historic honor as she became the first woman to lead the organization since it was founded in 1881.


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