Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in the United States, will be honored as the 37th recipient of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Elizabeth Blackwell Award in a ceremony on Thursday, April 23.
Priesand earned her status as a pioneer on June 3, 1972 when she was ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, she has led the way for nearly 1,000 women who have followed in her footsteps and joined the rabbinate.
“Rabbi Sally Priesand is an important figure of our time,” said President Mark D. Gearan. “By becoming the first woman rabbi in the United States, Priesand achieved an important milestone for women and Jews around the world. Women are being ordained in record numbers today and are changing the approach of the Jewish pulpit. She is truly living a life of consequence.”
The Elizabeth Blackwell Award ceremony will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Vandervort Room of the Scandling Campus Center. The event is free and open to the public.
Priesand was deeply affected by her experiences as a teenager at Beth Israel-West Temple, a Reform congregation on Cleveland’s West Side, where she participated in camps and youth groups. At the age of 16 and before the women’s liberation movement called for women’s access to traditionally male professions, she decided to become a rabbi. She would eventually become the first woman at Hebrew Union College to make it to ordination. Along the way, Priesand faced opposition from classmates and teachers who advised her to become a wife instead of a rabbi. At the same time, she was encouraged by her parents and Nelson Glueck, then the university’s president, to achieve her rabbinic dream.
After serving as a rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City and Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, N.J., Priesand went on to become the spiritual leader of the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., a position she held until her retirement in 2006.
In addition to her rabbinic roles, Priesand has served on the board of each of the major institutions of Reform Judaism, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1997, the Women’s Rabbinic Network was instrumental in establishing at Hebrew Union College the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Visiting Professorship in Jewish Women’s Studies.
Priesand’s commitment to all things Jewish, to the cause of justice and peace, to equal opportunity for women, to the needs of the hungry and the homeless, and to the survival of Israel is reflected in her many organizational affiliations. She is a member of Jewish Women International, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women and the National Breast Cancer Coalition.
In addition to the Bachelor of Hebrew Letters and the Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Cincinnati. She also holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Florida International University, and an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from HUC-JIR.
In her local community, she is an Honorary Vice President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County and President of Interfaith Neighbors, an organization whose primary purpose is to provide rental assistance and support services for those who are homeless. She also chairs the Clergy Advisory Committee of Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey and serves on the board of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College. She is on the board of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
Priesand is the author of “Judaism and the New Woman” and a contributor to “Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration” as well as “A Treasury of Favorite Sermons by Leading American Rabbis.” She is featured in numerous books including “Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism” and “Fifty Jewish Women who Changed the World.”
To listen to a recent NPR interview with Priesand, click here.
The Elizabeth Blackwell Award, given to women whose lives exemplify outstanding service to humankind, is named for Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in modern times to receive the Doctor of Medicine degree. Blackwell earned her degree in 1849 from Geneva Medical College, Hobart College’s precursor.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges confer the Elizabeth Blackwell Award whenever a candidate of sufficient stature and appropriate qualifications is identified. The first award was given in 1958, and most recently in 2008 when it was bestowed to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, P’94, P’96, Sc.D.’94. Other notable recipients include former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, professional tennis legend Billie Jean King and anthropologist and author Margaret Mead.