In May 2022, the American Jewish Archives unveiled “Sally Priesand Leads The Way,” an exhibit celebrating 50 years since Priesand, the first female rabbi in North America, was ordained.
On display in the AJA’s corner of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Cincinnati campus, the exhibit featured personal documents that even Priesand hadn’t seen in decades, showing how she overcame sexism and prejudice at the college to graduate.
“If you think about it, she had the letters that were sent to her from the college, but she did not have…the letters that she sent to the college,” said Lisa Frankel, director of educational outreach and administration at the AJA, who worked with Priesand to put together the exhibit. “So she was like, ‘Oh, this is great. I haven’t seen those letters since I sent them.’”
A few years ago, such a display might have only been available in-person to view for a limited time in Cincinnati. But even as the exhibit and Priesand’s documents get packed away, it lives on virtually, available to anyone in the world with an internet connection – for free.
Using a camera setup that takes a nearly 360 degree image, the entirety of the real-life exhibit was photographed on a bright sunny day and composited online. By clicking on circles overlaid on the virtual AJA floor, digital visitors can “walk” around the exhibit and click on the displays for close-ups of photos, letters, and other documents.
For Dr. Gary Zola, who recently retired as the executive director of the AJA, putting the exhibit online made sense after visiting digital exhibits at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of us – whether we’re dinosaurs or really tech savvy – have taken a quantum leap forward in terms of technology as a result of being locked up in our own little homes,” he said. “I was one of those people sitting in my house and wanting to visit museums…and I was very taken by it.”
At the same time, Priesand’s legacy extends around the world. Why cut off a global audience from celebrating that legacy just because they couldn’t come to Cincinnati?
“Even in the best of times, there are people all over the world who just would not be able to come to Cincinnati, to actually see these documents and to see the exhibit that focuses on her,” Zola said. “And so you put these two ideas together, and it was sort of a natural [step].”
Cleveland-born Priesand wanted to be a rabbi after seeing a woman read from the torah at synagogue as a teenager. But the path would not be easy – HUC thought she had come to study in Cincinnati to marry a rabbi, not become one.
Studying in the late 60s and early 70s also meant that Priesand was seen, and dismissed, as a spearhead of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
“Most people felt that Sally was responding to that movement, but in fact, that wasn’t the case,” Frankel said. “She always believed that she could be a rabbi – that she was the equal to men and the intellect that it required to be a rabbi.”
Priesand was a spiritual successor to the many women who had studied at Jewish institutions like HUC but not been allowed to become rabbis, and to Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi in the world, who was privately ordained in Nazi Germany and later murdered in Auschwitz.
Priesand marked another historic first after her ordination: The first woman to offer the opening prayer at Congress on Oct. 23, 1973 – the same day as the first congressional resolution was introduced to impeach then-President Richard Nixon over the Watergate affair. Priesand was invited by Congresswoman Bella Abzug, herself a Jewish feminist icon.
Priesand “told me that she had learned how to deal with the adversity of people saying no to her in a very calm and meaningful way,” Frankel said. “So it’s a story of perseverance and steadfast determination. And I think we can all learn from that.”
The theme of challenging adversity carried over to the broader context for celebrating Priesand: Shortly before the exhibit opened, the board of HUC-JIR voted to shut down the Cincinnati rabbinical school after the 2025-2026 school year.
The gut-punch of a decision came during the Cincinnati Jewish community’s 200 year bicentennial celebration – during which Cincy Jews commemorated all they had contributed to the region and the world, including the creation of the American Jewish Reform movement and the ordination of the first female rabbi in the U.S.
“There was a lot of feeling in the community that, well, we want the world to know that the first woman rabbi studied here and was ordained here,” Zola said.
“I want to record and continue to record the greatness of our rabbinical school here in Cincinnati, no matter what the future brings,” he said. “It is impossible…to eradicate the contributions…from 1875 [the founding of HUC] to the present. That has to be preserved and discussed and memorialized.”
As part of that work, AJA started a collection effort to document the first 100 female rabbis in the U.S., and create an archive that future scholars can learn from.
It’s “the beginning of an effort to make it possible for people to study the women who were pioneers in the rabbinate during these last 50 years,” Zola said.