We've Gotta Have it
The Nation’s First Female Rabbi
SHeros you don’t know
Editor’s Note: SHEroes is Covey’s salute to those invisible women who haven’t made the history books, but who affected meaningful change in their lifetime. Through their efforts, these women forged paths for the benefit of future generations with the inherent knowledge that big changes start small.
“Competence and commitment are enough for a man, but not for a woman … We still have a long way to go before women are truly equal.”
Sally Jan Priesand’s words date back to a 1979 New York Times interview. A curiosity, the NYT liked to check in with the nation’s first female rabbi, ordained seven years earlier on June 3, 1972. By 1979, after leaving her first rabbinical position at New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue where she had served as an assistant rabbi, she was told her career track had ended.
“I have always believed that if I did a competent job and gained the respect of my colleagues … I would be accepted by virtue of my ability, sincerity, and dedication,” Preisand told the NYT. “I’ve learned in the last year that it just doesn’t work that way.”
It had taken Priesand months to secure her first rabbinical job. Then, almost a decade into her tenure at the NYC synagogue, she realized she’d hit a glass ceiling. According to the NYT, Preisand was told, unequivocally, that despite the congregation’s need, the synagogue would not be able to guarantee her the next position up the ladder: head rabbi. Even though the head rabbi was ill, Priesand could not replace him because she was a woman. She left. Her reaction deserves applause. She could have stayed, the board wasn’t firing her — but they were telling her that she’d never be more than a number two.
A year later, Priesand was still unemployed; she had been rejected by the 12 synagogues to which she’d applied. According to the NYT, only three of the synagogues extended interviews. Each rejection came with discriminatory reasoning: “We cannot possibly have a woman rabbi.”
Unfortunately, their reasoning was not new to Priesand. The Jewish Women’s Archive reported that during her rabbinical training her fellow classmates and teachers believed her quest for ordination was “only a ‘passing fancy’” and that she was “really in rabbinical school in search of a husband.”
After two years as an underemployed ordained rabbi, Preisand, in 1981, helped establish and head up a reform synagogue in New Jersey. Twenty-five years later, in June 2006, she retired from Monmouth Reform Temple.
Today there are 700 female rabbis in the U.S. – a count that is less than one-fifth of the total number of ordained rabbis. But sadly, the path Preisand paved for the female rabbis who came after her is marred by more than a quarter-century of sexual harassment. Last year, Jewish Week described an epidemic of “female rabbis … being sexually harassed by senior rabbis, administrators, and even congregants.” What’s worse, when it comes to clergy (and not just in the Jewish religion), there is something called the “ministerial exemption.” The means that, unlike other women who are sexually harassed in their workplace, these rabbis (as well as cantors) are “prohibit[ed] from filing sexual harassment suits against their employers.”
“We still have a long way to go before women are truly equal.” — Sally Jan Preisand, 1979
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My Father Was a Mad Man (The Covey, June 2018)
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