Rabbi Sally J. Priesand
April 23, 2009

Reflections on My Life as a Rabbi

Thanks so much for that gracious introduction and for the very warm welcome you have afforded me today. I have enjoyed the beauty of your campus, the opportunity to meet with faculty, students and President Gearan, the kindness of so many staff members as well as the hospitality of Hillel and the wonderful Abbe Center for Jewish life. It is obvious to me in this very short visit that Hobart and William Smith Colleges reflect a unique atmosphere of intimacy and pride that other centers of higher education would do well to imitate. I am honored to receive an award that over the years has been presented to so many truly distinguished women. In preparing to speak to you tonight, I did some research on the life of Elizabeth Blackwell and was startled to see how many similarities there were between her journey and my own. She lived in Cincinnati and so did I. Her family supported her decision to do something a woman had never done before and so did mine. She was encouraged by some to become a nurse instead of a doctor, and I was toward the field of religious educations. She had the support of a man named Joseph Warrington, a well-respected physician in Philadelphia, and I had the support of a man named Nelson Glueck, distinguished archeologist and president of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. When the male students ay Geneva College were asked to vote on her admission, it was reported that "the whole class arose and voted 'Aye' with waving handkerchiefs, throwing up of hats, and all manner of vocal demonstrations." When I was called forward to be ordained, my classmates, 35 men, all rose spontaneously to honor this breakthrough in Jewish history - a memory that I very much cherish. When Geneva's Dean spoke at Elizabeth Blackwell's graduation, he congratulated her on her diploma and expressed "admiration at the heroism displayed, and sympathy for the sufferings voluntarily assumed." One of my classmates spoke and said: "Rabbi Sally graced our class during those trying years", and Dr. Alfred Gottschalk who ordained me said he was doing so with "pride, dignity and pleasure." Elizabeth Blackwell's story is now part of the rich legacy of this institution, never to be forgotten because of the granting of this award, and I am proud that the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion has a chair in Jewish Women's studies that bears my name. Many similarities between our two journeys - and I thank you for the opportunity to discover that and to share with you this evening my own story which I have divided into three parts: first, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and the journey that led me to the rabbinate; secondly, share with you a few reflections on some of the changes I have witnessed in the religious community as a direct result of feminism, and finally, a few words gleaned from the challenges I have faced.

I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was 16 years-old, way back in 1962. Unfortunately, I do not remember why. I do remember always wanting to be a teacher, and whatever my favorite subject was at a particular time was what I was going to teach. One year, I dreamed of being a math teacher, and the next, a teacher of English, or perhaps French. In the end, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism, which is what a rabbi really is.

Fortunately for me, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child: the courage to dare and to dream. As a result, I remained focused on my goal, unconcerned that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi by a theological seminary and determined to succeed despite the doubts I heard expressed in the organized Jewish community. In those days, I did not think very much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi.

Although my parents were actively involved in Jewish organizational life, my family was not particularly observant. We did light Shabbat candles, celebrate Chanukah with our extended family and have a Passover Seder to which each of my siblings and I were encouraged to invite a non-Jewish friend to share the festivities and learn more about Judaism. I can still see my father at the head of our 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 word of the Haggadah. My mother, of course, had been preparing for days, making gefilte fish from scratch and fashioning those delicious matza 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 a Seder for 52 nuns (and the Monsignor!), volunteering my mother, of course, to oversee the meal and make enough chicken soup and matza balls for all the participants. My father read the Haggadah, and the youngest nun recited the Four Questions. My mother still remembers entering the dining room on the day of the Seder and being greeted by a huge sign that simply said "Shalom." Moreover, the nuns presented her with a beautiful two-tiered silver tray that we continue to cherish.

My father died in 1968. 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 - and 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, a wonderful way to help me expand my horizons and at the same time validate the seriousness of my intention.

I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and when I was in the eighth grade, my family moved from the east side of town to the west. As a result, my teenage years were spent in a predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood. In fact, my brothers and I were the only Jews in our high school. That made our participation in religious school and youth group all the more essential. We were active members of Beth Israel - The West Temple, a small congregation that taught me important lessons about what it means to be a temple family and how central to Jewish life is the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Although I did not become Bat Mitzvah, I was confirmed and continued my religious school education through the twelfth grade.

