1. Miriam

Miriam was born in the depth of the Egyptian exile, when the people were overworked, demoralized, and hopeless. Her father, Amram, the “great one of the generation,” was so devastated by the situation that he divorced his wife, saying that “Israel is birthing for naught!” Many followed his example. Young Miriam saw this and bravely admonished, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh only decreed against baby boys, but you are also decreeing against the girls!1” Amram conceded and remarried her mother.

When Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish boys be killed, Miriam, who assisted her mother as a midwife, stood up to the powerful king and refused to do his bidding.

When her brother Moses—who was destined to become the greatest and most famous Jewish leader—was born, he had to be hidden. He was placed in a basket on the Nile and Miriam faithfully watched from a distance. When Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, saw the boy and attempted—unsuccessfully—to feed him, Miriam—in her ingenuity and courage—offered a brilliant solution. She suggested that he be fed by a Hebrew wet-nurse, and when Batya agreed, she led her to her mother.

Learn more about Miriam

2. Rachav

Forty years after the Exodus, the Jewish people were ready to conquer Israel. In the city of Jericho, the “key to the land,” lived a woman—Rachav—who owned and operated an inn.

When two Jewish spies arrived to check out the city, chased by the king of Jericho’s soldiers, Rachav hid them in her attic2 and misled the searchers, enabling them to escape unharmed. In gratitude, the spies promised her that when the time came for them to conquer Jericho, they would spare her. She should tie a red string from her window, they instructed, which would signal that the house and its inhabitants were not to be harmed.

The Midrash tells that Rachav converted to Judaism and married Yehoshua, the leader of the Jewish people.

3. Ruth

During the period when the Judges ruled Israel, Ruth, a Moabite princess, married the son of a rich Jewish merchant who had immigrated to Moab. After her husband died, her mother-in-law, Naomi, urged Ruth to return to her family and move on.

Ruth demurred, saying, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your G‑d, my G‑d.”3 Ever faithful, she joined her mother-in-law on the journey to the Land of Israel, where she knew no one and would have nothing.

In Israel, Ruth collected the produce left behind for paupers in the fields of her late husband’s wealthy relative, Boaz. When Boaz observed Ruth’s modesty, he asked for her hand in marriage. Ruth was well rewarded for her bravery; through her union with Boaz, she became the paternal great-grandmother of King David.

Read More About Ruth

4. Yael

As told in the Book of Judges, the brave prophetess Deborah guided the Jewish army to victory over their Canaanite enemies. Sisera, the defeated general, managed to escape to the tent of Heber the Kenite.

There, Yael, Heber’s wife, welcomed him into her home, and at his request for water, gave him milk. When the milk had lulled the exhausted general into a soothing sleep, Yael quickly drove a peg from the tent into his head. When Barak, the Jewish general, came in pursuit of Sisera, Yael called to him, “Come and I will show you the man whom you seek,”4 revealing the dead body.

Read the Story of Yael

5. Queen Esther

In the period between the first and second Temples, when many Jews were exiled to the Persian empire, Esther, an orphan, was adopted by her cousin Mordechai, leader of the Jewish community. Esther, exotically beautiful, was chosen to become King Ahasuerus’ queen. She was thrust into the role of courageous savior when Haman plotted to end Jewish life in Persia. Acting selflessly and risking her own life, Esther revealed Haman’s true colors and managed to thwart his plan.

The holiday of Purim is celebrated every year, commemorating G‑d’s miraculous salvation, brought about by Esther’s bravery and faith.

Read the Story of Esther

6. Judith

According to some, this story took place during the time of the Maccabean revolt. The cruel Syrian-Greek general Helofornes set out to crush the Jewish rebellion in Bethulia by cutting off their food and water supply, starving them into submission.

Unwilling to stand idly by, Judith, daughter of the High Priest, crossed into the enemy camp armed with bread, cheese, and aged wine. She promised Helofornes that she would help him gain control of the town, thus winning his trust.

After Helofornes wolfed down the delicious fare, he fell into a drunken slumber and Yehudit snatched her moment of opportunity. With a prayer on her lips, she reached for his sword and ended his life. She then carried the general’s head wrapped in rags to show the Jewish commander.

When the horrified Greek-Assyrian soldiers came across the body, they fled, making way for the Jewish triumph.

Read the Story of Judith

7. Queen Salome Alexandra

Queen Salome, in Hebrew Shlomtzion, lived from 139-67 B.C.E. Her husband, King Alexander Yanai, wreaked havoc among the Jews living in Israel. When he died, the throne was bequeathed to her, and she became one of only two women to ever rule in Judea.

