Faced with a mandatory internship for her PhD but nowhere she could teach courses on Jewish women, Irene Fine created the innovative Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education in 1977. The Institute offered courses on Torah, Talmud, and midrash as well as a Shabbat lecture series where noted feminist scholars could present their research. They also published feminist rituals and prayers for Jewish holidays, books of women’s midrashim, and the San Diego Women’s Haggadah, one of the first resources for feminist Seders. Beyond her work leading the Institute, Fine wrote two of her own books and edited an anthology.
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 continued to innovate in Jewish women’s education and in the publication of books on Jewish women by Jewish women until its closure in 2002.
Fine 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.
Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education
The Ph.D. 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 she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah, Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud, and A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash by women, and established a SabbathShabbat 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 The "guide" to the Passover seder containing the Biblical and Talmudic texts read at the seder, as well as its traditional regimen of ritual performances.Haggadah was the first women’s text available for those seeking to hold a feminist Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.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 Woman’s Institute in 1997.
Fine is the model of an educational entrepreneur. She continued to work with young teachers interested in Jewish studies for women and to plan new book projects. On October 29, 2000, at a celebration of 150 years of San Diego Jewish history, the Lipinsky Institute at San Diego State University and the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego honored Fine for her contributions to the Continuing Jewish Education of Jewish Women. Furthermore, the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego honored Fine and the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education by featuring them in “Celebrate San Diego: The History and Heritage of the San Diego Jewish Community,” an exhibit at the History Center in Balboa Park, San Diego, from March 2017 to May 2018. Fine also revels in spending time with her six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, delighting them with her “fabulous stories” and hearing theirs as well.
Fine, Irene. Educating the New Jewish Woman: A Dynamic Approach (1985).
Fine, Irene. Midlife: A Rite of Passage/The Wise Woman, A Celebration (1988).
Hyman, Paula E., and Deborah Dash Moore, eds. Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Levine, Elizabeth, ed. A Ceremonies Sampler: New Rites, Celebrations, and Observances of Jewish Women (1991).
“Legacy.” The Journal of Southern California Jewish Historical Society 1, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 51.
The Shabbat Series: Excellence in Education for Jewish Women (1997).
Tolley, Jacquelyn, ed. On Our Spiritual Journey, A Creative Shabbat Service (1984).
Zones, Jane, ed. San Diego Women’s Haggadah. 2d ed. (1986).
Zones, Jane, ed. Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible. 2d ed. (1989).
Archives containing documents from the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education can be found at the Special Collections and University Archives at Love Library, San Diego State University.