Shalom and Goodbye, Rabbi Sasso!

(Nuvo, July 3, 2013)

Many people don’t know what they want to do when they grow up. Not Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. On the night of her confirmation 50 years ago, the 16-year-old teenager came home and told her parents she wanted to be a rabbi. Her insurance agent father, Israel (Irv), and homemaker mother, Freda, told her to follow her dream and that they were behind her.

So was her mentor, Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Bertram Korn. She also confided in friends at the Philadelphia youth group where she was religious vice president, coordinating youth services, writing prayers and delivering sermonettes. “I kept it a secret because it was so unusual at that time,” says the petite, raven-haired rabbi. “Feminism was just beginning to be born. And religious feminism didn’t even exist.”

The turbulent social upheaval of the ’60s was in full force when the Einstein Hospital candy striper, Jewish camp counselor, and Sunday school teacher graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1965. She took her dream of a temple to Temple University where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religion.

Sasso shook up the status quo in 1974 when, after five years, she became the first woman ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the U.S., (following Sally Priesand in 1972. Reconstructionist philosophy, like Reform Jewish beliefs, is founded on the basis that men and women have equal rights.

“One of the men in rabbinical school thought I was going to try to be like an aggressive male, but I didn’t see it that way,” Sasso says. “I wanted to be a woman and I wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t change the way the rabbinate functioned. But like women who followed, I brought a different perspective and different leadership to the rabbinate.”

She wasn’t without critics.

“I met with opposition and had people challenge me along the way,” she says. “Some said men would not come to the synagogue. And one told me I was doing the wrong thing and would destroy Judaism. Can you imagine that I, as one person, had the power to destroy centuries of Judaism?” she says, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands in dismay.

click to enlargeRabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso with her husband, Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, at a gala held May 17 in her honor Downtown at the JW Marriott. - GOLDBERG PHOTOGRAPHY

  • Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso with her husband, Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, at a gala held May 17 in her honor Downtown at the JW Marriott.
  • Goldberg Photography


Fellow rabbinical college classmate Dennis Sasso didn’t feel threatened. The two fell in love while teaching Sunday school. They were married in 1970 by Sandy’s mentor, Rabbi Korn.

“We graduated together,” she says, “and then we had separate congregations in New York. Dennis was the rabbi of the Reconstruction Congregation of the North Shore on Long Island and I was the rabbi of the Manhattan Reconstructionist Havurah.

“It was a small congregation with very prominent members who were related to the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordecai Kaplan. They were exceptionally supportive and wanted a female rabbi to succeed and be respected and accepted.

“They were amazing people. When I was pregnant, they were very worried about me. They would say, ‘You’re standing too long. Sit down.’ When our son David was born, my parents brought him to Yom Kippur services so I could nurse him during breaks in the service,” says the woman who further made feminist history by being the first rabbi to become a mother.

David was a year old when the Sassos moved to Indianapolis in 1977 to become spiritual leaders of Indianapolis’ Congregation Beth-El Zedeck. In addition to being the first woman to serve a Conservative congregation, the couple became the first practicing rabbinical couple in Jewish history.

Daughter Debora was 2 when Rabbi Sandy started the early childhood program at Beth-El, which is one of the largest Reconstructionist synagogues with more than 800 families as members.

“I remember taking David and Debbie for Suzuki violin lessons at Fairview Presbyterian Church where I saw a sign on the wall for Mother’s Day Out,” she recalls. “I thought why don’t we do that? That small idea began with eight students and now has more than 180 children, ages 12 months through kindergarten.

“We built a whole wing in the synagogue to house our early childhood center, which is an enormous service for families in the community. It’s not just Jewish children who go here. We have a huge population that spans the religious community.”

Debbie now has a doctorate in psychology from IUPUIand is married to Brad Herold, a chiropractor. Their children, Ari and Levi, are in the program initiated by their Bubbie.

David is a psychiatrist who lives in New Haven, Conn., where he is a child guidance center medical director and an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center. He and wife, Dana Small, have one son, Darwin.