Salome made Jerusalem her seat and restored good ties with the rabbis—many of whom her late husband had murdered in cold blood, releasing those he had arrested.

During her reign, Salome strengthened the cities in Judea and expanded the army, avoiding the invasions to which everyone else in the region fell victim.

She ruled for nine blessed years and brought security and glory to Israel.

Read More About Queen Salome

8. Rachel (Wife of Akiva)

The wealthy Kalba Savua (a patron of Jerusalem in the final years of the Second Holy Temple) envisioned a son-in-law who would be learned and well-versed in all areas of Torah. He was shocked when his daughter Rachel chose to marry Akiva, a simple shepherd in whom she saw potential. Destitute and living in a dilapidated shack, Rachel held steadfast to the belief that her husband, who had never learned Torah, would devote his life to its study.

She stayed home while he traveled to a yeshivah at the age of 40. Being mocked by her neighbors did nothing to dampen her spirit, and she remained confident he would succeed.

Akiva returned 24 years later with the title “Rabbi” attached to his name, and declared in front of his thousands of students, “All the Torah that you and I have acquired is hers [Rachel’s].”

Read More About Rachel

9. Minna of Speyer

The crusades brought spasms of suffering on successive generations of Jews in the Rhine Valley. The first city in which Jews were killed by the Crusaders of 1096 was Speyer. A generation later, during the Second Crusade, the Jews of Speyer were again given the choice to embrace the cross or die a horrible death. They stood strong in their Jewish faith. Among the martyrs who suffered death on this occasion was a woman named Minna, whose ears and tongue were cut off because she refused to submit to baptism.

10. Bella (Baila) Katz of Levov

A 16th Century ascetic who fasted and engaged in repentance, she was the daughter of Levov’s generous lay leader, Israel Edels, and wife of the well-known halachist Joshua Falk Katz. Wise and learned in her own right, some of her rulings have survived until this very day. After her husband passed away in 1614, despite her frail health, she undertook the arduous journey to the Holy Land, where she lived out her days.

11. Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi

Born to a family of crypto-Jews (known by the pejorative “marrano”) in Lisbon, Portugal, in the mid-1500’s, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi married Francesco Mendes, a wealthy banker. Gracia was a philanthropist and activist in her own right.

When her husband died, she made it to Antwerp, Belgium, where she began to help other marranos escape the Inquisition, using the family bank’s influence to help smuggle their fortune to Europe.

Dona Gracia was forced to leave Antwerp because she was accused of being a practicing Jew, so she ran to Italy where she was charged with the same “crime” and had to flee again.

She also boycotted a city in Italy for burning marranos at stake, rescued Jewish captives from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, and built many hospitals and synagogues.

With a vision for a strong Jewish community in Israel, Dona Gracia acquired the city of Tiberias from the Ottomans and was responsible for reviving its Jewish presence, making it a secure place for Jews to live for many years.

12. Rebbetzin Devorah Leah

In 1792, Devorah Leah’s father—Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement—became aware that there was spiritual opposition in the higher realms to his activities of spreading and teaching lofty and esoteric secrets of Torah, to the extent that his very life was in danger.

In a bold act, Devorah Leah gathered three chasidim to form a beit din—a Jewish court—and declared that she would give up the rest of the years so that her father may live.

That Rosh Hashanah, when her father attempted to bless her with the customary, “You should be blessed with a good year,” she interrupted him with a blessing of her own and pleaded with him to say no more.

On the day following Rosh Hashanah, after ensuring that her young son, Menachem Mendel (who would later become the third Chabad rebbe), would be taken care of and educated by her saintly father, Devorah Leah fell ill and returned her soul to its Maker.

Read the Poignant Story of Devorah Leah

13. Temerl Bergson

Temerl was a wealthy and bold patron of the Polish Chassidic movement who expanded the frontiers of where Jews were allowed to live and do business.

When the Polish authorities conducted an investigation into the Chassidic movement in 1824, she was instrumental in exonerating its leaders and its legality.

Not satisfied merely to distribute alms, Temerl and her husband, Ber, sought to employ many learned and pious people, thus providing them with an honorable and reliable stream of income. After her husband’s passing, she opened a bank and became one of the few Polish Jews allowed to deal in real estate.

14. Lady Judith Montefiore

An illustration of Lady Judith Montefiore. (Photo: Wikimedia)
An illustration of Lady Judith Montefiore. (Photo: Wikimedia)

In the 18th century, together with her husband, Sir Moses Montefiore, Lady Judith traveled far and wide to alleviate the suffering of Jews worldwide. No journey was too difficult, no problem too great, and no cause too small for the childless couple who cared for thousands.

