(RNS) — Fifty years ago this month, Sally J. Priesand was ordained a rabbi by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical school of Reform Judaism. With that, the half-century of women in the rabbinate began. As a rabbi, I might find a more sacred text to mark this historic anniversary, but in truth, this quote best sums it up: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”
In Reform Judaism, as in the other branches of Judaism, remarkable stained-glass ceilings have been broken, and congregations are now led by women who are rabbis and cantors, as well as Jewish professionals and lay leaders. Women ordained as rabbis have shaped Jewish liturgy, ritual, theology, social justice agenda and intellectual life with glorious impact. For years now, at least half of the students in our seminary classes are women.
But for too long, the opportunity to be a rabbi has come at the unacceptable and all too common price of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and gender-based discrimination. Members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, the organization representing Reform Jewish women rabbis, which I direct, have shared their stories of being subject to sexual misconduct, discrimination and inequalities for years.
Finally, after decades of women rabbis demanding change, the institutions of our Reform movement are taking notice. In the last year, the Reform movement has released three reports documenting how our movement, steeped in the values of social justice and egalitarianism, has failed to protect women and many others from harassment, abuse and bias.
Our seminary, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; our rabbinic association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and our congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism, each found deep and long-standing patterns of sexual abuse, discrimination and misconduct in investigations undertaken by an independent third party. Taken together, it is clear that what should have been sacred places — the spiritual, communal, social, educational and professional homes of Reform Jews — have failed many in profound ways.
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Of course, this is not a problem unique to Judaism or to the Reform movement. Many other Jewish and non-Jewish groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, are engaged in their own reckonings around pervasive sexual misconduct. Many religious institutions and the cultures built around them have silenced those who have survived misconduct, adding the secondary trauma of being ignored or disbelieved. Because of this, institutions — not only individuals — must be held accountable and must actively seek repentance and repair.
In the Reform movement, the work of structural change and full accountability is underway. In Judaism, our concept of repentance and repair is called teshuvah, and following the three reports, each of our movement’s three institutions is engaged in the hard work of institutional repair. This process has just begun, and it is just as critical. Teshuvah must be survivor-centered, resisting the strong pull of reputational repair over a thorough accounting of the harm done to individuals and protected groups, such as women, LBGTQ folks, people of color and people with disabilities. The healing needed must recognize the initial misdeeds but also the additional harm done when victim-survivor reports were ignored or mishandled. The repair must acknowledge the moral injury done to our entire religious movement, as our communal actions have not reflected our deepest Jewish values.
Some steps toward repair and gender equity are more straightforward. Women are overrepresented in smaller, underresourced congregations and in positions within larger institutions. Our analysis shows that women in full-time congregational positions are paid 18% less than men. To promote equity, we have recommended that employees of all genders receive robust paid family and medical leave as a basic, nonnegotiable benefit. All institutions, especially our congregations, must uphold strong gender equity policies that explicitly prohibit asking women inappropriate questions in interviews about their marital status and family planning. Finally, our individual congregations must adopt comprehensive ethics policies and procedures to ensure that every person is treasured and respected as one who is created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God.
Rabbi Priesand’s earnest wish to be a rabbi intersected with the right moment in history, supportive parents and amazing perseverance. Her ordination — and that of each of the 856 women who followed in her path in the Reform movement — was not met with broad acceptance. Like most traditionally all-male professions, the rabbinate was not immediately hospitable to women, and women rabbis have fought misogyny, harassment and bias to gain career advancement, appropriate salaries and safety in our workplaces ever since.
And while we’ve made great strides forward, unfortunately, none of these is yet guaranteed.
This reckoning is long overdue, needed and in process. As we celebrate the great accomplishments of five decades of women rabbis, we must work to ensure that the next 50 years bring the safety, equity and respect rabbis of all genders deserve.
(Rabbi Mary Zamore is executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
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