When asked about their childhoods, Debbie says, “People used to ask us what it was like to have two rabbis as parents, and I never knew how to answer because I never knew what it would be like to have parents who were not rabbis. They didn’t let their rabbinate affect their parenting. They were just regular people.”

David concurs.

“As rabbis’ kids, we went to synagogue a lot. Our Passover Seders were probably longer than our friends’ and our dinner conversations became increasingly Talmudic as we grew up. As a child, I never thought of my mom as a trailblazer, which of course she is in amazing ways. But that’s the lucky part for me and my sister. She was always just Mom!”

As a national award-winning children’s book author, Sasso has triggered the religious imagination of children of all faiths with her books, including God’s PaintbrushAdam and Eve’s First SunsetIn God’s Name, ButGod RememberedNoah’s Wife: The Story of Na’amah andAbuelita’s Secret Matzahs.

How did Mom and Dad divide their duties at home?

“We didn’t have an Excel sheet that said, ‘I’ll do this and you do that,’ ” says Sasso. “It evolved over time according to our interests. But one thing I felt strongly about was preaching, because that’s how most people initially connect with clergy. Because there hadn’t been women on the pulpit, I insisted that I would always be on the pulpit. And so I was at every Shabbat service and for High Holy days.”

“Our partnership has been unique,” says her husband. “We had no prototype, no model. Our rabbinate has been shaped by each other’s presence and companionship, at home, on the pulpit and in the community. We have worked towards a shared horizon, but our paths and styles have been different. Sandy tells stories; I pun. Sandy writes poems; I teach in prose. But together we have shared a passion for family, for Jewish living and for the values that make for a responsible community.”

After 36 years, Sasso has broken up the historic partnership by retiring on July 1.

David J. Bodenhamer, executive director and professor of The Polis Center at IUPUI, says, “It is impossible to capture all that Sandy has meant to Indianapolis. She bridged what sometimes is a divide between the arts and religion in the city.

“Not only is she a talented and accomplished writer who has many personal relationships with writers and artists in Indianapolis and elsewhere, but she has given freely of her time and creativity to major initiatives to bring arts, humanities and religion into closer connection with each other. I cannot imagine the growth of the Spirit & Place Festival into a major annual event without the leadership Sandy has brought to it from its beginning in 1996. She was present at its creation and has served it continuously in roles from moderator of the Public Conversation to board chair.

“But even more important is the way she has lived. She is a gifted speaker and storyteller, but she always reveals her most important lessons by the way she consistently models civility, respect for others, reflection about the larger meaning of our lives together, commitment to diversity in all forms, and a passion for excellence in everything she does. She is a true exemplar of what it means to live in and for community.”

Former Beth-El board member Nancy Bate agrees.

“With her strong, steady, dignified leadership, she helped shape our daughters’ visions of what they could attain. Our daughters found the courage to wear a tallit, to speak up for what they believe, to become leaders in business and the arts, to do their own trailblazing. She has named our babies, married our children and buried our loved ones. Somehow, she has managed to find the right words to comfort us as we’ve wept.”

This fall, Sasso will be the director of the Religion and Arts Seminar at Butler University in partnership with Christian Theological Seminary. She is also partnering with folk singer Carrie Newcomer in an interfaith collaboration of music and story called “Light, Living, Laughter and Hope.”

The two performed this past year in front of 600 people at Beth-El.

“We got a standing ovation,” Sasso says enthusiastically. “As a rabbi, you don’t take bows and people don’t clap. The first time I took a bow, I thought ‘Wow! This is pretty neat!’ ”

The irrepressible, irreplaceable rabbi has another revolutionary idea in the making: a household spray that smells like Jewish cooking.

“A Jewish home means there will be soup cooking and when you walk into the house for the holidays, the aromas greet you.”

Pretending to squirt her spray around the room, she quips, “I know this is Rosh Hashanah because I can smell the chicken soup, the chicken and the bread baking!”

Another first, Rabbi! You could call it Heaven Scent!

A national award-winning writer, Julie Slaymaker is a past president of The Indiana Professional Chapter of The Society of Professional Journalists and Woman’s Press Club of Indiana.