Rabbi Debbie Stiel

Rabbi Debbie Stiel

General reflections

I recently had my installation at Temple Solel. Though I have been there over a year, we waited till we could have a significant number of people in the sanctuary and really celebrate. We decided to use that Shabbat not only for my installation but also to celebrate the strides that modern Jewish women have made in the religious sphere. So, to that end, we included in the service many beautiful poems, prayers and writings by modern Jewish women. These were read by female members of our congregation. 

In addition, I spoke that night about the 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate. This included some of my own story.

That same week we had a Zoom Lunch and Learn with Rabbi Sally Priesand. She shared with everyone about her experiences trying to get into HUC and also about the continuing challenges. It was wonderful to have Rabbi Priesand speak to our group, as she really is a living piece of history. And the fact that she is still alive is quite the reminder of how truly recent is this change in our rabbinic seminaries to ordaining women.

Upon the occasion of rabbinic installation

Temple Solel, Paradise Valley

November 5, 2021

I remember once being the rabbi of a congregation and a mom came up to tell me that she had to convince her young son that men really could be rabbis, too! I thought, wow – the world sure has changed!! You see -on June 3rd, 1972, not so long ago, Sally Priesand was ordained at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati – becoming the first woman ever to be ordained a rabbi by a seminary. It was a watershed moment! All this year, we, in the Reform Jewish movement, are celebrating the upcoming 50th anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination – which will be this coming June.

So, I thought that we at Solel should mark the occasion, too, and reflect a bit on the struggles, changes and triumphs brought about during the last 50 years of women in the rabbinate. And since I am a woman rabbi, the night of my installation seems a very appropriate time to share some of the vignettes and changes. In the spirit of the joy of this evening and of it being MY installation – I am going to share with you some of my favorite stories from that 50-year journey. (To learn more, our wonderful (Risa Jacobson) Temple library has The Sacred Calling.)

If you think about it, women rabbis have been around for a very short period of time – a blink of an eye in Judaism’s almost 4,000 years, and, of course, even a much smaller percentage of time since human history began. We are newbies in the career field. Yet, I am very proud of the changes we have achieved in a short period of time.

So let’s see the whole ark of this progression of women rabbis. If we want to look for who paved the way, we could go all the way back to our first matriarch Sarah in Genesis – when God told Abraham to listen to her. In a way, she and other strong women in the Bible, like Deborah the Judge, Miriam the prophetess, and Ruth our most famous convert – lay the early foundation for the idea that women can be important spiritual leaders in Judaism. We know that throughout our long history there were some other very remarkable women who were learned and respected for their scholarship and leadership. The names of some of them have faded from history and others are still known.

But for the most part, rabbinic Judaism was traditionally created and studied by men. And public religious life really belonged to men. For example, halachah, Jewish law, says, that one needs 10 MEN in order to pray a full worship service. Women did not count in the minyan (and they still do not in Orthodox congregations). So, it was the men most often who engaged in Jewish study and discussion, while women took care of the children and the home.

I remember being a rabbinic student in Cincinnati and going with another female rabbinic student to an evening minyan at a synagogue that was somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox in its practice. They were short on their numbers in order to have the service – well, at least given the way they counted. There were actually 10 of us in the room but two of us were women. So they counted 1,2,3, ….8- nope, they said “we still need two more!” Carol and I felt invisible. Women simply did not count for the purposes of worship.

But this is no longer the case in Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism. How did change take place? In the last 150 years, as the women’s movement took hold, Jewish women took on more leadership roles and became more involved in liberal Jewish communities. We can be proud that Reform Judaism was at the forefront of these changes. In Reform congregations, men and women sat together, and the movement was an early advocate for equality among the sexes. The National Federation of Temple Sisterhood, which is now called the Women of Reform Judaism, was born in 1913 and in most Reform congregations the Sisterhood became a very important auxiliary. It was the women in congregations who often ran the religious schools and they raised significant funds for the congregation. It was, by the way, this organization that created NFTY, our youth movement, and helped raise money for rabbinic students.

As time went on, there were women who began to take on rabbinic roles. One who is particularly well known is Ray Frank, who was often called “the girl rabbi of the golden west.” In the late 1800s, she traveled around preaching and teaching and leading religious services. There was a rabbi’s wife, Paula Ackerman, who was asked to take over her husband’s pulpit when he died, and she did so.  

