More than 50 years after she became the first woman to be ordained by an American rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Sally Priesand has set another precedent — beginning later this year, she will be the first woman rabbi to be featured at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
But she will not be the gallery’s only Reform rabbi: Another exhibit recently began displaying a portrait of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the 19th-century rabbi who founded the seminary that would go on to ordain Rabbi Priesand, nearly a century later.
The portrait of Priesand, who was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1972 and retired in 2006 from her pulpit in Tinton Falls’ Monmouth Reform Temple, will be shown beginning in October as part of a 21-work collection titled “Recent Acquisitions” that largely features portraits by or of women.
The work is an inkjet print of a 2022 photograph by Joan Roth, who is known for her photographs of Jewish women around the world. It depicts a smiling Rabbi Priesand wearing a multicolored tallit and holding a sefer Torah. Ms. Roth drew inspiration from a photograph taken 50 years earlier at Rabbi Priesand’s ordination.
Rabbi Priesand’s photo will hang beside those of other pioneering women, including pop star Beyoncé, science fiction author Octavia Butler, Hollywood icon Greta Garbo, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Jewish Supreme Court justice whose likeness already has been featured elsewhere in the museum. The exhibition will run until November 2024.
Rabbi Wise’s portrait is an oil painting on canvas, and the National Portrait Gallery has owned it since 1977. But it was undergoing conservation work until recently and has never been shown on the museum’s walls.
Painted by artist Morris Goldstein in 1881, it shows Rabbi Wise sitting in an armchair with his elbow resting on a stack of books. A copy of the American Israelite, the newspaper he founded in Cincinnati in 1854, is folded underneath the books. The American Israelite, the country’s longest-running Jewish publication, still is published, although now it’s online — and temporarily off line.
Rabbi Wise’s portrait is now on display as part of the museum’s “Out of Many: Portraits from 1600 to 1900” exhibition, whose works are switched out periodically.
Both the conservation of the Wise portrait and the creation of the Priesand portrait were funded by Rabbi Amy Perlin and her husband, former World Bank and Capital One CFO Gary Perlin. Rabbi Perlin, who is Reform, is the first female rabbi in the United States to start her own congregation, Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
The museum also holds portraits of early 20th-century Rabbi Judah Magnes; 19th-century Dutch-American Rabbi Samuel Myer Isaacs; and 20th-century Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise. None of those works are now being displayed at the museum.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency