Women Rabbis: A History of the Struggle for Ordination
While the Reform movement was theoretically in favor of women's ordination as far back as 1922, it was not until 50 years later that the first women was ordained as a rabbi in North America.
Reprinted with permission from A History of the Jews in America (Knopf).
While the movement for women's ordination was centered in the United States, the first female rabbi was actually ordained in Germany. Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was a 1930 graduate of the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Academy for the Science of Judaism) where she wrote a thesis entitled, "Can A Women Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?" Although her research led to an affirmative answer, the faculty did not unanimously agree. She was subsequently ordained privately by Rabbi Max Dienemann. Jonas worked as a chaplain in various Jewish homes for the elderly and orphanages. After 1942, she served as a pastoral counselor and preacher in the Theresienstadt camp. Jonas perished at Auschwitz.
[Earlier] unrest within the religious Jewish world antedated and prefigured the emergence of Jewish feminism [and the contemporary movement for women's ordination]. As far back as 1922, we recall, Reform Judaism's Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a statement favoring the ordination of women. Notwithstanding this resolution, the Hebrew Union College board of governors in 1923 denied ordination to Martha Neumark, who already had completed nearly eight years of study. And in 1939, even the determinedly progressive Stephen Wise balked at ordaining Hadassah Leventhal Lyons, who also had completed her studies at the Jewish Institute of Religion.
Twenty‑three years of further debate within the Reform movement were required before the Hebrew Union College finally succumbed to the pressure of its CCAR alumni and its Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as well as the accumulated moral pressures of the civil‑rights and women's movements. In 1972, Sally J. Preisand, age twenty‑five, was granted ordination.
Nevertheless, the battle for women rabbis was not over. Although Preisand served as assistant rabbi of New York's Free Synagogue from 1972 to 1977 and as associate rabbi from 1977 to 1978, she encountered innumerable problems in securing her own congregation. For months at a time, the CCAR placement bureau could not so much as arrange an interview for her. Eventually Preisand secured a modest congregation in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.
By then, too, few congregations could be unaware that women were being ordained and granted pastoral assignments in every major branch of Protestantism. By 1982, some fifty women rabbis already had been graduated by the Hebrew Union College and by Philadelphia's little Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and almost one‑third of those institutions' current student bodies were women. Upon ordination, they were finding employment opportunities as educators, chaplains, administrators, pastoral counselors, and increasingly as "associate" rabbis in large congregations and as solo rabbis in smaller ones.