As Jewish women became more educated, they were able to take on these leadership roles. In 1889, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent (a major Jewish newspaper) ran a front page article with the headline, “Could not our Women be Ministers?” Change was in the air!

Then in 1935 in Germany, Regina Jonas became the first woman rabbi. The liberal Jewish seminary in Berlin would not ordain her, even though she had completed all of the coursework and written her thesis in 1930. Finally, Rabbi Max Dienemann, one of the leaders of German Liberal Judaism, signed her rabbinic diploma. From then, until she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 she served as a rabbi – pastoring, supporting, and teaching Jews.  

In 1955, the Presbyterian church decided that it would begin to ordain women as ministers. Perhaps that moved the needle.

Sally Priesand in 1963, as a teenager, wrote to Hebrew Union College (the Reform seminary in the U.S.) to see if they would consider accepting her into rabbinical school. They let her know that they had not yet ordained a woman rabbi, but she was welcome to enter the combined HUC and UC bachelors program. She did. And then she went on and entered the rabbinic program – still without any promise of being ordained. She has some wonderful stories to tell of being the first female in an otherwise all male seminary. A part of a wing of the all-male dorm had to be vacated, so that she could have a place to live with some privacy and a bathroom to herself. Her professors learned to address the class, “Gentleman…and lady.”

She also tells that some people wanted her out of there and thought she should just marry one of the male students and exit the seminary. But others were supportive. As she told those of us who listened to her on a Solel Zoom Lunch and Learn this week, she was able to become a rabbi because Rabbi Nelson Glueck and Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, each during their time as president of HUC, showed incredible leadership and pushed for this advancement – even though some members of the faculty and of the board of governors were not in favor.

Rabbi Sally Priesand was not seeking to be a pioneer. Her hope was simply to be a rabbi and a teacher of Judaism and Jewish values. Yet, as history would have it, she became the first woman ordained a rabbi by a seminary and she became pretty famous, even being featured in Time magazine. Through all of the fame, she has been a thoughtful, humble and wise trailblazer. She knew that her success or failure would be important for those of us who came after her and wanted to be rabbis. To give you a sense of just how seriously she took this role of being the first, she made a decision not to marry or have children so that she could concentrate on putting all of her energy into her rabbinate.

In those early years of female rabbinical students, the 1970s and ‘80s, there were only a few women in each rabbinic class. Sometimes only one. When these early women rabbis are asked now the wonderful question, “What made you think you could do this – given that it was almost unheard of?,” there are a range of answers. Some say it was naivete -- they just didn’t even realize what a big hurdle this would at times be. Others credit parents who believed in them and taught them to follow their dreams. And still others realize that it was a rabbi or teacher who encouraged them to consider the rabbinate or taught them to believe in their ability to do whatever they wanted for a career.

Early female rabbis were often told upon entering rabbinical school that there might not be jobs for them. And in fact, some congregations were not ready for women rabbis.

But Reform Jewish culture slowly changed. Over time it became more common in our denomination for women to become assistant rabbis. But there have been many more hurdles to clear. It was a long time before any woman became a senior rabbi of a large congregation. A lot of congregations could not imagine having a woman in that position.

And women were changing the idea of what success in the rabbinate looked like. Previously, it was assumed that the ideal was for a rabbi to work his way up to being a senior rabbi at a large congregation. Women rabbis began to question that as the mark of success. Many women preferred to stay in smaller congregations where they could get to know the congregation better and have more time for their families, as well. Having women in the rabbinate has broadened the definition of success in this field.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, further firsts were achieved. For example, Kinneret Shiryon says she knew two things as a teenager – that she wanted to be a rabbi and she wanted to make aliyah to Israel.

When she was in her early 20s, as an American student studying at Hebrew University in Jersualem, she asked the dean of the Israeli HUC rabbinical program if she could enroll in their program. She was told by the dean, that Israeli society is not ready for women rabbis and HUC in Israel had no program for them. So, Kinneret went back to the United States, was ordained at HUC stateside, and then made aliyah, becoming in 1983 the first Israeli female rabbi. She would go on to found a very successful liberal congregation in Modiin and to create the first Reform preschool in Israel that received funding from the state.

