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.

Print this page Print this page

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. 

Regina Jonas

[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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.