This week in our Torah reading we begin the book of Bamidar, in English called “Numbers,” because of its propensity to count people. Our portion begins by calling on Moses to “take a census of the whole Israelite community” whereupon he proceeds to count only the men over 20 who are able to bear arms: no women, no children, just able-bodied fighting men. Rabbi Carole B. Balin writes about this counting: “When you consider that 603,550 men are counted in a book of 36 chapters that acknowledges fewer than ten women, you begin to understand that who does the recording and who is recorded are not incidental matters. Factor into the equation the cumulative effect of hearing these numbers repeated year in and year out to ever-new generations of Jews during the cyclical reading of the Torah. The impact of hearing stories that feature male protagonists almost exclusively is exponential, incalculable, epic. What would happen were we to change up the narrative by broadly altering cultural expectations around gender and move women to the center of the story?” (Reform Judaism Ten Minutes of Torah)
This Shabbat, we celebrate and honour someone who changed the narrative and altered the story, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in America on June 3rd. In 1935, Rabbi Regina Jonas was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Germany in a private ordination. She served her community as a rabbi and then continued to do so in Auchwitz where she was interred and murdered in 1944. It not until 1972 that a woman was again ordained, this time by a Rabbinic Seminary: The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Priesand, through her action, paved the way for all the women who would follow, she made it possible for us to dream of becoming rabbis; to see a woman standing on the bima was so powerful, being called Rabbi, being counted.
Rabbi Priesand writes: “I decided I wanted to be a rabbi in 1962 at the age of 16. Fortunately, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: the courage to dare and to dream. With their encouragement, I was able to remain focused on my goal, relatively unconcerned that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi by a theological seminary and determined to succeed despite the doubts I heard expressed in the organized Jewish community.
While in high school, I requested admission information from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. The letters I received in response reflect some uncertainty on the part of college officials as to whether or not there was a place for women in the rabbinate. Nonetheless, I was accepted into the undergraduate program, a joint program between HUC-JIR and the University of Cincinnati, and four years later officially welcomed into the rabbinic program…When I decided to study for the rabbinate, I never thought much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi. Thus, I have spent my entire career in congregational life: first, at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, then at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and since 1981, at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. My congregants and I have developed a creative partnership that reflects the traditional values of synagogue life – worship, study, assembly, and tikkun olam (repairing the world) – and my experiences as a rabbi have enriched my life in ways I never dreamed possible.”
And Rabbi Priesand has enriched all of our lives by helping to open the seminary doors to women and for all the Jewish people to be counted.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio