By Lisa Cooper
Wonder Woman is Jewish. This superhero title does not reference the Israeli actress who portrayed Wonder Woman in the 2017 blockbuster but rather Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi in Jewish history who paved the way for women in the rabbinate.
Rabbi Jonas attended a liberal seminary in Berlin, Germany. After completing the rabbinic program in 1930, she was refused ordination until 1935. Her thesis titled “Can A Woman Be A Rabbi” stood the test of time, as told by two pioneering women who graced the stage at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on Sept. 17, as they shared their stories of “Women In The Rabbinate Then & Now.” These heroic trailblazers, who were introduced and recognized for their legacy to Cincinnati’s thriving Jewish community by William Weitzer of the Leo Baeck Institute, were Rabbi Sally J. Priesand and Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz. Their journeys followed a similar path of their predecessor, with a few notable differences.
Following his presentation of the Jacob Rader Marcus Award to Shira and Jay Ruderman for “outstanding contributions to the study of the American Jewish Experience,” Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center, Rabbi Gary Zola, recognized the Ruderman’s efforts to “deepen the understanding” between Israeli women in the rabbinate and American Jewish leadership. He then facilitated the panel discussion in which the guest rabbis shared their personal stories and highlighted the risks Jewish women must take to become spiritual leaders in their communities. Although the rabbis took different paths, they agree with Rabbi Jonas’ words “the world changes when someone takes a risk.”
Rabbi Priesand, the first female rabbi in North America who was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1972, shared her story juxtaposed with the struggles faced by Rabbi Jonas. Both women were encouraged to pursue the rabbinate, yet overcame saboteurs along the way, were not immediately hired, and recognized a lack of female role models. Inspired by Rabbi Jonas, rather than fall victim, Rabbi Priesand took the risks necessary to become a senior rabbi, and said her focus was always about creating partnerships. She “wanted to be Jewish with her congregants, not for them.” She recognized “female rabbis needed the support of male rabbis, and this is true even today, especially if women want to move to senior positions.” During the reception preceding the panel discussion, attendee Gretchen Johnson said she had a concern about gender-based partnerships in the rabbinate. “I’ve read a book titled ‘The Sacred Calling’ and am eager to learn about the wording on female rabbis’ ordination diplomas as I read it’s different than the wording on the male rabbis’ diplomas,” she said. Johnson shared her relief in knowing there is now equality shown in the wording on all ordination diplomas.
Rabbi Pilz attended Abraham-Geiger College, a rabbinic seminary in Potsdam, Germany, and also faced formidable obstacles prior to her ordination in 2015. Similar to the aforementioned, she too was “held to a higher standard” than her male counterparts, and had few female role models. Nevertheless, Rabbi Pilz said her biggest challenge was the “four years dedicated to study and working in the community while pursuing a Ph.D. and simultaneously working toward ordination.” She never sought to become a congregational rabbi, which she suspected “made her experience very different.” Rabbi Pilz similarly focused on partnerships, specifically the partnership between Germany and America. “As Judaism began in Germany and Reform Judaism in Cincinnati, we should connect the two,” Rabbi Pilz said.
A German-American grandfather who attended with his teenage granddaughter shared that sentiment and said “we are German and interested in the topic … we are not Jewish but need to continue to foster good relations.”