Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Receives Elizabeth Blackwell Award
Groundbreaking and humble are two qualities that often go hand-in-hand for the pantheon of women who receive the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, presented by Hobart and William Smith to women whose lives exemplify outstanding service to humankind. The most recent recipient of the award is no exception. Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, who was honored with the 37th Elizabeth Blackwell Award, has led a life of consequence in becoming the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi.
In formal ceremonies held in the Vandervort Room on Thursday, Priesand was presented with the Elizabeth Blackwell Award by President Mark D. Gearan, Chair of the HWS Board of Trustees David H. Deming ’75 and Vice Chair Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09.
“Rabbi Priesand, you have been a rabbi and a teacher to all of us by showing us the power of possibility. In a centuries’ old tradition of an exclusively male rabbinical order, you were the precedent and the pioneer of an entirely new history in Judaism. Like Elizabeth Blackwell, your life has opened doors and expanded the role of women in society,” said Gearan.
In her remarks, Priesand pointed out several similarities between herself and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. “Elizabeth Blackwell was encouraged to be a nurse instead of a doctor, and I was told that I should become a religious educator instead of a rabbi,” Priesand said. “When Blackwell’s classmates were asked to vote on her admission, all of them voted ‘aye;’ when I was called to be ordained, all 35 of my classmates proudly supported my ordination, saying that they were honored to be a part of this breakthrough in history.”
However, Priesand also mentioned that for all of those who supported her, there were also those who doubted and discouraged her along the way. Nevertheless, she explained, “My parents gave me the greatest gift that any parents can: they gave me the courage to dare and to dream, which allowed me to become more and more focused on my goal of becoming a rabbi.”
She added that, “My intention was not to be a pioneer or champion of women’s rights — that came later. My goal was just to become a rabbi.”
In becoming and in being a rabbi, Priesand emphasized how important Tikkun olam, or repairing the world, has been for her. “Tikkun olam points out the importance of having a society based on equality and inclusivity, extending to all of us the opportunity to fulfill our dreams and creativity.”
Applying this vision to the future, Priesand explained, “We are still engaged in the struggle to make certain that our daughters and granddaughters have equal opportunities as well as equal pay.”
She closed her remarks by offering some of the wisdom that she has gained throughout her life. “Say little and do much. Our deeds speak much louder than our words, and our actions reflect the beliefs that we profess.”
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 (HUC-JIR). 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. She is also 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.
The Elizabeth Blackwell Award 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.