First female rabbi in U.S. retires after 25 years in Reform temple

BY JILL HUBER, JTA

TINTON FALLS, N.J. — When Rabbi Sally J. Priesand completes 25 years as religious leader of Monmouth Reform Temple next month, the country’s first female rabbi will assume a new title.

Upon her retirement in June, Priesand will become rabbi emerita of the Tinton Falls temple. She will be succeeded by Rabbi Jonathan Roos, who currently lives in Albany, N.Y., with his wife and two young sons. The family will move into their new home in Red Bank, N.J., this summer.

“Retirement will be a major life change, that’s for sure,” said Priesand, who is planning to move from Eatontown to Ocean Township, N.J.. “A new home and a career change are a lot to think about.”

But the pioneering rabbi is accustomed to life’s challenges. Nineteen years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer struck again 11 years ago. And three years ago, Priesand was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Although her health status is currently good, the bouts with illness took their toll.

She was able to continue working during her treatments for breast cancer, but the thyroid cancer treatments were more debilitating and forced her to take a three-month leave.

However, Priesand turned some of life’s negative elements into positive ones. Her brush with illness made her more sensitive to the health of others and forced her to pay attention to her own health needs.

“Of course it affected my rabbinate,” Priesand said. “I became more sensitive and aware of the needs of others who were dealing with health crises. When congregants wanted to discuss a health issue, I really understood what they were talking about. I could relate on a personal level.”

And she could share some personal lessons.

“During my own recuperation, I became frustrated if I couldn’t do certain things,” said Priesand. “But the human body sends you messages, and it’s important to pay attention. Rather than try to accomplish a lot of tasks during the day and become upset if I couldn’t complete them, I would get one task done in the morning and then feel better during the day for having accomplished something.”

She also developed a “worry rule” that she shares with others.

“If you need to worry about things, focus on it for 10 minutes every day,” said Priesand. “Then put it aside and move on. Repeat the process each day. It will help you understand that there are so many things we can’t control, but we can control our responses, attitudes and perceptions when faced with a serious issue.”

Priesand’s path to the rabbinate began when she was a teenager in Cleveland. When she decided in 1962, at age 16, that she wanted to become a rabbi, she received a priceless gift from her parents.

“They gave me the courage to dare and to dream,” Priesand said. “It was a gift beyond measure.”

Although she was later much heralded for her status as the country’s first female rabbi, Priesand had no intention of becoming a trailblazer.

“I didn’t follow this course to become a pioneer or to champion women’s rights,” she said. “I simply wanted to be a teacher of Judaism. That was my motivation.”

When she began her rabbinical studies, there was no welcoming committee to greet her.

“When I arrived at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1964, they didn’t take me very seriously at first,” Priesand said. “Few people at the college paid much attention; they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.”

“I was the only woman in my class — 35 men and me,” she said. “There were no women on the faculty. Sometimes I felt the faculty held me to a higher standard, so I always tried to be better and do better than everyone else.”

She obtained the support of Dr. Nelson Glueck, the institute’s president, who favored the ordination of women. Eventually, she gained the support of most of her classmates, although some still openly resented her presence. When encountering those who opposed her ordination, she relied on her sense of humor when responding. “If someone argued with me, I politely thanked them for their opinion and walked away,” Priesand said. “No hysterics, no tears.”

She was ordained in June 1972 at HUC-JIR. In addition to undergraduate and master’s degrees in Hebrew letters, she also received an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Cincinnati. In 1973, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Florida International University and later, in 1997, she received an honorary doctorate in divinity from HUC-JIR.

During her final year of school and during the first year of her rabbinate, Priesand became a serious communicator.

“People needed to see for themselves that I was human,” she laughed. “There were a lot of speaking engagements at synagogues all over the country, along with television appearances, media interviews and press conferences in airports.”

Priesand always wanted to be a congregational rabbi, rather than an educator at a religious school or organization. But finding employment wasn’t easy; some synagogues refused to interview her, and others merely wanted to cash in on her fame, she said.

Eventually, Priesand arrived at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, where, for seven years, she served as assistant rabbi and then as associate rabbi. However, she moved on when it became obvious that the congregation would never allow her, or any woman, to become its senior rabbi, she recalled.

From 1979 to 1981, she was affiliated with Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, N.J., on a part-time basis and also served as chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She accepted these two positions because she was still unable to find a synagogue willing to accept a woman as its only rabbi.

And then she came to Monmouth Reform Temple.

“I became aware that the temple was looking for a rabbi, and everything came together,” Priesand said. “My gender was not an issue; I became their rabbi, not their female rabbi. It all happened through beshert,” fate.

There have been changes within the Reform movement since Priesand became a rabbi. Women now make up a large percentage of rabbis and are the religious leaders at congregations all over the country, although they are still underrepresented in the largest pulpits. In addition, women now have prominent places on the faculties of rabbinical schools, she said.

The Reform movement has also taken a long look at the role of non-Jews in synagogue life, she added. Since more than 30 percent of Monmouth’s membership of 365 families is made up of intermarried couples, the congregation put together a set of inclusive guidelines; many have become models for other congregations.

For instance, non-Jews can become temple members so long as they do not participate in other religious organizations, and they may come to the bimah, or platform, during bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and read certain sections of the Torah, Priesand explained.

Non-Jewish grandparents can also participate; there is a special reading in English they can perform during the ceremony, she added.

Priesand has witnessed other changes in Reform Judaism. In 1983, the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis voted to accept patrilineal descent, which accepts as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as long as the child is raised as a Jew. The Conservative and Orthodox movements continue to abide by matrilineal descent, which says a child is Jewish only if the mother is Jewish by birth or conversion or if the child converts.

“This has been the official opinion of the Reform movement, but not every Reform rabbi accepts this,” she said. “It’s a very emotional issue.”

The revolution she heralded in the pulpit has been felt in the other movements as well. The Reconstructionist movement ordained its first woman rabbi in 1977, and the first Conservative women were ordained in 1983.

Within Orthodoxy, women cannot be ordained, but a feminist movement seeking to expand roles for women within Orthodox synagogues and yeshivot has taken hold in a number of communities. Just last week in Israel, American-born Orthodox scholar Haviva Ner-David was given what she described as a certificate of smiha, or ordination, from an Orthodox rabbi. Although her rabbi said the document would not be acceptable in the Orthodox world, it nevertheless certifies that she has mastered the material men study in order to receive ordination, he said.

One of Priesand’s proudest accomplishments at the Monmouth temple has been the creation of a social action committee that has tackled such issues as gun safety and awareness. In 2003, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism gave the temple a social action award for its efforts to promote gun safety.

“The temple members and I built the social action committee together,” said Priesand. “In fact, the temple is run by committee. The rabbi and the synagogue members are partners. But I really think women have encouraged the overall committee concept; they are more inclined to network and explore relationships.”

Priesand feels the temple’s principles and practices that have emerged during the past 25 years will offer support and guidance to future generations. In addition, the efforts of the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Endowment Fund for the Future will preserve and protect the temple’s legacy, she said.

When time permits, she intends to establish a Monmouth County kollel, a center for adult Jewish study. She may do some lecturing and plans to expand her skills as a watercolorist.

“I’m retiring by choice, because I believe that rabbis should know when to leave and when it’s time to inject ‘newness’ into synagogue life,” Priesand said. “As rabbi emerita, I will still be a part of the temple family. Being here has been the fulfillment of my dream to be a congregational rabbi, which is why I went to rabbinic school in the first place. This temple has always been receptive to new ideas and outreach. That’s a wonderful atmosphere in which to work.”

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