One summer, I was scheduled to go to the Girl Scout Roundup in Colorado, but my congregation awarded me a scholarship for what was then called the Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana, one of numerous camps in North America sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism. Looking back now, I know that was a tipping point in my life. I was so honored that my congregation wanted me to represent them that I could not say no. It was a wonderful summer, and I came home with renewed enthusiasm and an even greater desire to share my love of Jewish tradition. So I always tell people that for $100, my congregation received in return a lifelong commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.

As the time for college approached, my desire to be a teacher of Judaism remained firm, and I knew that for me the best way to accomplish that goal was a career in the rabbinate. I applied to the Undergraduate Program jointly sponsored by the University of Cincinnati and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I was accepted, and in 1964, I began my studies. My years in rabbinic school were fraught with challenge. Some members of the college community thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one, and my sincerity was often suspect. Consequently I was under constant pressure to prove myself. 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. Occasionally, I sensed that some people would not be overly upset if I failed. More than once it would have been easy to drop out, but I persevered because I truly wanted to be a teacher of Torah.

Happily, I had the support of Dr. Nelson Glueck, at the time president of the College Institute who gave me his unqualified support and took care of a lot of little problems in the background that I probably never even knew about. Unfortunately, he died the year before I was ordained, but his wife Helen, a distinguished physician in her own right, 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 commitment laid the foundation for the ordination of women - and fortunately for me, Dr. Alfred Gottschalk shared that vision, and when he became president of the College-Institute, he made the dream a reality by ordaining me on June 3, 1972, together with the 35 men who were my classmates. Finding a job was not that easy. Some congregations wanted me for my publicity value to be able to say they were the first to hire a female rabbi, and others would not talk to meet at all.

In the end, I was the last person in my class to get a job, but in my opinion I got the best job of all - assistant rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. It always seemed particularly appropriate to me that I would come to a synagogue with a reputation for commitment to equality and social justice. Rabbi Edward E. Klein always took great pride in being introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate.

I stayed at the Free Synagogue for seven years, and to be honest the circumstances under which I left were not all that pleasant. I hoped I would be given a chance at some point to be the senior rabbi but that was not to be. Neither that synagogue nor any other was ready nor willing to grant the title of Senior Rabbi to a woman. Indeed, for two years I was unable to find a full-time position. I served as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and accepted a part-time position at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, New Jersey a synagogue of older members who were always warm and welcoming.

In 1981, I became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, a position I was privileged to hold for 25 years. The decision to retire three years ago was my own, believing as I do that rabbis - and a lot of other people - should know when to leave. It is always wise to say goodbye when people still like you. I did choose, however, to remain in my community and, as Rabbi Emerita, I worship at my temple every week, enjoying as I do the view from the pew.

I have never regretted my decision to enter the rabbinate, and clearly my life has been enriched by the people I have been privileged to serve these past four decades. One of the reasons I did so enjoy being a congregational rabbi was the opportunity to read Torah aloud from the bima at services and explore with my congregants the meaning of the text. Whenever I do that, I remember Sinai, the central event in the history of the Jewish people when we made God's law our own. I also recall a special moment in my life, one that happened just prior to my ordination as rabbi. The ceremony of ordination is a public event, but it was preceded two days before by a private ceremony held in the chapel of Hebrew Union College in which each member of my class was handed the Torah scroll by Dr. Gottschalk. Individually, one by one, we received Torah, and while holding it close to our hearts, we affirmed our commitment to the values it represents and our desire to serve God and the Jewish people. It was a powerful moment for me, in some ways more meaningful than the actual ceremony of ordination. I have never forgotten it, and over the years, whenever I read Torah or study it or simply take it from the Ark, I feel as if I am receiving it anew.

At that time, we were also asked to say a few words about our own personal philosophy. I quoted a verse from Pirke Avot, that tractate of the Talmud that contains the spiritual wisdom of the Jewish people: in Hebrew emor m'aht va-asay har-bay - say little and do much - it is a verse to which I have returned time and again throughout my rabbinate, believing as I do that our deeds speak louder than our words and truly reflect the beliefs we profess.

