YMCA to present MLK Human Dignity Award to nation’s first female rabbi


The YMCA of Greater Monmouth County is preparing for its 33rd community celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  on Jan. 14. The annual commemoration will be a virtual event, free and open to all.

A highlight of this year’s celebration will be the presentation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Dignity Award  to honor an individual who reflects the civil rights leader’s principles and ideals in philosophy and action, according to a press release.

Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, who was the  first female to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States, is this year’s recipient of the YMCA’s award.

Priesand is president of the Board of Trustees at Interfaith Neighbors, an organization that provides affordable housing solutions, rental and mortgage assistance, and other vital support services for families and individuals in Monmouth County, according to the press release.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1988 by  interfaith groups to combat homelessness in Asbury Park and other communities in the county and developed into a full-service agency providing a lifeline of services for the working poor, according to the press release.

“I am honored to receive an award named for Dr. King, especially since it comes from my local community,” Priesand said. “It is a reminder that all people are part of one human family, all of us God’s children, all worthy of dignity and respect.”

For 25 years, Priesand  served as rabbi at  Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls, retiring in 2006. She was given the title rabbi emerita and is still involved at the temple with various events and activities.

Y President and CEO Laurie Goganzer said the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County is looking forward to formally recognizing Priesand’s social justice work in Asbury Park and throughout Monmouth County.

“She represents the true spirit of Dr. King and we want to bring the community together to celebrate and honor his memory, which lives on in Rabbi Priesand’s humanitarian efforts,” Goganzer said.

Priesand is also a former chair of the membership committee of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College. She is an active supporter of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County and has worked with Planned Parenthood  locally and nationally, according to the press release.

An ordained rabbi since 1972, Priesand holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Bachelor in Hebrew Letters, and a Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters.

She was recently one of 20 women honored by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the UJC National Women’s Philanthropy in conjunction with the exhibit “From Haven to Home” at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, in honor of its 125th anniversary, Good Housekeeping magazine named Priesand one of 125 women who changed people’s lives and the world.

In 2017, the Women of Reform Judaism established the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand WRJ Award to be given annually to a graduating woman on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR.

“Rabbi Priesand has dedicated her career to helping others,” said Michael Wright, a Y board member and chair of the MLK Committee. “She is a pioneer in Reform Judaism and a bonafide leader in the nonprofit community of Monmouth County. Our community is blessed to have Rabbi Priesand give of herself to so many important causes. She is part of the modern progressive movement to keep Dr. King’s dream alive and advance his philosophy of social justice.”

As part of the program, the two winners of the annual Dr. King student essay contest will read their winning essays.

Both students will be awarded a $1,500 scholarship, which is sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty. The students will also receive a full-year membership to a YMCA of Greater Monmouth County branch of their choice, according to the press release.

The keynote speaker at the MLK event will be Andrea McChristian, Law and Policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. McChristian oversees the institute’s three pillars of social justice: democracy and justice, economic justice, and criminal justice reform.

All community members are invited to join the virtual commemoration. The online event will take place from 8-9 a.m. Jan. 14. To register or to learn more, visit www.ymcanj.org/MLK

In addition to Wright, committee members are Lori Ferguson, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield; Sue Harbison, HABcore; Thomas Hayes, New Jersey Natural Gas; Itzel Hernandez, American Friends Services; Darryl Hughes, Hackensack Meridian Health; Rabbi Marc Kline, Monmouth Reform Temple; Pastor Jessica Naulty, United Methodist Church of Red Bank; Samara O’Neill, PorterPlus Realty; Gilda Rogers, T. Thomas Fortune House; and the Rev. Ronald L. Sparks, Bethel AME Freehold.

The YMCA of Greater Monmouth County’s programs and services are anchored in 10 communities: health and wellness facilities in Freehold Township, Old Bridge and Red Bank; outdoor day camps in Millstone Township and Wall Township; a community center in Freehold Borough; counseling and social service centers in Eatontown, Matawan and Middletown; childcare centers in Freehold Township, Matawan and Red Bank; and integrated in nearly 100 schools in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The YMCA is based in Shrewsbury, according to the press release.