My Debt to Rabbi Sally Priesand

May 24, 2012Allison Grossman

When I was asked earlier this month if I might be interested in contributing a guest post to RACblog to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination as the first female rabbi in the United States, I thought it would be easy. I am not a rabbi, cantor or Jewish educator – but I am a young Jewish woman. I spent the first few years of my post-collegiate life working in the professional Jewish community, and I remain connected professionally, socially and spiritually to the RAC and the Reform Jewish Movement. There must be so much I could say. But then I sat down to write. And it hit me – I don’t actually distinguish my Jewish identity from my identity as a woman. I don’t have to.

When Sally Priesand was ordained, I wasn’t yet born. I remember – but not well, as I was young – incorporating the names of our great female ancestors, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, into our service, alongside our patriarchs. I grew up dancing to “Miriam’s Song” at Jewish summer camp. I have more female friends than male in rabbinical school now, and I believe our movement will be an even more spiritual, inclusive and exciting place to practice Judaism after they are ordained. So what does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize or appreciate the battles that the women who came before me fought to make gender equality a reality in North American Reform Judaism. And it doesn’t mean that I believe we’re done with the subject in our own movement. But it does mean that I have more freedom to look outside of our movement, to focus on the many women who still strive for the same level of opportunity and equality that I am able to enjoy. Earlier this month, Save the Children released its 13th annual State of the World’s Mothers report. Each year, the organization ranks the best and worst countries for mothers and children based on a series of critical factors, including health, education and economic opportunity. This year, Niger surpassed Afghanistan for the first time in two years as the worst place for mothers and children. In Niger, children have a one-in-seven chance of dying before their 5th birthday. The figures are especially stark when we contrast them to those of Norway, which is ranked at the top of the list as the best place to be a mother. In Norway, mothers have a one-in-175 chance of losing a child before age five. In general, families in the top-ranked countries have impressive access to health care, maternity and paternity leave, pre-school, and more. But we know it’s access that mothers and their children everywhere should enjoy. And what about the United States and Canada? The U.S. came in 25th in out of 165 countries. Although the U.S. jumped up a few places from last year’s ranking of 31, a woman in the United States is still seven times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related cause than a woman in Italy. Canada fared slightly better – at number 19, out of 165. These numbers are sobering, not in the least because they illustrate the chasms of inequality that exist in our world today. But looking at the quality of health care and education for mothers in the top tier, I am also reminded of the progress that can be made and the opportunities that are available when we stand together for justice and human rights.

I wasn’t alive to see the first female rabbi ordained almost 40 years ago. But I can try to channel the spirit and determination of Rabbi Sally Priesand and the many, many strong Reform Jewish women who came before and who have come since to advocate for health care, education, and opportunity for women and their families in the United States and around the world. It is my debt to them to keep the fight going.

Allison Grossman is an Aid Effectiveness Specialist at Save the Children. She was a 2006-2007 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant.

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