Women Rabbis Celebrate 50 Years of Service
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Women Rabbis Celebrate 50 Years of Service

Rabbi Alexandra Shuval-Weiner of Temple Beth Tikvah and Rabbi Sally Priesand represent the past and the future of women in the rabbinate.

The first women rabbis ordained by denomination: (left to right) Sara Hurwitz, Orthodox, 2009; Sandy Sasso, Reconstructionist, 1974; Amy Eilberg, Conservative, 1985; Sally Priesand, Reform, 1972.
The first women rabbis ordained by denomination: (left to right) Sara Hurwitz, Orthodox, 2009; Sandy Sasso, Reconstructionist, 1974; Amy Eilberg, Conservative, 1985; Sally Priesand, Reform, 1972.

When the 1972 graduating class of Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic program gathered for their ordination in Cincinnati, Ohio, the 25 men were joined — for the first time in American Jewish history — by a female colleague, Sally Priesand.

At first, Priesand’s efforts to become a rabbi were not welcomed by the school, which tried to steer her into a career as a Jewish educator. But with the strong support of Rabbi Nelson Glueck, the distinguished president of the Reform seminary, she became the school’s first female rabbinic graduate on June 8, 1972.

Now, 50 years later, the 75-year-old rabbi is retired and living in New Jersey. She has been the subject of numerous special appearances and a historical exhibit at the museum of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This year, she also delivered the ordination address to the ten new rabbis in the 2022 graduating class at the denomination’s Cincinnati campus, six of them women.

Rabbi Alexandra Shuval-Weiner of Temple Beth Tikvah followed a long and winding path to the rabbinate.

In her address, Priesand singled out the importance of rituals like rabbinic ordination in creating meaning in contemporary Jewish life.

“Not through social justice alone do we make that covenant come alive, but also through our rituals, those acts that shape the personality of our people, that communicate tradition, that unify us, that make all of life holy.”

The sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Alexandra Shuval-Weiner, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Tikvah. In 2008, she was ordained in front of the same open ark in Cincinnati’s historic Pine Street Temple where Rabbi Priesand stood in the 1970s. Today, Shuval-Weiner vividly remembers that first moment of becoming a rabbi.

In 1972, Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi to be ordained in America.

“That moment of my ordination was profoundly spiritual. I can’t even find the right words. I could feel the electricity literally going through me. I was standing before an open ark and I remember being blessed with the priestly benediction, but I didn’t hear the words through my ears. I literally felt the words in my cells. It was such a profound and miraculous moment,” she recalled.

Reaching that moment in her spiritual life had been a lengthy and circuitous journey for Shuval-Weiner, who had been raised in a traditionally observant home and had attended a Conservative synagogue where the ordination of women was unheard of. It was only as an adult, after she had embarked on a career as a Jewish educator in a Reform temple, that Shuval-Weiner first became aware of the possibility of becoming a member of the clergy.

Another 18 years would pass before she finally entered the seminary. By the time she finally became a rabbi, Shuval-Weiner had been married for almost a decade and a half and was raising five children.

Today, as she begins her eighth year at Temple Beth Tikvah, the rabbi believes that the material experience of nurturing a family and that of guiding the life of a growing synagogue complement one another.

“Much like when we are raising our young and engaging in that audacious responsibility, I think of the journey of the Jewish people, the journey of humanity, really,” she said, which is “largely a manifestation of what it means to raise a human being. And I try and bring that to my rabbinate.”

“Sally Opened Doors,” a children’s book about Priesand, was written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman rabbi ordained by the Reconstructionist movement.

Shuval-Weiner currently serves as the first female president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association and, in 2020, was the chairperson for the national convention of the Central Conference of America Rabbis — the world’s largest rabbinic association — about half of whose members are women.

There are now over 1,200 female rabbis representing almost all branches of Judaism. Two female rabbis who serve the community in Atlanta were ordained by the Open Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, New York. One is Miriam Udel, who was recently tapped to head the Tam Center for Jewish Studies at Emory University; the second, Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, works with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

For those women leading the way in the rabbinate, life has not always been easy. Pioneers like Priesand often faced a hostile professional environment. (Priesand was the last in her class to get a job offer.) For seven years, she served as an assistant rabbi at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a socially and politically liberal congregation in Greenwich Village. She finally became the senior rabbi at a congregation not far from the New Jersey shore, where she remained for 25 years.

Her example continues to inspire new generations of Jewish youth. Last month, a children’s book, “Sally Opened Doors: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi,” was published. Aimed at first- and second-grade students, the third book by Sandy Sasso about courageous women from Jewish history tells the story of how Priesand opened doors for women to participate fully in Jewish life.

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