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It's been 5 decades since the first female rabbi was ordained in the U.S.


For many American Jews, seeing a female rabbi is a part of life. So it's remarkable that the first American woman was ordained as a rabbi just 50 years ago. Deena Prichep reports on how this groundbreaking ordination changed the role of women and the course of Judaism in America.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Even when she was enrolled in seminary at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College, Sally Priesand knew that a lot of people did not want to see her ordained.

SALLY PRIESAND: There would always come a time where some person would come up to me and tell me why women shouldn't be rabbis. And I would say, thank you for sharing your opinion. And I would walk away.

PRICHEP: Priesand sees herself as a relatively private person, but she became hugely public when she was ordained in 1972. It was the work she felt called to do.

PRIESAND: I became a rabbi because I wanted to be a rabbi. And I discovered that when you're the first of something, there are extra responsibilities that come along with that.

PRICHEP: While Priesand was the first American woman to become a rabbi, she was not the first to try. Pamela Nadell directs the Jewish Studies Program at American University and has written about the fight for women's ordination.

PAMELA NADELL: There is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits women from becoming a rabbi, so their argument is it's only custom.

PRICHEP: And customs change.

NADELL: They're saying Judaism has made other accommodations to the modern world. Why not make this accommodation as well?

PRICHEP: Nadell says campaigns for female clergy have gone hand-in-hand with political and social changes - in the 1920s, on the heels of suffrage; in 1930s Germany, when Regina Jonas was privately ordained - she died in the Holocaust, and her story was lost for years; and 50 years ago, at the height of second-wave feminism.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Join us now. Sisterhood is powerful. Join us now.

JUDITH PLASKOW: It was impossible, in a sense, to be questioning everything about women's roles in society and not also be looking at one's religious tradition.

PRICHEP: Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian. She says this was the time of consciousness-raising groups, of national marches, of women demanding entry into all parts of life.

PLASKOW: It was totally amazing. I mean, it felt like everything was breaking open.

PRICHEP: In the space of just a few years, centuries of tradition transformed across religions, and those that didn't started to seem out-of-step. And historian Pamela Nadell says these women changed Jewish life.

NADELL: They invented a host of ceremonies and rituals to mark the events of women's lives that the male rabbis had never considered essential - the first baby girl naming ceremonies, ceremonies to mark events like miscarriage.

PRICHEP: In 1972, Sally Priesand was not looking to transform Jewish life. She had a hard enough time just getting hired to do the job she loved. But she started something.

PRIESAND: I did open doors, but I also held the doors open for those who came after me.

PRICHEP: When you open a door, you never quite know who will walk through and what new world they'll bring. People are still walking through, pushing for equal pay and opportunities, widening understanding of Torah and setting the path for generations to come.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "AUGUST TWELVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep