A “#1 Rabbi” coffee mug, a tallis-wearing puppet, and a menora shaped like a backyard garden — unusual items for a Jewish heritage museum, perhaps, but then Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, the first woman ordained as a rabbi in North America, has always done things differently.
Priesand’s career is to be the subject of an exhibition at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County from Feb. 10 to March 16.
The show will feature memorabilia from her 37-year career — including letters from around the world, awards, newspaper articles, photos, paintings, and gifts.
Priesand, 63, retired in 2006 after 25 years as rabbi of the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls and is now its rabbi emerita. She said selecting the objects was a complicated but pleasurable process. “I had to go through things I hadn’t looked at in years,” she said. “It was fun.”
As she has done so often in her life, she also accepted the public significance of her personal experiences. As she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview, she is “a very private person” who chose “a very public role.”
Some of the objects clearly brought back warm memories, others mixed feelings. “There was one article with a comment I wish I didn’t say,” she recalled, laughing. “I said that if I ever married a rabbi, I would be his assistant, because that was a wife’s role.”
She never did marry, knowing — she has said — that she would not be able to fulfill both roles to her own satisfaction.
Among the earliest letters in the exhibit is the reply she received when, as a 16-year-old, she wrote to Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati to ask whether a woman could become a rabbi. It set her on a path she still relishes. HUC only voted to allow women students to enter rabbinical school in the early ’70s, when Priesand was in her early 20s.
Priesand said she really can’t remember what triggered her ambition. “I was aware that I was doing something no other woman had done, but I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer or a champion of women’s rights.”
Growing up in Cleveland, she and her brother were the only Jews in their high school. But she was active in her temple youth group, and she loved to share her passions.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. Whatever subject I was fascinated with at the time was what I wanted to teach. I suppose when I became fascinated by Judaism, that became my focus. After all, that’s what a rabbi does; you teach.”
She was ordained at HUC in Cincinnati in 1972. Despite the publicity that she drew, she found few of the opportunities that were open to her male counterparts. She served as an assistant rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, but left in protest in 1979 when she realized she would not be promoted to succeed the senior rabbi when he stepped down.
Unable to find a full-time position, she served for three years as the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, and as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan from 1979 to 1981, before accepting the position in Tinton Falls.
These days, Priesand said, she is “enjoying the view from the pew.” But she is far from idle. She leads services when asked. She also serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County and is active with the Clergy Advisory Committee of Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey; the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College; and Interfaith Neighbors. She also edits a newsletter put out by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.