Celebrating 50 Years of Women in the Rabbinate

On June 3, 1972, Jewish and American history were made when Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the first woman rabbi in America. A pioneer who opened the way for generations across all denominations and around the globe, Rabbi Priesand set in motion the first steps toward inclusion, diversity, equity, and empowerment of new cohorts of leaders for the Jewish people over the past 50 years.


The Holy Sparks art exhibition illuminates the creativity, commitment, and vision of 24 women who were “firsts” in their time. Their challenges and contributions, struggles and successes, represent the achievements of all the 839 women rabbinical graduates of HUC-JIR in North America and Israel to date – and the nearly 1,500 women rabbis of all movements who have transformed Jewish tradition, worship, spirituality, scholarship, education, and pastoral care. 


Evoking their stories are the works of 24 leading contemporary Jewish women artists, who immersed themselves in their respective rabbi’s recorded interviews, produced by The Braid’s Story Archive of Women Rabbis and preserved at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The artists’ insights, empathy, and broad array of aesthetic approaches capture the essence of these trailblazers’ identities and consecrated paths. 


The exhibit is now on view at Dr. Bernard Heller Museum, Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion {HUC-JIR}, One West Fourth Street, NYC., until May 8, 2022. Organized in partnership with the Braid, a performance of The Braid’s Stories from the Fringe will take place on Wednesday, April 6 at 6-8 pm.  On Thursday, April 7 at 6 to 8 pm, a reception for Rabbis and Artists will be held. 


Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director of the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum states, “From the pulpit to the college campus, from philanthropic foundations to Jewish communal organizations and agencies, from military to healthcare chaplaincy, women rabbis have indelibly redefined Jewish leadership. It is particularly meaningful to honor their journeys as we confront painful moments of intolerance, exclusion, and abuse and begin to build a better future where all those who seek spiritual fulfillment within Judaism feel respected and valued equally. This exhibition, depicting the collective impact of women rabbis across the denominations and a broad spectrum of identities, demonstrates that it is our unity without uniformity that strengthens us as a people. The art presented exemplifies the role of contemporary women artists in advancing Jewish culture through the visual expression of Jewish history, values, and identity.”


Ronda Spinak, Founder and Artistic Director of The Braid and Co-Director of The Braid’s Story Archive of Women Rabbis says, “Since 2009, Lynne Himelstein and I and our team at The Braid have had the honor of interviewing nearly 200 trailblazing women rabbis from all denominations and across the globe, offering a front-row seat into one of the most transformational moments in Jewish history. Having already dramatized these stories in our landmark play, Stories from the Fringe, we wanted to bring these inspiring legacies to a new medium—the visual arts.  So, we approached HUC-JIR with the exciting idea of an art exhibition celebrating 50 years of women in the rabbinate.”


Lynne Himelstein, Co-Chair of The Braid and Co-Director of The Braid’s Story Archive of Women Rabbis adds, “Each rabbi has such a unique voice and is deserving as a “first” in her own right, so it was challenging to winnow it down to just 24 of these incredible pioneers. Just as much thought had to go into pairing a rabbi with an artist. 


The works in the exhibition range from representational to conceptual portraits of the rabbis created in a variety of mediums, including photography, textile, painting, mixed media, collage, drawing, and recycled materials.  Each work is informed by the rabbi’s life story, vision, and mission, further elaborated in the accompanying wall labels with the rabbis’ biographies and QR-code links to their video interviews. The portraits are presented chronologically by year of ordination, to reveal each decade’s pioneers as inspiration for the next.


This exhibition provides a lens on the creative and spiritual vision sparked by women’s rabbinical leadership, with the recognition that their many advances and accomplishments are just the beginning. “In just 50 years, what was once unthinkable has become foundational. And the pioneering continues: more firsts will be achieved as the next generation of rabbis break new ground, building and changing communities around the world, and extending the inclusion that their presence as women in the rabbinate represents to other categories, such as race, sexuality, and disability,” says Judith Rosenbaum, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Jewish Women’s Archive.  


As “holy sparks,” women in the rabbinate are builders of a vital Jewish future, kindling the Jewish engagement, education, and identity of communities far and wide, today and for the generations to come. 


 For further information contact: 212-824-2209; jrosensaft@huc.edu