Then and Now: Challenges for the Jewish Community
Editor’s Note: The women who led the rabbinic way by being the first ordained in each denomination were asked: What were the major challenges facing the Jewish community when you were ordained and what do you see as the major challenges today?
Rabbi Sally J. Priesand
The year I was ordained, 1972, was a presidential election year, with Richard Nixon running for re-election against George McGovern. There was a lot of talk about whether Jews voted as a one-issue community that put Israel above everything else. I addressed the subject in my first Yom Kippur sermon in the main sanctuary of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, where I held my first rabbinic position following ordination. Rabbi Edward E. Klein, my senior rabbi, taught me to use a free pulpit (meaning the rabbi is free to say whatever he or she wishes) to motivate and inspire people as Stephen Wise had intended. In my sermon, I suggested that we face an election as individuals and not as a Jewish community, considering all issues of the campaign and choosing the candidate we think best for America. I still feel the same.
Another major challenge faced by the Jewish community then was how best to welcome women into every aspect of synagogue and communal life. This issue continues to challenge the Jewish world. Female rabbis are not compensated equally to male rabbis. Respect for rabbis is called into question when male rabbis are addressed as “rabbi” and female rabbis are called by their first name. Some organizations continue to sponsor all-male panels. Large congregations hesitate to hire women as their senior rabbis. Sexual assault, gender bias, discrimination and bullying are just beginning to be dealt with. I congratulate the Reform Jewish community for putting these issues, and others like them, on the front burner, and I am grateful to the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Women of Reform Judaism for playing a leadership role.
Rabbi Sally J. Priesand is rabbi emerita of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg
The year that I was ordained by the Conservative movement, 1985, was one both troubled and celebratory for American Jews. We watched with trepidation as Israel attempted to disengage from Lebanon, only to see the formation of Hezbollah, causing grave concern to Israel and to American Jews. At the same time, many younger Jews began to shift from seeing Israel as a vulnerable state surrounded by enemies to seeing it as an occupying power. The divide in the Jewish community’s views of Israel that we know so well today began to spread and intensify.
My ordination also marked a triumph in the Jewish feminist movement, which had decisively emerged as a transformative force in American Jewish life, spawning new works of theology, liturgy and midrash. The floodgates opened, bringing a cadre of new female leaders and new sources of learning, creativity, passion and compassion to the Jewish community.
Challenges remain. The goal of equality of opportunity and respect for Jewish women in the rabbinate is certainly not complete. Today, it is LGBTQ Jews and Jewish leaders who must be included and embraced. The community is just beginning to recognize the needs of the 10 to 15 percent of the American Jewish population who are Jews of Color. And in 2022, the Jewish community must also look beyond itself, working to protect democracy, to stand in solidarity with other targeted communities and to vigorously defend the planet from climate disaster.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg currently serves as a spiritual director, peace and justice educator and teacher of mussar, a classical Jewish system of spiritual development.
A virtual event featuring Rabbis Sally Priesand, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Amy Eilberg and Sara Hurwitz, all of whom made history by becoming the first ordained rabbis in their respective denominations.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
When I was preparing for my 1974 ordination, I wanted to write a Ph.D. dissertation on women and Judaism. I was advised that would be a mistake and was counseled to write about something “important.” The issues that were important during the 1970s were about Jewish survival, the security of Israel, the rescue of Jews from the Soviet Union and other endangered communities. These were unifying concerns that mobilized American Jews. Secular feminism had a strong presence in America but discounted Judaism as patriarchal. Jewish feminism was just emerging and often viewed as divisive, a threat to Jewish continuity. The havurah movement raised questions about the traditional structure of Jewish life and leadership.
Fifty years later, the impact of Jewish feminism has been enormous, reshaping much of Jewish life and expanding in recent years to include gender diversity. The challenges today concern polarization. As we embrace diversity, we search for a unifying center. Will focusing on important secular and universal causes be enough to hold the Jewish community together when arguments over Zionism and issues of Jewish identity tear us apart? With the rise of social media and diminishing congregational membership, what will be the structures that sustain Jewish living? Will insularity cause us to regress and make us irrelevant? Will loss of all boundaries and individualism cause us to disappear as a community?
Jewish feminism has taught us to widen the tent but at the same time to respect boundaries. We valued the tradition even as we transformed it. The inclusion of marginalized groups enriched, but did not necessarily negate, Jewish tradition. The challenge for the next generation is how to ensure that the boundaries that protect us are not barriers to personal and communal transformation.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts program at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Arts and Humanities Institute.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz
In 2009, around the time I was ordained, I began noticing a pervading sense of disillusionment with the role of women in Orthodoxy. A 2016 study by Nishma Research found that among Orthodox Jews who had left the fold, 37 percent said that women’s roles in Judaism propelled them to opt out. Although women have reached the highest echelons of leadership and equity in every industry, they are othered or hidden in Orthodox synagogues. Women who are seen as leaders in all aspects of their lives have lower tolerance for invisibility, so they and their daughters are leaving. Yeshivat Maharat, which educates and ordains women, was created to push the boundaries of the Orthodox community. Seeing women on the bimah, in the classroom and as leaders of organizations helps the next generation remain connected to their roots.
Today, the challenges have shifted. The pandemic has accelerated the fact that, across all Jewish communities, synagogues are less central to people’s lives. People are finding ways to connect with like-minded individuals across the globe; proximity is no longer the defining way people create communities. The locus of today’s Jewish life needs to shift from legacy organizations, such as large synagogues and large communal institutions, although these do serve a purpose, to focusing on local microcommunities that gather based on shared interests. Whether people are embracing our global community or seeking local grassroots support, rabbis as teachers of Torah and as pastoral listeners will continue to play an important role in the lives of the Jewish people.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is president and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat and serves as clergy at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Riverdale, N.Y.