Ten years later, Naama Kelman was another first. She was from a long line of rabbis – going back more than 10 generations -- mostly Chasidic and Orthodox. The message was clear in her family: the rabbinate was the family business….that is, if you were a man. If you were a woman, well then you were raised to MARRY a rabbi! Instead, Naama was ordained in 1992 at HUC in Jerusalem –- she was the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in the State of Israel. Today she (a woman) is the Dean of our HUC Israeli campus!

There were many more firsts, including Phoenix’s own Bonnie Koppell who was the first female rabbi to serve in the US military.

As I look back now, I can see how each decade of women rabbis stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. Each group of women created new paths. And still there are firsts all the time. I don’t think of myself as a pioneer, but when I was ordained in 1994, I became the first woman rabbi in the city of Omaha. I was then the first woman rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska and the first in Topeka, Kansas. Each place I went, I heard what so many before me have heard in other cities and countries, “Oh I didn’t know women could be rabbis.” But that person only gets to say that once! Because after that, they know!! It is no longer unheard of. In each of the congregations I served up till this one, there was at least one person who did not want me hired simply because I was a woman. But also I can honestly and happily say that in each congregation the overwhelming majority of congregants have welcomed me with open arms.

In fact, for those who had young daughters, they were often very glad for their children to have a woman rabbi as a role model. I understand this, because having grown up in a large congregation that always had several rabbis on staff, from the time I was about 8 years old, one of our rabbis was always a woman. So I did not think of it as unusual or as unavailable to me.

Women rabbis have brought a lot of changes to the rabbinate. They have helped to add women’s voices to texts and liturgy. They have created new ceremonies and rituals. They have moved rabbinic culture in the direction of being less formal and more relationship-based. And they have made sure that the 50% of Jews who are women can see someone like themselves on the bimah.

Today there are 835 Reform women rabbis and over 1,000 female rabbis between all the Jewish movements. So there is a lot to celebrate. We have come a long way!!

At the same time, there is still progress to be made. Women rabbis are sometimes still told – “Oh, you know, you should not wear pants on the bimah.’ And too often they are called “honey, or sweetheart” instead of their name or title. And like women in other professional fields, we sometimes deal with people not taking us as seriously as they do our male counterparts. And there is still a pay gap. On average, women rabbis still make only 80 cents to the dollar of male colleagues. Also, most people still default to thinking of men when they hear the word rabbi. In fact, if you go to Google Images and type in “rabbi clip art” the images are all of men in beards!

 I think this pioneering journey has important takeaways for all of us. It is a reminder that we do not have to be confined by the past. We can each be trailblazers. We can work to change the status quo when we see that something is not as it should be. We have so many opportunities to make a difference.

Thinking back on my own life, I remember when I told my mother that I was considering becoming a rabbi. She told me she did not think it was a good field for a woman. Why? I asked. Well, she said, as a rabbi there will be times you have to go to the hospital in the middle of the night or be out late with meetings, it will be hard if you are raising a family. Well, I did it anyway. But she was not wrong about it being very challenging at times. We just did our best. Steve, my husband, was incredibly understanding when I was out late on many nights for meetings. I worked part time for several years because I wanted to spend more time with Micah and Jonah, when they were very young. And I chose to be the rabbi of a small congregation for more flexibility while my kids were growing up. But it has worked out. I feel so blessed to be a rabbi, to be here for people in important moments of their lives, to be able to share Judaism’s wisdom and beauty with others and to be so involved in wonderful congregations like Solel.

Today, I am honored to be one of Temple Solel’s rabbis. I feel blessed to join this amazing clergy team of Rabbi Linder and Todd Herzog. They have been wonderful teachers as I have been learning about Solel. In addition to being excellent at their vocations, they are also both true mensches.  I am very grateful for the partnership we have. And we at Solel have an incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable and down-to-earth staff that I feel so fortunate to work with. I want to thank all of them for helping me in so many ways over these last 17 months. Very importantly, at the heart of this congregation are you, the congregants. Thank you for welcoming me and my family so warmly and for being such a blessing just by being who you each are. I look forward to us getting to know each other better and growing together in the years to come.

Lastly, I want to thank the people who have been with me on this journey – my dear husband Steve, my son Micah, his fiancé Madison Johnson, and my still-in-Kansas son -Jonah Stiel. I could not do what I do without their support and love. Luckily, they all like warm weather!!

Friends- May we all go together from strength to strength!

Rabbi Debbie Stiel is one of two rabbis at Temple Solel.