In the field of continuing Jewish education for women, the preeminent pioneer is Irene Fine, the founder in 1977 of the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, based in San Diego, California. The institute continues to innovate in Jewish women’s education and in the publication of books on Jewish women by Jewish women.
She was born in Wadena, Minnesota, on April 22, 1936, to Herman and Sadie (Nadel) Fink. Her brother, Justin, was three years older. Her father owned a dry-goods store, where she started to work after school at age eleven. After two years at the University of Minnesota, she moved to San Francisco, where she received a B.A. in 1958 in physical education, with a minor in dance. She married Lawrence Fine, a physician-in-training, on June 23, 1957, and they settled in San Diego.
Fine followed the pattern of many women of her generation who interrupted education and careers when their children were young. After the births of her three children (Joel, b. 1960; Gil, b. 1963; and Sari, b. 1969), she continued her education at San Diego State University, where she earned a B.F.A. in 1973, and at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where she pursued graduate studies. In 1977 she embarked on an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Union Graduate School.
The program combined Jewish studies, women’s studies, and adult education. Since an internship was mandatory for each student, and there was no facility in San Diego that would have permitted Fine to teach courses on Jewish women, she set up her own facility, the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education. There she taught and administered a program that develops and disseminates new material written by Jewish women. Under her energetic guidance, the Woman’s Institute pioneered the teaching of Torah, Talmud, and midrash (Bible interpretation) by women, and established a Shabbat lecture series that brings nationally known female scholars to San Diego to present their research on women.
The Woman’s Institute has had an impact far beyond southern California. Its seven publications, all short books written by nonscholars in Jewish studies, have served as a resource for Jewish women nationwide and have empowered lay women to reflect on Jewish sources and to create midrash and liturgy. The San Diego Women’s Haggadah was the first women’s text available for those seeking to hold a feminist seder. Similarly, Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible was the first collection of women’s midrashim. A Ceremonies Sampler: New Rites, Celebrations, and Observances of Jewish Women (1991) brought together the new ritual and liturgy created by Jewish feminists to mark the transition moments of their lives, while On Our Spiritual Journey (1984) offered a creative Sabbath service. In addition to contributing to these publications, Fine has written two books of her own that draw upon her life experience and professional expertise: Educating the New Jewish Woman: A Dynamic Approach (1985) and Midlife: A Rite of Passage/The Wise Woman, A Celebration (1988). She was also editor of the anthology The Shabbat Series: Excellence in Education of Jewish Women, published by the Women’s Institute in 1997.Fine is the model of an educational entrepreneur. She continues to work with young teachers interested in Jewish studies for women and to plan new book projects. But she also revels in spending time with her two granddaughters, delighting them with her “fabulous stories.”
Fine, Irene. Educating the New Jewish Woman: A Dynamic Approach (1985); Levine, Elizabeth, ed. A Ceremonies Sampler: New Rites, Celebrations, and Observances of Jewish Women (1991); Midlife: A Rite of Passage/The Wise Woman, A Celebration (1988); Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible. 2d ed. (1989); Tolley, Jacquelyn, ed. On Our Spiritual Journey, A Creative Shabbat Service (1984); Zones, Jane, ed. San Diego Women’s Haggadah. 2d ed. (1986).