Sandy Sasso Ordained as First Female Reconstructionist Rabbi

Today in Jewish History: May 19, 1974

Reprinted with permission from This Week in History, a project of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female Reconstructionist rabbi when she was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia, on May 19, 1974.

Very involved in her Reform Philadelphia congregation and youth group as a girl, Sandy Eisenberg thought from the age of 16 that she would like to become a rabbi even though she was aware that this role had not been open to women. She recalls that during a high school seminar, her rabbi, who knew of her interest in the rabbinate, asked her to read out loud a passage from Leo Trepp’s Eternal Faith, Eternal People which noted that no woman in America had been ordained as a rabbi yet.

Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, had been reluctant to turn his movement into a formal denomination with a rabbinical school of its own. When RRC was founded in 1968, however, it was assumed that women would be welcome as students. Eisenberg was nonetheless aware that she would be an anomaly as a female rabbinical student and delayed applying to RRC until the end of her senior year in college. She enrolled in the fall of 1969, joining RRC’s second class of rabbinical students.

While in school, Sandy Eisenberg married her classmate, Dennis Sasso, making them the first rabbinical couple in history. Like the Reform movement’s Sally Priesand, who became the first woman ordained by a rabbinical seminary in 1972, Sasso found that, as a rabbinical student, others looked to her as a voice for women’s roles and progress within Judaism. She soon became identified as one of the voices of feminist Judaism.

After her ordination, Sasso served as rabbi of the Manhattan Reconstructionist Congregation. In 1977, she and her husband were hired to serve as the rabbis of Beth El Zedeck in Indianapolis, which is identified both with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. She thus became the first woman to serve a Conservative congregation and the first woman to serve as rabbi in partnership with her husband at the same congregation. Not surprisingly, Sasso holds title to many firsts as a woman rabbi, including becoming the first rabbi to become a mother when her son David was born on June 22, 1976.

Sasso is very active in interfaith activities and lectures at Butler University and the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. She is the author of eleven acclaimed children’s books (with a forthcoming twelfth due for publication in Spring 2009) as well as a monthly column on religion and spirituality for the Indianapolis Star. She also recently published a book for adults on midrash, God’s Echo–Exploring Scripture with Midrash, and speaks nationally on children and spirituality. Today, Sasso and her husband serve as the senior rabbis of Congregation Beth El Zedeck in Indianapolis.

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