Holy Sparks: Celebrating 50 Years of Women in the Rabbinate

On View:

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Holy Sparks

Organized in Partnership With the Braid

BERNARD HELLER MUSEUM, HUC-JIR/NY: February 1 – May 8, 2022
  • Wednesday, April 6 at 7:30 pm: Performance by The Braid of the play, Stories from the Fringe
  • Thursday, April 7 at 6:30 – 8:30 pm: Reception and program honoring the rabbis and artists
  • May 19 at 6 – 8 pm: Opening Reception

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.

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. Combining artists The Braid had exhibited with HUC-JIR’s deep roster, we spent countless hours to find the natural connections between the artists’ styles, interests, personalities, geographies and the biographies of the selected rabbis.”

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.

Featured in Holy Sparks: (images, artists’ statements, and rabbis’ biographies are in the online exhibition catalogue)

A tribute to the legacy of REGINA JONAS as the first woman rabbi in modern times, ordained in Berlin in 1935 and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.



1972: (first woman rabbi ordained in North America, by Reform movement) RABBI SALLY PRIESAND illuminated by the rainbows that have brought blessing to her life in JOAN ROTH‘s dazzling digital photograph
1974: (first woman ordained by Reconstructionist movement) RABBI SANDY EISENBERG SASSO’s revelation of the spiritual imagination portrayed in DEBRA BAND‘s paper cut depicting the Torah as a clay jar emitting jewels
1975: (first woman rabbi to lead large metropolitan synagogue) RABBI LAURA GELLER‘s leadership and inspirational friendship conveyed in RUTH WEISBERG‘s tender portrait
1975: (first woman ordained and serving in England) RABBI JACKIE TABICK‘s parable about inadvertent good deeds as the hands of God evoked in Sandy Bliefer‘s three-dimensional work
1981: (first woman rabbi to serve in Israel) RABBI KINNER SHIRYON‘s traversing the fault lines of serving as a community rabbi in Israel depicted in a dissonant collage by HEDDY BREUER ABRAMOWITZ
1982: (first woman rabbi to start her own congregation in America) RABBI AMY PERLIN’S community building expressed in DEBORAH UGORETZ‘s paper cut portraying her with Torah aloft amidst the values-driven blossoming congregation she founded
1985: (first woman ordained by Conservative movement) RABBI AMY EILBERG surrounded by images of her social justice and human rights work by PAT BERGER 
1986: (first active duty woman chaplain in US military) RABBI JULIE SCHWARTZ‘s military chaplaincy captured by EMILY BOWEN COHEN’s comics-informed panel
1988: (first openly LGBTQ+ woman rabbi) RABBI DENISE EGER‘s compassion for HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s evoked by DORIT JORDAN DOTAN‘s angelic imagery
1989: (founder of groundbreaking Nashuva community) RABBI NAOMI LEVY‘s gathering of souls conveyed by JUDY SIROTA ROSENTHAL’s mixed media and music installation
1990: (first woman ordained and serving in France) RABBI PAULINE BEBE’s congregation’s ethos depicted by TAMAR HIRSCHL‘s amalgamation of Parisian and Jewish imagery
1992: (first woman ordained in Israel) RABBI NAAMAH KELMAN‘s struggles for pluralism and women’s empowerment in Israel expressed by ELLEN ALT‘s calligraphic work
1993: (first woman provost and Reform ordination officiant) RABBI ANDREA WEISS‘ scholarship and biblical mantra of “words flowing as dew” conveyed by DEBBIE TEICHOLZ GUEDALIA‘s metaphorical photo collage
1995: (first Syrian woman rabbi) RABBI DIANE COHLER-ESSES transcending boundaries as a Jew of color depicted by SIONA BENJAMIN‘s soaring blue figure reflecting the infinite sky and sea
1998: (next generation innovator of “The Kitchen”) RABBI NOA KUSHNER‘s holding of names of those loved and lost in her “Kitchen” community expressed by HARRIETE ESTEL BERMAN‘s Hanukkah menorah of recycled materials
1998: (first woman Chief Executive of CCAR) RABBI HARA PERSON’s journey built on words depicted in ELIZABETH LANGER‘s scripture-laden patchwork collage
2001: (first Korean woman ordained a rabbi) RABBI ANGELA WARNICK BUCHDAHL‘s Korean and Jewish heritage-infused prayer and song evoked by LAURIA GROSS
2001: (founder of leading nondenominational IKAR community) RABBI SHARON BROUS‘ joyous and impassioned persona captured in PENNY WOLIN‘s multi-image photographic portrait
2002: (first woman rabbi Masorti youth leader in Israel) RABBI CLAUDIA KREIMAN‘s crisis of faith towards humanity expressed in MARISA TAKAL‘s psychic landscape
2003: (head of Masorti movement in Germany) RABBI GESA EDERBERG’s revitalization of Judaism in Berlin portrayed by YONA VERWER‘s abstracted imagery evoking German Jewry’s past splendor
2007: (first woman rabbi in Poland and Czech Republic) RABBI TANYA SEGAL‘s Jewish renaissance in Poland captured by LINDA SOBERMAN’s portrait embedded in Krakow’s past
2009: (first Orthodox ordained rabba) RABBA SARA HURWITZ‘s community-driven leadership conveyed by KATHRYN JACOBI’s painting of her world shaped by her family and her students
2012: (founding feminist theologian/ethicist) RABBI RACHEL ADLER‘s landmark feminist essay recorded as a page of Talmud by MARILEE TOLWIN’s Tolwin’s drawing
2013: (co-editor of The Torah: A Women’s CommentaryRABBI TAMARA COHN ESKENAZI‘s faith after the Holocaust conveyed by Carol Hamoy‘s commandment-inscribed gloves



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.

The exhibition will travel to other venues following its presentation at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati. For further information, please contact: 212-824-2209; jrosensaft@huc.edu


“HOLY SPARKS” Celebration Consortium

Celebrating 50 Years of Women in the Rabbinate with
Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and The Braid 

Academy for Jewish Religion, Los Angeles, CA
American Conference of Cantors
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Hadassah Magazine
Hebrew College, Newton Centre, MA
Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism
Israel Religious Action Center
Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, OH
Jewish Art Salon
Jewish Book Council
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Silver Spring, MD
The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY
Jewish Women International
Jewish Women’s Archive, Brookline, MA
Leo Baeck College, London, United Kingdom
Lilith Magazine
MARAM: Council of Reform Rabbis in Israel
Moment Magazine
Rabbinical Assembly, New York, NY
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, PA
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, Israel
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism, New York, NY
Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, Israel
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism
Women’s Rabbinic Network 
World Union for Progressive Judaism
Yeshivat Maharat, Riverdale, NY
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, California