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Pioneering women to gather for historic forum
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Pioneering women to gather for historic forum

First rabbis to share their experiences in breaking ground

A standing-room-only crowd is expected at a celebration honoring Four Firsts — the first women in America ordained as rabbis in, respectively, the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Open Orthodox denominations.

The Four First Women Rabbis forum will take place at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, where the nation’s very first female rabbi, Sally J. Priesand, served for 25 years. The event will be held on June 3, the exact date of her ordination 40 years ago.

Also being honored are Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist, 1974), Rabbi Amy Eilberg (Conservative, 1985), and Rabba Sara Hurwitz (Orthodox, 2009).

Each guest will speak of her experiences, and MRT’s Rabbi Michelle Pearlman will moderate a discussion, followed by a question-and-answer session with the rabbis. The event is cochaired by MRT and the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.

Paving the way for more than 1,000 female rabbis who followed her was an honor, said Priesand in an interview with NJJN. “All four of the rabbis being honored have had the privilege of opening doors to women in the Jewish community.

“I think we can say as we look back over 40 years that the ordination of women has totally changed the Jewish world by allowing women to be part of the conversation,” said Priesand, who serves as rabbi emerita of MRT, and is an honorary member of the board of the Jewish Heritage Museum.

“But the journey isn’t finished yet; some challenges still remain. Once people experience a woman rabbi they generally accept it. It’s a lesson we learned from the civil rights movement. If you don’t see someone who looks like you in a position of leadership then you don’t think it’s possible,” Priesand said.

Pearlman credits Priesand for the fact that she has never known a world without women rabbis. “My life has been transformed by my rabbinate, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to follow my call to leadership,” she said. “This was possible for me because there were women who were not afraid to break barriers and strike out in new directions.”

‘Inevitable evolution’

Although Hurwitz was ordained just three years ago, she has the distinction of being the only female rabbi who did not have a movement supporting her, she said. She serves as dean of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first Open Orthodox school to train women as spiritual leaders.

“Open Orthodoxy is an extension of Modern Orthodoxy,” said Hurwitz. “It implies that we are seriously committed to Halacha but with an openness to all that modernity and secular life has to offer. One of our principles is that men and women should have the ability to contribute to and shape the Jewish community.”

Hurwitz, who is also on the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, uses the title “Rabba.”

“It is a real honor for me to sit side by side with role models who have pursued a career in spiritual leadership before me,” she said. “They forged the way for Orthodox women to also navigate the inevitable evolution of becoming spiritual leaders.”

The announcement of her ordination received mixed reviews in the Orthodox community, Hurwitz said. Anonymous callers left angry voice mails, accusing her of dividing the Orthodox community.

“I do not intend to be the cause of a split in Orthodoxy,” she told NJJN. “I find that people are very open to the possibility of this evolution once they understand my intention is to help build and serve the community.”

For Sasso, becoming a rabbi was a lifelong ambition. She now serves as senior religious leader at Congregation Beth El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Ind., along with her husband, Rabbi Dennis Sasso (the first husband-and-wife rabbinical couple in Jewish history).

“We are living in a time when much of public discourse is confrontational and polarized,” she said. “How wonderful to be part of an event with women from four denominations to affirm and celebrate the role of women in Jewish life.

“It really isn’t about any one of us, as much as it is about the many contributions of women, past and present, who have transformed the Jewish landscape,” Sasso told NJJN.

Women rabbis often have to go further than men to prove themselves, she added. “After my first year in seminary, I received a letter from a woman who wrote: ‘Ordinarily, I would sign off by wishing much success, but this time I will refrain. Frankly, I hope you don’t make it — for your sake, mine, and everyone else’s.’”

Once after Sasso addressed a large congregation in her community, the host rabbi said, “When Rabbi Sasso grows up, she’ll change her mind!” Sasso recalled, “What helped me through it was a sense of humor, a strong belief that what I was doing was right and good, a wonderful husband, and a supportive community.”

Eilberg, the first Conservative woman rabbi, currently directs interfaith dialogue programs in the Twin Cities in Minnesota and is involved in peace and reconciliation efforts in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as with issues of conflict within the Jewish community. She is at work on a book on Judaism and peacemaking.

“It is a joy to connect with my sisters Sally, Sandy, and Sara to celebrate our shared work,” Eilberg told NJJN. “Each of our paths has been unique, yet we have all served as pioneering leaders of the Jewish feminist revolution.”

By coming together, she said, they “encourage others to celebrate the many successes and contributions of Jewish women, and try to inspire other women to use their gifts in every way they can dream of. In return, we are inspired by the joy that other women feel now that the equality of women is a reality throughout the Jewish community.”

Eilberg said that as a young adult, she had “a great passion for Jewish study and Jewish life” and knew she wanted to work “with people at important times of their lives.” When, during her freshman year in college, Rabbi Al Axelrad told her she should become a rabbi, she thought he was “crazy”; at that time, the Conservative movement was not seriously considering the ordination of women.

But that conversation “with an important mentor,” she said, “had planted the seed in me, and as the years passed, I discerned that he was right.”

“In fact,” said Eilberg, “with each passing year, my call to the rabbinate grows deeper.”

Gerald Reisner and museum copresident Michael Berman served as cochairs of the Four Firsts event, which was also sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.

Reisner, past president of MRT, was on the committee that hired Priesand. “There was never a question about her being a woman,” he said. “She was simply the best rabbi we interviewed.”

Raising his sons in a temple led by a woman had a unique effect, he said. “When they first visited other temples, they were surprised to see male rabbis. They told me they didn’t know that men could be rabbis, too.”

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