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 ordainSandy Sassoed 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.

 

Discover More

American Jewish Feminism: Beginnings

Contemporary Jewish feminism has made its impact on all of the major denominations of Jewish life.

Conservative Judaism: How the Middle Became a Movement

The second-largest Jewish denomination in the U.S. maintains that Jewish law remains binding, but is open to adaptions that reflect modern realities.

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.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Jewish Perspectives on End-of-Life Care

Jewish approaches to medical decision-making for the terminally ill.

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

How Judaism regards the man Christians revere as the messiah.

Converting to Judaism: How to Get Started

How to find an introductory Judaism class.

Israel’s War of Independence

Establishing a new nation and defending it