I am grateful to God that part of my life's work has been to open new doors for women in the Jewish community, but at the same time, I have tried never to lose sight of the larger mission of the Jewish people, which is to derive from the words of Torah a set of values and a sense of holiness that will enable us always to be partners with God in completing the world. What that means from my vantage point is not only participating in the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but creating a society based on equality and inclusivity, remembering that all of us are God's children, and as such, we should all have the opportunity to fulfill our creative potential to the fullest. My rabbinate has been based on the concept of empowerment. My primary task has always been to be a teacher of Judaism and help others become more responsible for their own Jewishness. It has not been my role to be Jewish for the sake of the congregation but to suggest ways in which all of us can be Jewish together. In other words, rabbis are not surrogate Jews whose power is absolute, but facilitators and teachers who help others discover the richness of our heritage. In this realm, Jewish feminism has served as catalyst, encouraging us to rethink previous models of leadership in which the rabbi maintained complete control and did everything for members of the congregation. As pointed by Card Gilligan and others, women are much more likely to engage in networking and partnership when relating to others.

Another area in which we see the impact of feminism is that of theology. Like most of you, I too grew up with the image of God as King, omnipotent and clearly male. My congregation gave me the opportunity, through experience and study, discussion and experimentation, to discover new models of divinity, to know that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine, to fashion for myself, and hopefully for them, a meaningful theology that has been a source of strength, particularly in those moments when it seems that we have used up all our strength. Together we have opened our hearts and our lives to greater spirituality. We have learned how to talk to God and with God rather than about God, to enjoy that intimacy that comes when addressing God as "You", knowing that every person should have the freedom to imagine God in any way he or she finds meaningful and satisfying. In many ways, Jewish feminism has been a grass-roots movement and, therefore, change at the top has taken longer, but even there tokenism is becoming a thing of the past. Over the past few years, nearly 30 women, all of them respected scholars, have joined the faculty of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (an incredible accomplishment considering the fact that when I was a student there were no women on the faculty!), more women have become regional directors and vice chairs of the Union for Reform Judaism, and last month the Central Conference of American Rabbis installed its second female president. This bodes well for the future.

Surely one of the most powerful lessons we have learned from the Civil Rights movement is that if you do not see someone who looks like you in a position of leadership, then you begin to feel left out; you have a sense that it cannot be done. We teach our daughters and our sons that everything is possible, there are no limits on what they can achieve when seeking to fulfill their creative potential and contribute to the vitality of our country, but sometimes when they interact with large impersonal institutions, they discover a different message: a reluctance on the part of some to believe that women are as competent as capable as men. For decades now, we have been trying to change that attitude in every field of endeavor - medicine, law, accounting, education, even politics - and still we are engaged in the struggle to make certain that our daughters and granddaughters can be whatever they want to be, that they have not only equal opportunity but equal pay and that they are free from all forms of sexual harassment.

My life as a rabbi has also taught me something about the meaning of success. When I was first ordained, I thought the ultimate goal was to become rabbi of a large congregation; indeed, as the first woman to be ordained I thought it was my obligation. In so many different ways we are taught that bigger is better, but in reality life is not measured by wealth or power, material possessions or fame. Life is counted in terms of goodness and growth. Someone once said that our purpose in living is not to get ahead of other people, but to get ahead of ourselves, always to play a better game of life. That is what success is all about. Have we done our best? Are we continuing to grow? Are we affected more deeply today by love and beauty and joy than we were yesterday? Are we more sensitive and compassionate to others? Have we learned to overcome our fears and accept our failures? Have we triumphed over selfishness and bitterness, cruelty and hatred? Do we count our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count? That is success. In the words of Albert Schweitzer: "The great secret of success is to go through life as a person who never gets used up. Grow into your ideals so that life can never rob you of them."

One final area in which Jewish feminism has made an important contribution is that of role models. We have begun to hear the stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long, the countless numbers of women who have enriched the world from biblical times on. You may, for example, think that the ordination of women as rabbis is a relatively new idea. That is not true, and noted historian, Pamela Nadell, has shown otherwise in her fascinating volume, "Women Who Would Be Rabbis - A History of Women's Ordination 1889-1985." I highly recommend it for those who want to know more about the women who laid the foundation for my own ordination as rabbi. I also want to draw your attention to a wonderful exhibit about Jewish women that you can access online by going to the Web site of the Jewish Women's Archive - you will find copies of the original letters sent to me by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion when I applied for admission.

Historically speaking, I am the first woman in the world to be ordained rabbi by a theological seminary, but on occasions such as this I always like to give credit to the woman who was really the first woman rabbi. Her name was Regina Jonas. She finished her theological studies at the Berlin Academy for the Science of Judaism in the mid 1930s. Her thesis subject was: "Can a Woman Become a Rabbi?" - and naturally she set out to prove the affirmative. The faculty accepted her dissertation, but the professor of Talmud, the licensing authority, refused to ordain her. But Rabbi Max Dieneman, of Offenbach, did so privately, and she practiced until 1940, primarily in homes for the elderly. The Germans then dispatched her to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, and she later died in Aushwitz. I would like to think that whenever people gather to hear my story our very presence brings honor to her memory.

