50 years of women rabbis

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Fifty years ago, Sally Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, becoming the first woman rabbi ordained by an institution. What was an innovation in 1972 has become increasingly familiar as the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements began to ordain women rabbis, raising them to positions of authority and respect in the Jewish community. In 2013, a segment of Orthodoxy began to ordain women as spiritual leaders and legal authorities.

We asked a cross-section of Washington-area women rabbis how Sally Priesand’s milestone influenced them and Judaism itself.


Rabbi Susan Grossman

Rabbi Susan Grossman

Being first at anything is not a calling. It is a commitment. A commitment to pursue one’s calling despite obstacles and odds arrayed against you. A commitment to proving, over and over again, one’s knowledge, skill, talent and wisdom. A commitment to weathering pushback and sabotage with grace, courage, a thick skin and a sense of humor. A commitment to supporting those coming up after you.

As the first female rabbi ordained by a recognized rabbinical school in America, Rabbi Sally Priesand means this and more to me.

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I dreamed of becoming a Conservative rabbi years before being able to enter Jewish Theological Seminary with the first class of rabbinical students to include women. Rabbinical school and ordination were just the beginning. I was ordained in 1989 when there were still few role models for what a female pulpit rabbinate could look like.

As the first female pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Priesand’s success was an inspiration and a promise that I, too, could succeed in the pulpit, inspire others, positively impact my congregants and community and help expand the role and status of women in Judaism. Just as Rabbi Priesand inspired me, I hope I have inspired others of all genders to look beyond naysayers or limiting social conditions to sustain the commitment necessary to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.


Rabbi Susan Grossman was a member of the first rabbinical school class to include women at Jewish Theological Seminary. After 33 years in the pulpit, 25 at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, she will retire and transition to emerita this June. One of the longest-seated members of the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, her decisions on women witnesses and judges, mikvah use, etc. have helped expand the status of women in Judaism. She is co-editor of Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, the Conservative Movement Humash, and “Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue.”

Rabbi Susan Shankman. Photo by Lacey Johnson/Washington Hebrew Congregation

Rabbi Susan Shankman

At the age of 3, I famously (or infamously as my parents recall) stood up during the family service on Yom Kippur and shouted that I wanted to “go where Papa is!” as my grandfather delivered a sermon to the crowded sanctuary. This occurred mere months after Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female rabbi of the modern era. I am quite sure I was neither aware of the significance of her ordination at that moment nor the impact her fortitude and persistence would have on my own life and professional journey.

I am just one of hundreds of women who, from the time I decided I wanted to be a rabbi, knew it was possible, thanks to Sally Priesand. I may not have actually met a female rabbi until I was in high school, but the culture of the Reform movement and the landscape of American Judaism was transformed by her ordination. I understood implicitly that I had a voice and was encouraged to follow my path. I was raised to believe that women could be and do anything. In a family with a legacy of rabbis that could be traced to the 14th century, that provided a deep sense of empowerment and the knowledge that I could continue that family tradition, albeit in a new way.

Rabbi Priesand’s ordination was significant in that it opened doors and ushered in new customs and creativity. From baby namings to Torah commentary, new voices were heard, and the Jewish community began to approach leadership and tradition from a new perspective.

As we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate, we celebrate 50 years of inclusion, creativity and celebration.

I feel blessed to follow in Rabbi Priesand’s footsteps to the bimah I aspired to stand on 50 years ago.

Rabbi Susan Shankman is rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Maharat Ruth Balinsky-Friedman
File photo

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

As a member of the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat, people have asked me many times if I always knew that I wanted to be a rabbi. My answer is always the same: That even though my father is an Orthodox rabbi, it never once occurred to me that I could pursue a career in the rabbinate because women didn’t become rabbis in Orthodoxy. No one had ever done it before, so I had never seen an Orthodox woman in that position. As a result, it simply never crossed my mind.

This story emphasizes just how significant Rabbi Priesand’s ordination was for Jewish women everywhere. Before her ordination, there was no rabbinic leadership model for Jewish girls. They all grew up assuming that the rabbinate was reserved exclusively for men. Rabbi Priesand’s willingness to think outside the box and bravely pursue the rabbinate made her an instant role model for Jewish women everywhere. It is because of her that Conservative Judaism followed suit, and then Orthodoxy, albeit more than 40 years later.

The most significant part of my role at Ohev Sholom is modeling female leadership for the next generation. A parent recently shared with me that her 8-year-old daughter expressed strong excitement that I am the leader of her shul because “she sits on my side of the mechitzah!” A mechitzah is a barrier between the men’s and women’s sides. It is a feature of most Orthodox synagogues.

This girl’s excitement is a direct outgrowth of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination 50 years ago. Mazel tov on this incredible milestone!

