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Editor's Note, May 14, 2014: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Judaism's Reconstructionist movement. On June 12, she is to receive the prestigious Heritage Keeper Award at the annual Tribute Dinner at the Indiana State Museum. The award is given to "Indiana's greatest ambassadors for their embodiment of the Hoosier spirit in their accomplishments, leadership, and service to the state." Rabbi Sasso will be the fourth honoree. Those previously honored include Richard Lugar (2013), Earl Goode (2012), and the Hulman-George family (2011.) Until her 2013 retirement, Rabbi Sasso and her husband, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, were the senior rabbis at Beth El Zedeck locally—the first married pair to serve jointly as a congregation's rabbis.
When my husband Dennis and I came to Indianapolis in 1977 to serve as spiritual leaders of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, I wondered what Midwestern wasteland awaited me. I was born and educated in Philadelphia and worked as a rabbi for three years in Manhattan. As we drove from the East Coast to our new home in Washington Township, I listened to the car radio. The news was about the latest soybean and pork-belly futures report. I turned to Dennis and said, “Where in the world are we going?”
Having delighted in mountains and oceans, I was worried about being landlocked in a city that from an airplane looked like a pop-up picture book. But it was more than the geography that concerned me. I wondered how a Jewish community could possibly thrive in the Bible Belt. And if being Jewish made me an oddity in a landscape of church steeples, would being a female rabbi in a flatland of religious conservatism brand me bizarre? I envisioned myself in a city of white bread and sweet corn, when my soul yearned for thick-crusted rye and sweet rugelach.
Dennis and I were the first rabbinic couple in Jewish history. We met during our first year at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and married less than a year later. The day after the wedding, our picture appeared on the front page of the Philadelphia Bulletin. The caption read: “2 Rabbinical Students Are Wed: Ceremony is ‘Historic’ in Judaism.” Though I was a rarity—the first woman to be ordained from the College—Dennis never questioned my decision to become a rabbi. For three years, we served separate congregations, Dennis on Long Island and I in Manhattan. Then Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis invited Dennis to interview. The congregation was even attracted by the option of us serving together. But our son, David, was only a year old, and responsibilities at a large synagogue like Beth-El Zedeck required a seven-day commitment. I offered to work part-time so that I could be more involved in raising our family. When David and our second child, Debbie, began school, I became a full-time rabbi.
Back then, some in the synagogue wanted me to become the principal of the Religious School instead. But while I loved teaching and kids—and could supervise the educational programming—I was a rabbi. I wanted to be an educator and a pastor, preacher, and community representative. Sunday-school director was an “acceptable” position for women, but not the one for which I had studied. There had to be doubts about a woman performing rabbinic functions, but the congregation decided the risk was worth taking.
Now, after three-and-a-half decades at my rabbinical post, I will retire this month from Beth-El Zedeck—a career that was once just the dream of a shy teenager.I remember where I was, the day, the place, the emotion, when I decided to become a rabbi. It was night; the rest of my family was in bed. I couldn’t sleep. The room could have belonged to any 16-year-old girl of the time: two single beds with white spreads, a pink princess phone, a small vanity, a rarely played guitar in the corner. I sat on the edge of one of the beds; my heart raced. I said to myself, “I want to become a rabbi.” It was May 1963, and there were no female rabbis in the United States.
Later in life, people would ask me when I was “called.” Most of my career, I would answer, “Ministers and priests speak of being called, not rabbis. My decision was a rational one, a result of my profound interest in Judaism.” I delighted in the rhythm of the year, the poetry of ritual, the metaphors in prayer. As a teenager, I loved that we struggled with big questions, and that doubt and uncertainty were part of the faith journey.
But the desire to become a rabbi was much more than a reasoned decision. I don’t think that something from on high was calling out to me, but something from inside was, pulling and drawing me to an unknown place. It was a spiritual calling, exhilarating and frightening at the same time. My maternal grandfather was secular; my paternal grandmother was Orthodox. Neither could understand my choice, but they never said a word. My parents fully supported me.
When I started seminary in 1969, Jewish feminism was an oxymoron. There were still no female rabbis in this country, although I was aware that Sally Priesand, who would be the first woman to be ordained in the United States, was studying at Hebrew Union College. I bought every Ms. magazine, hoping it might speak to my concerns. Most of the editors of the magazine, after all, were Jews. There were articles about politics, business, and professions like law and medicine, but nothing about religion. I felt ill at ease in this emerging feminist culture that did not address my Jewish soul, but I also was beginning to feel marginalized by the Jewish community because it did not embrace my woman’s soul. Let me offer you a glimpse of what it was like in those early years.
Some months into my first year of seminary, I received a letter from a woman I had never met but who had read an article in a Baltimore newspaper about my decision to become a rabbi:
“Frankly, I just can’t understand what would prompt a Jewish girl to have the ‘Chutzpah’ to consider herself eligible to become a rabbi. ... The very idea of a female rabbi makes me sick. And my first reaction was, ‘she must be nuts.’
“Still you look pretty enough in the picture, and being Jewish, I am just prejudiced enough to figure that you are smart, too—so, I am hoping that you will do a very great deal of studying, and somewhere along the line, you will find out that you are pursuing a wrong goal, and you just might back up and end up on the right track after all—I sincerely hope so.
“Ordinarily, I would sign off by wishing much success, but this time I will refrain—in fact, frankly, I hope you don’t make it—for your sake, mine and everyone else’s.”
That reaction wasn’t unusual. During those years, I was invited to speak before many audiences. After I made an impassioned plea for the importance of women in the rabbinate at one such lecture, a middle-aged man in the audience asked, “Can you make chicken soup?” I’d like to tell you that I dismissed the question as impolite. But the next day, I went to the supermarket and bought chicken, celery, carrots, and onions, and came home to prove to myself that I could be a rabbi and make chicken soup.
Just before I was to be ordained, I was asked to speak by the sisterhood of a large synagogue in my community. After my presentation, the rabbi stood, and instead of the traditional “Thank you for coming” and “Mazal Tov on your ordination,” he said, “When you grow up, you’ll change your mind.” (A footnote: I didn’t, but he did. He eventually voted in favor of the ordination of women in the Conservative movement.)
Finally, the first New York congregation at which I interviewed told me that they were ready to consider a female rabbi. I led services, taught, and worked with the children of the religious school. Then I interviewed with the search committee. The first question? “What happens if you become pregnant?” Wryly, I replied that my husband and I believed in “Planned Pulpithood.” I did not get that job. Instead, I was elected by a small Manhattan synagogue, which welcomed me and celebrated with me when I gave birth to my first child.
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