One of the questions people most often ask me is: what is the most difficult thing about being a rabbi? For me, it has always been the need to change emotions at a moment's notice. For example, it is not unusual for a rabbi to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah and a baby naming, a funeral, a wedding and a round of hospital visits all on the same weekend. Each moment requires its own emotional investment, and a rabbi must be able to move from sadness to joy and often back again - and all this despite whatever may be going on in the rabbi's personal life at any given moment in time. Stress is a very real component of every rabbi's life, and every rabbi has to find his or her own way of dealing with it. For me, I decided to start painting - abstract watercolor, and it has become a wonderful way to calm my spirit.

I chose abstract watercolor for various reasons. First of all, I draw like I sing; in other words, I cannot even draw a stick figure. Second, to paint with watercolor does not require a lot of equipment and you can express yourself quickly and with relative ease. Third, the vibrancy of the color never fails to lift one's spirits. And finally, watercolor allows for spontaneity and the sheer joy of allowing the paint to have a mind of its own and do what it will. In this, we find the paradox of my personality. In most things, I am controlled and super-organized, but the abstract watercolor gives expression to the other part of me, the playful side. Rarely does a painting turn out the way I planned it in my mind, but that does not upset me in the least because I have so much fun matching wits with the paints as my brush glides across the surface of the paper, allowing me to bask in the brightness of the color and ultimately give thanks to God for implanting within each of us a spark of creativity. Whenever we embrace that spark, we enrich life for ourselves and those around us. Now if truth be told I am a self-taught artist, enjoying the opportunity to experiment and discover new things on my own, learning by doing and enjoying the chance to listen to my heart and allow it to lead me wherever it will. I have heard it said that aspiring artists have a painting they see in their mind's eye - I am still in the process of trying to discover that painting and I am having an awful lot of fun doing it.

I first started painting when I was recuperating from a bout with cancer. As some of you may know, I have had cancer three times. Now I have read about people who have responded to such a challenge by saying "cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." Personally I have always thought that a rather strange thing to say. Although serious illness of any kind does come with its lessons - a reminder that each day is precious, that no life is free of difficulty, that priorities change as goals should be re-evaluated from time to time, that God walks with us wherever we go, that family and friends can help us over the rough spots if we let them - I would much rather learn these lessons another way, and I suspect you would too. Nonetheless, my bouts with breast and thyroid cancer did teach me a few things.

First, healing is hard work, but having a positive attitude helps. There are many things in life we cannot control, but how we respond to moments of challenge is something we can and do choose. Not long ago, someone asked me how can I continue to be so positive. I answered: it comes with my blood type (you guessed it - B+). A tongue-in-cheek answer for a serious question, but the fact is that holding on to our sense of humor is one way we defeat despair and maintain control over life's circumstances. "A joyful heart is good medicine," says the Bible, "but a depressed spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Laughter puts life in perspective and helps us heal by enabling us, if even for a few moments, to release the anxiety that burdens our souls and forget the chaos that invades our world whenever illness strikes.

Second, a new insight for me was the realization that pets are very therapeutic. They give unconditional love and accept us as we are, no matter how we feel. Nearly seven years ago, just before my most recent bout with cancer, I acquired a 12-week-old puppy, a Boston-Terrier named Shadow. Throughout the weeks of treatment and recuperation, Shadow was by my side; indeed many a day was spent curled up on the couch together. He has proven to be a wonderful companion and a source of great amusement. He is cuddly and cute, has more toys than you can imagine, and his antics always make me laugh, no matter how tired I may feel - and yes, I will admit that he is as spoiled as any animal could possibly be!

The third thing I learned is that prayer makes a difference, both personal prayer and collective prayer. Asking God for the courage to cope with whatever the future may hold, for the wisdom to remain as even-tempered as possible despite being afraid or in pain, for patience and perseverance and the ability to endure a little more - asking God for all these things and knowing that God hears our words of prayer - was, and is, for me an enormous source of strength. - and how comforting it was to know that so many others were praying for me as well. Never underestimate the power of prayer. It may not lead to an instant cure, or even change a situation, but it does give us an opportunity to do something on behalf of those we love, especially at those times when we feel so helpless and fear there is nothing left to do. Praying for another person, and telling him or her about it, lets that person know that he or she has not been forgotten. Often it is this knowledge that helps one who is ill get through the day.

