Ask the Clergy: A Look Back at 50 Years of Women Rabbis

June marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, the first woman in the world to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary, according to the Jewish Women’s Archives. This week’s clergy discuss the progress made by female rabbis over the past half-century and the challenges of achieving full representation and acceptance in a still predominantly male rabbinate.

Rabbi Beth H. Klafter

Chief Rabbi, Temple Beth David, Commack; Co-Chair, Women’s Rabbinical Network

I was a young teenager at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck in 1972 when Sally J. Priesand was ordained a Reform Rabbi, opening the door for me and future generations of women to follow. I proudly walked through that door in 1988, and since then I have seen women expand the role of rabbis, often leading the way in innovation.

We brought new perspectives and expectations to work-life balance to allow time for family and personal commitments, an expectation now shared by rabbis of all genders. We have raised the voices and experiences of Jewish women throughout history, encouraging everyone to find their own place in Judaism.

With all these achievements, the door opened by Rabbi Priesand 50 years ago remains heavy. Women still do not have full and equal access to all professional positions. There are still pay inequalities within the rabbinate, and women are not always fully represented in roundtables and academic appointments. Rabbis who are women continue to work for justice and equity for all in the Jewish community and beyond.

I am proud to be among those rabbis and people of all stripes who remain vigilant in holding the door wide open for generations to come.

Rabbi Ilana Schachter

Roslyn Sinai Temple

As a rabbi, I feel so grateful for the pioneers who paved the way for my professional journey. Although 50 years ago a woman pursuing the rabbinate was revolutionary, today women are able to do so in almost every major faith in Judaism. Additionally, the inclusion of women in the rabbinate has opened the door to greater diversity today, including rabbis of color and LGBTQ+ rabbis.

Women are powerful and innovative spiritual leaders, bringing unique perspectives and rituals to the Jewish landscape. To date, more than 1,500 women have been ordained rabbis around the world and are working in all areas of Jewish life, according to a recent survey by Hadassah magazine.

Yet many people still view the rabbinical role as masculine and only seek out a male voice when they need a rabbinical perspective. We can and must work more intentionally to ensure that women’s voices are appropriately represented so that the world can witness their wisdom and experiences and benefit from their leadership. Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed a beautiful transformation of the rabbinical community, inclusive of all genders. May the next 50 years more publicly celebrate this diversity of rabbinical voices.

Rabbi Bonnie Steinberg of New Hyde Park

After Sally Priesand opened the doors to women in liberal Jewish religious life, the possibilities were great. We would add the vital voices of women and marginalized Jews and enrich everyone’s experiences.

In 1979, I became the first woman hired to work as a rabbi on Long Island as Hillel Principal and Jewish Chaplain at Hofstra University. Since then, the women of the rabbinate have done a lot of hard and meaningful work. We have discovered new texts in ancient writings that had been overlooked, we have revived once neglected traditions, and we have created new liturgies and ways of viewing so many aspects of Jewish tradition.

We also encountered sexism even as we thought collaboration with men and ancient traditions would be welcome and inspiring. I had this idea that if we worked hard and showed our dedication and love for Jewish traditions and our compassion for people, the lingering focus on gender would become less important. I was right that many women would enter the rabbinate and do the hard work alongside the men. But the lingering gender consciousness has not gone away. It is sometimes an obstacle to the pursuit of social justice.