A Half-Century of Women Rabbis

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, June 1, 2022

June 3, 2022 marks 50 years since the ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, the first woman rabbi in America. In 1968, Sally Priesand enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), our Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati. Although she planned to become a rabbi, it was not certain that she would eventually become ordained. The ordination of Rabbi Priesand in 1972, became a moment of transformation for the Jewish world. Fifty years earlier, in 1922, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform movement’s rabbinic body) had already issued a statement favoring the ordination of women. However, in 1923 Martha Neumark, who already had com¬pleted almost eight years of study at HUC, was denied ordination by the HUC board of governors. And in 1939, Hadassah Leventhal Lyons, who had completed her studies at the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR), was denied ordination. Finally, after twenty three years of additional debate, Rabbi Sally J. Priesand made history.

When I determined at the age of 14 to embark on the path to become a rabbi, I had not met a woman rabbi, but I knew that it was possible because of Rabbi Priesand. I did not know of the obstacles that she encountered on her path to ordination or the challenges that she bravely faced being the first. All I knew was that the rabbis and cantor of my home synagogue believed in me and encouraged me to follow my dream, which led to the same campus of HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, that Rabbi Priesand had attended. There, in the hallowed halls where she studied in classrooms full of male classmates, I learned from some of the same professors that she studied under. Because she opened the doors and has continued to hold them open, I have been privileged to learn and study, and to become a rabbi. Because she opened doors and has continued to hold them open, I have been privileged to teach, lead, and create within a Jewish community that has become enriched and expansive in many ways beyond what any of us could have dreamed.

Since Rabbi Priesand’s ordination in 1972, 1,500 women have become rabbis across every major Jewish denomination, about 850 in the Reform movement. At the time of my own ordination, twenty-two years after her, there were just over 100 women rabbis. I am grateful to Rabbi Priesand, and all the women who followed her, our vatikot (pioneers), who made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of serving our Jewish people. Following the Reform movement’s ordination of Rabbi Priesand in 1972, the Reconstructionist movement ordained Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in 1974, and in 1985 the Conservative movement ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg. 37 years after Rabbi Priesand, Rabba Sara Hurwitz became the first in Modern Orthodoxy in 2009.

This 50th anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination is a Shehecheyanu moment! Thank you, God, for giving us life, and enabling us to celebrate this joyous occasion. Thank you, Rabbi Sally Priesand, for your courage and your persistence. Because you opened doors and continue to hold them open, when I decided to become a rabbi, I knew it was not just a dream – Im Tirtzu Ayn Zo Agada – for all of us you made it possible for dreams to become reality.


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

WRN Vatikot

Rabbi Sally Priesand (center), surrounded by the Vatikot (pioneers), the women rabbis ordained in the Reform movement in the first generation following her historic ordination in 1972.

Rabbi Pollack with Rabbi Priesand

Rabbi Audrey Pollack with Rabbi Sally Priesand at the Women’s Rabbinic Network convention in 2019.

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