NEW YORK — They’d never be able to lift and carry the Torah. They’d look strange standing there on the bima (pulpit) wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl. They don’t know how, or want, to wield power. They’d cry at meetings, and probably only preach about feminism.
Those were just some of the arguments women faced as they fought for their right to become rabbis. Then along came Rabbi Sally Priesand. In 1972 she shattered the stained-glass ceiling to become the first female rabbi ordained in the United States. Finally, the chauvinistic stereotypes would slide into oblivion — or so people thought.
“I actually was naïve in thinking we were living in a post-feminist world. I was born a month after Sally Priesand was ordained, so I knew there were women rabbis,” said Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue.
“But three-and-a-half years ago when I applied to become senior rabbi I started hearing ‘Angela, how are you going to handle the job and your children? You’re such a good mother,’ or ‘Some of our congregation are concerned if you have the gravitas to be a rabbi,’ which is code for 60-year-old man,” she said. “So I said ‘I’ll never be a 60-year-old man, but if you’re asking if I can speak from the bima with authority then that’s something you can ask.’ So I’d like to say those things are over, but they’re not.”
Buchdahl shared her story on December 4 as part of a panel with three other women rabbis in “Breaking Boundaries, Building Communities: Women Rabbis and the Transformation of Jewish Life,” at New York’s Central Synagogue. Each rabbi reflected on her journey, experiences as spiritual leader, teacher and communal activist, and what it was like to become the “first.”
There are now 350 ordained women rabbis representing all branches of American Judaism
While there are now 350 ordained women rabbis representing all branches of American Judaism, the time for increased female leadership has never been more critical, said Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“I had in mind as we were planning this panel that we would be talking about what the women rabbis could teach the new president about what happens after you shatter the glass ceiling, about what it’s like when you enter a new space,” said Rosenbaum, the panel’s moderator.
The event complemented the Jewish Women’s Archive’s newly-launched Women Rabbis collection, which uses video interviews with women from around the world to tell how women changed the rabbinate.
“There is this fantasy that once the ceiling is shattered the work is over, but of course the work has just begun. Most of the pioneers didn’t set out to be pioneers. They just wanted to serve their communities and they felt called to become rabbis,” Rosenbaum said.
That was certainly the case for Priesand.
“I didn’t set out to be a pioneer. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I was fortunate that my parents gave me the gift to dare to dream,” Priesand, 70, said.
When Priesand walked onto the campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1964, she was the only woman among 35 men. The daughter of an engineer and a homemaker, she grew up in a home that wasn’t religiously observant, but was very active in Jewish organizations. She knew she wanted to be a rabbi by the time she was 16 and wrote away for admission information from HUC-JIR.
They wrote back: “The question of a woman as a rabbi is a question for the rabbis rather than for the school. There is no attempt on our part to discourage you but to direct your thinking.”
She was not discouraged. She forged ahead and in 1972 became the first woman ordained in the US and the second ordained woman in Jewish history. The Reconstructionist movement followed suit in 1974, and the Conservative movement in 1985.
When Priesand entered HUC-JIR she represented a long line of women stretching back into the 1800s who had wanted to become rabbis. And as the suffrage campaign grew, so too did their push. For many, after the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote, the next obstacle to tackle was the issue of women’s education.
A road fraught with hurdles
Obstacles abounded for Priesand. “They thought I came to marry a rabbi, not that I wanted to be a rabbi. I was going out with a fellow student at the time and another rabbi said to him ‘Do us a favor, and marry her and get rid of her,’” Priesand said.
For more than 40 years, women rabbis have transformed Jewish life around the world, breaking boundaries on the bima and beyond. Along the way they’ve changed the way people think about and interact with Judaism.
“Every time you can expand the feel, the tenor, the way people think of a rabbi you can shift their theology. You can expand the way they think God looks and sounds. That’s a good thing,” Buchdahl said.
In 2014, the Central Synagogue rabbi led prayers before the nation’s first African-American president at the White House Hanukah celebration.
Buchdahl is the first Asian-American cantor in the world, and the first to be ordained as a rabbi. She is also the first woman to hold both titles.
Born in Seoul, Korea to a Japanese–born Korean Buddhist mother and American Ashkenazi Reform Jew, the 44-year-old moved to the US when she was just five years old. She attended Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington, which her great-grandparents helped found a century before.
There was a lot of pushback — much of it by fellow Jews. In school, Buchdahl’s Orthodox roommate told her she wasn’t Jewish because her mother wasn’t born Jewish. In Israel during a summer program Israelis asked if she knew the meaning behind the delicate Star of David she wore around her neck.
Buchdahl forged ahead. She enrolled at HUC-JIR after graduating Yale University, where she was one of the first female members of the secret society Skull and Bones.
‘Becoming a rabbi neutered you’
“You’ll be boiled and oiled.” Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses remembers those words well. They came from a male rabbi, a rabbi she still considers a mentor, when she asked what he thought it would be like for her to become a rabbi.
Cohler-Esses grew up in Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish community. For her, the strict religious and social mores verged on suffocating. She was expected to marry and have children by the age of 19; to live and work within the community.
Then she discovered feminism in high school and found a more appealing path — the rabbinate. Her mentor didn’t relent. He tried to persuade her to become an educator, get a degree in psychology — anything but become a rabbi.
‘I had a real revolution of consciousness to realize I could go out there and be feminine and powerful’
“He told me if I did that [chose another path] no door would be closed to me in the community. Instead I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary and every door was closed to me,” Cohler-Esses recalled.
At the time JTS still regarded being a rabbi as a man’s job. She recalled one class where students were taught how to manage their weekly schedules. The idea that a woman could retain her femininity while becoming a rabbi was foreign to many faculty, she said.
“The model was that a wife does all the personal stuff, managing the household, preparing for Shabbat,” she said. “I had a real revolution of consciousness to realize I could go out there and be feminine and powerful. There was a sense that becoming a rabbi neutered you.”
In 1995 Cohler-Esses became the first ordained woman rabbi in the Syrian-American community and in 2012 she became the director of lifelong learning at Kehilat Romemu, a Jewish renewal community in New York.
Lila Kagedan joined New Jersey’s Mount Freedom Jewish Center in 2016 and became the first Orthodox female clergy member to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “rabbi.”
‘You have to remind yourself you are trained, you are every bit as credentialed as your male counterpart’
“I always knew I wanted to be a rabbi, even though Orthodox shuls aren’t breaking down doors to get women. Still, I have always gleaned hope from women such as yourselves,” Kagedan said gesturing to the panel.
She trained and received ordination in 2015 from Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox women’s religious training program in New York’s Bronx borough founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Today she’s an instructor of bioethics at New York Medical College and a clinical ethicist and chaplain for hospitals and hospices.
Kagedan said she finds herself giving herself daily pep talks, particularly before officiating over life cycle events.
“You have to remind yourself you are trained, you are every bit as credentialed as your male counterpart and finally that you are as good, maybe a little better then they are, because when you constantly try to prove yourself you maybe do it a little better,” she said. “Women have to support other women. It is the only way we’ll advance into leadership roles.”