Beliefnet
What do Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Brig. Gen. Coral Pietsch and Rabbi Sally Priesand have in common? Give up?

They are four pioneering women who shattered the restrictive, discriminatory "glass ceilings" of their various professions and opened doors of opportunity for others to follow.

In 1849, Blackwell became America's first female medical school graduate when she completed her studies at Geneva College in New York state. Smith, of Maine, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1940 and to the U.S. Senate eight years later -- the first woman elected to both houses of Congress. She remained in the Senate until 1973. Pietsch, an Asian-American lawyer from Hawaii, currently serves as the first woman general officer in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps.

Priesand, a native of Cleveland, was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States. The year was 1972, and on June 30 she will retire from the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., a congregation she has served with distinction since 1981.

Since Priesand's ordination, 829 women have become rabbis within the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism. Indeed, about a quarter of today's active Reform rabbis are women, and the percentage continues to grow each year.

One of those women, my daughter Rabbi Eve Rudin, has written: "The name `Rabbi Sally Priesand' and the year 1972 represent the moment in time when Reform Judaism actualized its transformation and commitment to egalitarianism. Having grown up in the 1970s and '80s, I am of the generation of young women who, for the most part, did not have to fight the fight; instead we were able to reap the many benefits of the feminist struggles of those who came before us. However, there is much more to be done since many leaders of the liberal movements of Judaism are still predominantly male."

But Priesand herself does not fit the traditional mold of a path-breaking leader. "I'm a very private person," she told The New York Times recently. "I became a rabbi not to champion women's rights." On her personal Web site, she wrote, "I decided to be a rabbi at age 16, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: the courage to dare and dream."

In her student years, Priesand confronted critics who claimed a woman rabbi ran counter to Jewish beliefs and customs. Other critics said she was simply looking for a husband, a snide charge many women in similar professional and academic situations have also faced.

Over the years, Priesand has written extensively on the role of women in Jewish life. She is featured in the book "Fifty Jewish Women Who Changed the World." She holds two honorary doctorates, and in 1997, on her silver anniversary as a rabbi, female colleagues raised funds to establish the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand Visiting Professorship of Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Even though 34 years have passed since Priesand's ordination and nearly a thousand women have joined her in the rabbinate, women rabbis still trail their male colleagues in salary and leadership positions. The overwhelming majority of large congregations are still led by men, and males continue to occupy most of the upper echelon positions within the American Jewish community.

But that situation will surely change as more and more talented women enter the rabbinate, the Jewish academic world and community service. While some critics may still chafe at this demographic reality, they know in their heart of hearts that the revolution in Jewish life that Sally Priesand began in 1972 is a permanent one.

Critics also know that the Jewish community, like every other religious, racial and ethnic group, must draw upon 100 percent of its membership if it is to survive in today's turbulent, chaotic and changing world.

Maybe Rabbi Sally Priesand didn't choose to be a "champion of women's rights," but destiny and history dramatically intervened and she will forever remain the "first."

Move over Dr. Blackwell, Sen. Smith and Brig. Gen. Pietsch ... there's another member of your historic club.

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