Who were the first women to be ordained as rabbis?
Rabbi Regina Jonas
With the crumbling of the Berlin wall, the journals and sermons of this spiritually passionate woman were discovered, and the world would learn that in 1935 Regina Jonas was ordained as a rabbi in Berlin, Germany. Unlike many of the male rabbis, she did not flee Nazi Germany during the war, but instead, chose to stay and minister to the Jews left behind. In 1942, she was deported to the concentration camp, Theresenstat, outside of Prague. There, she would greet the trains of deportees and help them find dignity, and God, inside the barbed-wire boundaries of their new ghetto. Rabbi Regina Jonas perished in Auschwitz in 1944. But her words live on: “God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus, each of us has a duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts that God has given.”
Rabbi Sally Priesand
In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College as the first woman to become a rabbi in the United States. Upon ordination she said: “I decided I wanted to be a rabbi in 1962 at the age of 16. Fortunately, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: the courage to dare to dream. I never thought much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi.” She served as spiritual leader of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey for 25 years. Only a dozen women occupy senior rabbi positions in Reform congregations in synagogues with more than 600 families. Rabbi Priesand is also the first woman rabbi to retire. In honor of her retirement, her synagogue dedicated Temple doors in her honor that were inscribed with the following words: Open the gates of righteous for me that I may enter and praise God. “Whenever I go through these doors, I remember that we are partners with God in completing the work of creation. I am grateful for the sense of belonging I feel within these walls, for friendships made here and those yet to be, and for my temple family without whom my life would never be the same.”
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Ordained as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974, she has served as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis since 1977. She is the first rabbi to share a pulpit with her husband, Dennis Sasso. She is the author of award-winning children’s books, including the internationally known I Am God’s Paintbrush. Reflecting on her decision to become a rabbi she said: “I remember the first time I decided I wanted to become a rabbi. I was 16 years old. It was as though something inside me was pulling and pushing me somewhere, you might say, calling me to a certain place. And it didn’t matter that there were no women rabbis at the time and that there were people who tried to convince me that my decision was wrong. My family was very supportive, but the community at large was doubtful. I recall receiving a letter from a woman who had learned of my decision to become a rabbi. She wrote that while she usually wished people success in their careers, in my case, she wouldn’t. In fact, she hoped that I would change my mind for my own sake, and Judaism’s sake.” Rabbi Sasso has been President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and presently serves on the Board of Advisors of Indiana University, and Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Thirteen years after the first woman was ordained in the Reform movement, the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg in 1985. Upon her ordination, she said: “The years of struggle, of pain, of exclusion are over. Our movement faces a new beginning, a new era of equality and vitality, and a beginning of a healing process. This will bring us all to a new kind of unity in which we all may be included and to which we all must contribute.” Rabbi Eilberg was also the first woman appointed to serve on the Conservative movements Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1986. She is the founder of the Bay Area Healing Center, where she built her career as a leader of the Jewish healing movement. She also served a a founding co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, a center dedicated to introducing this practice to the American Jewish community through training, education and professional support. Rabbi Eilberg currently directs interfaith dialog programs in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, and is working on a book about Judaism and peacemaking.
Rabbi Sara Hurwitz
In 2009, Rabba Hurwitz became the first woman to receive conferral as a rabbi in the Orthodox movement, when she was privately ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss. At her ordination, she said, “I knew that with God’s help, and the help of many people who supported the Orthodox ordination of women, my dream could be dreamed and the dream realized by others…I never intended to be a trailblazer….this is a gift.” Rabba Hurwitz grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and moved with her family to Boca Raton, Florida when she was 13 years old. She currently serves as the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to train Orthodox woman to become spiritual leaders, which received 35 applications in its first year. She is also on the staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.