The Montefiores became committed Jews, who traveled with a shochet, so that they and their retinue had a steady supply of kosher meat. Cultured and industrious, Lady Motefiore is believed to have authored the first English-language kosher cookbook.

15. Soulika Hajouel

The mausoleum of Soulika is still visited by locals and visitors from all over the world (photo: Chava Isacovitch).
The mausoleum of Soulika is still visited by locals and visitors from all over the world (photo: Chava Isacovitch).

Soulika Hajouel, known as Soulika Tzadikah (“the righteous”), is the heroine of a legend lovingly told and retold by Jews of North African descent. She was a pious and extremely beautiful girl who lived in Tangier, Morocco, in the early 1800’s.

Details are unclear, but scholars agree on the basic story. Soulika’s Muslim neighbor desired her as a wife and was unwilling to take no for an answer. When the fabricated story that Soulika had supposedly converted to Islam and then gone back on her ‘newfound faith’ was spread, her fate was sealed. She remained adamant about her refusal to convert to Islam and declared that she would rather die Jewish than live as a non-Jew. She was dragged to the king of Fez who ordered her beheaded.

Deeply committed to her modesty, even in the last moments of her life, Soulika tied the edges of her dress together so that she would remain covered when she lay dead in the sand.

After her head was severed, the king displayed it high on a wall for all to see.

16. Sarah Schenirer

Sarah Schenirer's tombstone at Podgorze, a Jewish cemetery in Kraków, Poland. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Sarah Schenirer's tombstone at Podgorze, a Jewish cemetery in Kraków, Poland. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Interwar Poland was hardly the place for a divorced woman to start a religious revolution of sorts, but Sarah Shenirer was hardly one to be deterred. The child of a Chassidic family, she saw the need for quality Jewish education for girls, who had nothing to compare to their brothers’ yeshivah studies.

By dint of her hard work, gumption, and faith, she founded a network of Torah schools for girls under the banner of Beit Yaakov (“House of Jacob”). By 1935, when cancer took her life at the age of 51, there were nearly 40,000 students studying in her rapidly expanding empire of schools. Her bravery, vision, and inspiration have forever altered the course of Jewish education.

17. Mumme Sarah

Rabbi Michoel and Sarah Katsenelenbogen with their children. Young Moshe is seated between his parents.
Rabbi Michoel and Sarah Katsenelenbogen with their children. Young Moshe is seated between his parents.

Sarah Katsenelenbogen, known to all as Mumme (“Aunt”) Sarah, had been the cook in the Chabad yeshivah in the town of Lubavitch. She and her husband were deeply committed to spreading Judaism under the harsh Stalinist regime.

The Katsenelenbogen family retained an open home, inviting in many Chassidim fleeing from the Soviet secret police. They also refused to bow to the authorities’ demands to stop encouraging Jewish education. In fact, they even held a small yeshivah in their home in Stari-Russia, so that their children would grow up in an atmosphere steeped in Torah study and Jewish observance. In 1937, her husband was taken away by the secret police and never seen again.

Following the Second World War, Mumme Sarah worked tirelessly to spirit Jews out through the temporarily-parted Iron Curtain by obtaining passports belonging to deceased or missing Polish citizens, which she would share with Russian Jews.

The KGB kept a close watch on her, yet she persevered.

Sarah saved one of the passports for herself, but gave it away wholeheartedly for Rebbetzin Chana—mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory—and remained in Russia, where the authorities caught up with and imprisoned her and her son Moshe. She died of a heart attack while in jail.

18. Dr. Gisella Perl

The front cover art of the book written by Gisella Perl entitled, "I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz". (Photo: Wikimedia)
The front cover art of the book written by Gisella Perl entitled, "I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz". (Photo: Wikimedia)

Lovingly dubbed by her patients “Gisi Doctor,” Gisella was deported from Romania with her extended family during the Second World War to the infamous death camp, Auschwitz.

As a doctor, she was assigned to work in the camp’s hospital, where she was ordered to report any pregnancies to Dr. Joseph Mengele, whose cruelty and unspeakable ‘experiments’ are known in infamy.

She worked tirelessly to provide loving and dedicated care to the female prisoners at Auschwitz, and saved many mothers’ lives by performing clandestine abortions in filthy barracks.

Dr. Gisella survived the atrocities of Auschwitz and made it to the United States, where she became an expert on infertility with a practice at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.