Rabbi Priesand looks back on 50 years in the rabbinate

Rabbi Sally J. Priesand expressed her affection for Ohio, her commitment to moving women’s rights forward and her memories growing up in Cleveland and attending rabbinical school in Cincinnati as she reflected on 50 years in the rabbinate during a presentation to Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington Oct. 13.

“I feel very close to you since you’re in Ohio,” Priesand, 76, told the congregants as she spoke on Zoom from her home in Asbury Park, N.J. “Basically, I am an Ohioan and I was born and grew up in Cleveland and then went to college in Cincinnati. So I’ve been through Columbus back and forth many times. I don’t know Rabbi (Rick) Kellner all that well, but I do know that he and I share a love for liturgy and the prayer experience. And I am certain that all of you are grateful for the opportunity to benefit from his creativity and leadership.”

Priesand said she decided to become a rabbi at the age of 16, having first wanting to teach.

“In the end, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism, which is really what a rabbi is,” Priesand said. “Fortunately for me, my parents gave me what I consider to be one of the greatest gifts that a parent can give a child, and that is the courage to dare and to dream. As a result, I’ve remained focused on my goal, unconcerned that no woman had been ordained rabbi in America, and determined to succeed.”

Priesand attended the former Beth Am Congregation in the Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights before her family moved to Cleveland’s west side, where she attended Beth Israel-The West Temple.

Priesand spoke of growing up in a family where she and her siblings were encouraged to invite a non-Jewish friend to their seder each year.

“I can still see my father as the head of the table, reclining on his pillow, leaving the table at the appropriate time to wash his hands, explaining the symbols on the seder plate, and reading every single word of the Haggadah,” she said of her father, Irving Priesand. “My mother (Rose Priesand), of course, had been preparing for days, making the gefilte fish from scratch, and fashioning those delicious matzah balls that were especially light and fluffy.”

One year, my father’s business brought him into contact with a Catholic children’s home run by a group of nuns. Passover was approaching and in the course of conversation, the mother superior began asking questions about the customs and traditions of this holiday. Before long, my father had offered to conduct the seder, for 52 nuns and the monsignor, volunteering my mother, of course, to oversee the meal and make enough chicken soup and matzah balls for all the participants. My father read the Haggadah and the youngest nun recited the four questions. My mother, whom we lost a few years ago at the age of 101, remembered entering the dining room and seeing a big sign that welcomed her that said, ‘shalom.’ Moreover the nuns presented her with a beautiful two-tiered silver tray that we continued to cherish.”

She said when her father died in 1968, the nuns paid a shiva call.

“I will never forget the kindness of the nuns, who dressed in their traditional garb, came to our home while we were sitting shiva, to remember my father and give thanks for his life.”

She said, “I am ever grateful to my parents, for teaching us by example, that all people are God’s children, and we have much to learn from each other. As soon as I began to express more than a passing interest in our religious heritage, my parents made certain to include among my birthday or Chanukah presents, more Jewish books, often inscribed by my father with a few words of encouragement and a wonderful way to expand my horizons and at the same time, validate the seriousness of my intention.”

Priesand spoke of both the encouragement she received and the hurdles she faced as she pursued the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

“I was under constant pressure to prove myself,” she said. “Always I felt the need to be better and do better than my classmates so that my commitment and my academic ability would not be questioned.”

She said she was grateful to Rabbi Nelson Glueck, then-president of the college, who backed her from the start.

“Unfortunately, he died the year before I was ordained,” she said. “But his wife, Helen, a distinguished physician and researcher in Cincinnati, told me that, prior to his death, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. His vision and his commitment laid the foundation for the ordination of women. And fortunately for me, and for all of us, Dr. Alfred Gottschalk shared that vision, and when he became president of the college, he made the dream a reality by ordaining me on June 3, 1972, with the 35 men who were my classmates.”

She said only in recent years has she come to understand how “bold and daring” Gottschalk’s actions were.

Priesand’s first job was at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. She then served at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, N.J. She also served as chaplain of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She served as rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Twin Falls, N.J., from 1981 to 2006, where she is rabbi emerita, and continues to attend services weekly. She is known as “Back-row Sally” there for her regular seat in the back of the sanctuary. She also served at High Holy Days at Temple Shirat Shalom in Allentown, N.J.

Priesand devoted a large portion of her time to recognizing Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in the world, who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 as well as to the inequities women face in the rabbinate.

“My experience tells me that we are richer for the gifts that female rabbis and female leaders bring to our shared task: rethinking previous models of leadership and opening doors to partnerships and networking, discovering new models of divinity, knowing that G-d embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine, training new leaders to be more gender aware by welcoming to our institutions of higher learning respected female scholars able to share with us valuable lessons and insights that are unique to women, creating new role models and allowing to be heard, often for the first time, the stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long, the countless number of women who have enriched our people from biblical times on.”

Priesand’s presentation garnered a standing ovation. She took questions and received several appreciative comments from members of the congregation and Kellner.

One congregant asked her about what it was like to be famous.

“I’m a very private person,” she said. “It’s kind of the paradox of my personality, that I chose a career that ultimately I would end up being a public figure.”

She said she once got a call from a boy in Kentucky who wanted to interview her for a report he was writing for women’s history month. Surprised to get a call from a boy, Priesand asked him why he chose her.

“He said, ‘Well, you’re the only one on the list who’s still alive.’”

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