Fourth, never minimize the importance of hope. The story is told of a seriously ill man whose distraught wife went to the rebbe for advice on how to save her husband. "First," said the rebbe, "find the best doctor possible. Second, resort to prayer. Third if these two fail, do not yet despair. Instead, hope for a miracle." Hope is always with us. Like a kaleidoscope, it may change from moment to moment, from wanting a complete cure, to a day without pain, to an end that is peaceful, but nevertheless hope endures as surely as spring follows winter and the rainbow follows a raging storm.

Finally, always be grateful to God for the miracles of medicine and the many opportunities we have to take better care of ourselves. My cancer was found at an early stage because I have been diligent about seeing my doctors regularly and having the appropriate tests from year to year. Remember the story about the man who found himself in the midst of a flood. The water began to rise, but he was reluctant to leave his home and so he prayed: "God, please save me." A small boat came by and its passengers offered to take him to safety, but he said: "No. I am waiting for a sign from God," and he continued to pray. Then a helicopter flew by, and again he turned down this rescue attempt. In the meantime the water got higher and higher until eventually he drowned. When he got to heaven, he approached God and started to complain: "God, I trusted You and prayed that You would save me. Why did You let me down?" and God replied: "You fool, I sent you a boat and a helicopter."

And so it is with us. The fact that modern medicine continues to improve from month to month and year to year, that medical researchers continue to discover and develop new treatments and more precise testing, that doctors, nurses and caregivers share their wisdom and compassion with all of us - all these are gifts from God, reminders that although we cannot always control the final outcome, how we respond to life's challenges is well within our reach. If it is time for your mammogram or PSA test, your colonoscopy or next doctor's appointment, I urge you to take care of it now. Diligence may well save your life as it has saved mine time and time again.

I conclude now with some words of wisdom that came several months ago when I was asked to contribute to a book edited by Molly Meier called: "If I Only Had Five Things To Pass On From My Life They Would Be…" Here are my five:

Know Yourself: When I was in rabbinical school, I always assumed I would marry and have children. In fact, I said that in my synagogue there would be a nursery next to my study. After I was ordained and began serving God and the Jewish people, I discovered that I would never be able to have a career and a family and do both well. I stand in awe of those who can, but I know that I am not one of them. I chose to devote all my time and energy to my career, and I have never been sorry because I know that the people whose lives I touch are now part of my extended family.

Don't Worry: there are moments in every life when worry overwhelms us and inhibits our ability to function. For those times, I have developed my worry rule: sit down every morning for 10 minutes and worry as much as you want. Then get up, and welcome the many opportunities for growth and for good that each new day brings and make the most of them. There will be another 10 minutes tomorrow to worry again.

Always Try Your Best: Many people hesitate to try new things because they are afraid of failure. I believe the only true failure is in never daring to fail. Success feels good, but there is nothing wrong with failure, as long as we try our best and learn from our mistakes. The world moves forward every day because someone is willing to take the risk.

Live With Humility: Our sages taught: "People should have two pockets so they can reach into one or the other, according to their needs. In one pocket, there should be a slip of paper with the words 'For my sake was the world created' and in the other, the words 'I am but dust and ashes.'" In our day and age, humility seems to be a forgotten virtue. Being humble does not mean that we should deny or negate our achievements. On the contrary, taking pride in what we have accomplished brings great joy, but pausing to remember that we do not stand alone is even more enriching. Saying thank you on a regular basis to God who gives us the power to create, and to others who have helped us along the way, keeps us from becoming arrogant.

Maintain Your Sense Of Humor: One way to deal with life's difficulties is by discovering and embracing the healing power of laughter. Many a tense moment has been relieved by bringing a bit of humor to the situation. An old Yiddish proverb advises: "Weep before God - laugh before people." Learning to laugh soothes the spirit, and learning to laugh at yourself keeps you from taking yourself to seriously. Laughter is contagious and it makes the world a more pleasant place.

As I come now to the end of my remarks, and prepare to take your questions, I share with you my favorite poem, "The Road Not Taken" By Robert Frost, which pretty much sums up the way I feel about my life.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be on traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.