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman leads Ohev Sholom-the National Synagogue. She is a member of the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halachic (legal) authorities.

Rabbi Hannah Goldstein

Rabbi Hannah Goldstein

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.” Exodus 15:20

In the biblical book of Exodus, God miraculously parts the sea for the Israelites, providing them with a path to freedom. In this week’s Torah portion, we read the words of Moses’ song of celebration. Parshat Beshalach also explicitly mentions Miriam’s leadership in that momentous moment. With timbrel in hand, Miriam leads the women in song and joyful celebration.

Women’s leadership of the Jewish people is not new. It goes back to biblical times. But it was just 50 years ago that Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College. Fifty years later, the rabbinate is populated by people of all genders. Being a woman is certainly a part of my rabbinical leadership.

Still, being a woman rabbi does not define my rabbinate or my opportunities. In part, I have Sally Priesand to thank for that freedom.Rabbi Priesand was a path breaker for all of those who came after her. Everywhere she went, she was the first. She opened the door for the first generation of women rabbis, for whom being a rabbi was a novel idea. Who themselves were often the first. Who had to define for their congregants and communities what it meant to be a woman rabbi.

Certainly, gender remains a part of our rabbinic identities, for better and for worse. Women rabbis have brought ritual innovation to mark the lifecycle and experiences of women.

Women rabbis have brought new insights to our ancient texts that for too long excluded women’s voices. And, sexism and bias persist in the rabbinate and in our congregations, just as they do in all corners of our society.

When I arrived at Temple Sinai, I joined a rabbinic team that had included women since Rabbi Mindy Portnoy began working there in 1986. Thanks to the leadership of Rabbi Portnoy and others, at our congregation the sight of a woman on the bimah was normal, even expected. When I lead our congregation, I have the benefit of dancing in the footprints left by Miriam, Sally, Mindy and many, many others.

Rabbi Hannah Goldstein is associate rabbi of Temple Sinai in the District.

Rabbi Annie Lewis. Photo by David Stuck

Rabbi Annie Lewis

This weekend, we celebrate Shabbat Shirah, chanting from the Torah the songs our ancestors sang when they left the narrow straits of Egypt. “Az yashir Moshe” — The Torah records how Moses sang a song of redemption with the Children of Israel. Afterward, Miriam, too, led the women in song. Moses’ song begins, “Ashirah L’Adonai, I will sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously.” Miriam’s song begins, “Shiru L’Adonai! Sing, all of you!”

Rabbah Tamar Duvdavani interprets this to mean that while Moses sings the song of the individual, Miriam, in her leadership, “gathers together and assembles all of the voices, joining each song to the collective, multifaceted song, a manifestation of the voice of God.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, I am grateful for the new melodies and harmonies that women have brought to the rabbinate and to our Jewish communities. As a Conservative rabbi, I lead because of the courage of women and men who wrestled with the tradition, who found openings for change and who spoke out for the inclusion of women in rabbinic and cantorial leadership.

Our tradition is enlivened by the voices of women rabbis who have studied and taught their Torah, who have accompanied people through lifecycle moments with wisdom gleaned from our experiences, who have led Jewish organizations and catalyzed movements for justice.

Even as space has opened for women rabbis and cantors, we have work to do in all of our movements to increase representation and equity, to cultivate a life-giving Judaism of belonging for people of all gender identities and to lift up the voices of those who have been on the margins of Jewish community. Like Miriam, when we weave together all of the voices, our song stretches to the heavens and sets us free.

Rabbi Annie Lewis is rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. It might be interesting to also report on the impact that female rabbis have had on the trajectory of the movements that employ them. Demographic studies of the Jewish community in the USA empirically demonstrate a correlation of decline in synagogue and movement membership numbers with the advent of female rabbis.

  2. I don’t believe there is a nexus between the emergence of female rabbis on the scene and the decline in synagogue membership. The decline has many logical societal reasons, among them the advent of huge loans many students have been required to take to go to college, graduate school and other training programs. In addition, housing prices have steadily increased as has the amount it takes to raise a child. This has affected young Jews in droves who cannot pay increasing synagogue dues- especially in aging buildings that require much maintenance and security costs. As the 2nd woman ordained by HUC-JIR, in one of my congregations, I was the only one in the building during the week and the front was all glass. One of the things we spent money on was a security system with monitors that was expensive. And police security was required during the High Holy Days. These type of expenditures were never needed as I grew up, but in many congregations, they add thousands to the bottom line, making membership more expensive. Some young adults had as much as $200,000 in student loans. No wonder synagogue membership took a back seat until paid off. If you add the costs of housing, it’s no wonder that there has been a decline in membership.

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