The role of female rabbis, 47 years after the first one was ordained

Half of the rabbinic students enrolled today in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion are female.

Jamie Halper raises the Torah with Women of the Wall on July 24, 2017. (photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
Jamie Halper raises the Torah with Women of the Wall on July 24, 2017.
(photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
On June 3, 1972, Sally Priesand became the first American woman to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary, and the second woman in history to receive rabbinic ordination.
Priesand was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUCJIR) at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. Since then, more than 1,000 women have followed-suit and have been ordained as rabbis, serving communities around the world, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Women Rabbis in America have totally transformed Judaism,” explained Rabbi Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi, dean of the Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, the same school which ordained Priesand 47 years ago.
“They have changed the Jewish world in their scholarship, teaching, preaching and leadership... Their influence has changed the way we pray, the words we pray with, and the rituals we practice,” she explained, referring to changes such as egalitarian prayers, weddings and baby naming ceremonies.
Half of the rabbinic students enrolled today in the HUCJIR are female, she added.
Women rabbis still face the challenge of what is colloquially called the “stained glass ceiling,” said Kelman-Ezrachi. “Sometimes people still request a rabbi who looks like a rabbi... You know, a black hat and a long beard,” she said. “For each step forward sometimes, we have to take two backwards.
“We need to keep encouraging women to see themselves as autonomous human beings who can do whatever they want and become whoever they want to become,” she said.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that men have an important role to play as allies.
“When I was a pulpit rabbi, no one ever commented on my hair, or whether I was wearing a new suit, or if I had worn the same tie last Shabbat” he explained.
Jacobs added that it is the responsibility of male rabbis to foster inclusive and respectful spaces by challenging behaviors that create double standards in the Jewish community.
“We are, as a world, struggling with issues of pay equity, gender bias, and [it is] our role as allies is to stand up for equal treatment, pay and respect in our community,” he continued. “We need to use those moments to raise the consciousness and awareness of our colleagues.”
Kelman-Ezrachi noted that the atmosphere is much different in the United States versus in Israel.
“The structure here is highly male, so even though we’ve made huge strides it’s tougher and we need to keep going,” she said.
She added that education and representation is essential to create change for future generations.
“I have a grandson who went to an Orthodox [nursery] for a year, and when his teachers told him he will be wearing a kippah his response was ‘just like grandma,’” said Kelman-Ezrach, laughing.
Both Kelman-Ezrachi and Jacobs noted that female rabbis have achieved significant milestones in the recent years, including Rabbi Hara Person, who was appointed as the first female chief executive of the Reform movement, and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the first woman provost.
“Women are achieving amazing positions... They are taking their rightful place,” said Jacobs.