(RNS) — The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., will this fall feature an ink-jet print of the first female Jewish rabbi in the U.S. and the second in Jewish history.
The print of Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand holding a Torah scroll will be the first known portrait of a woman rabbi in the gallery, part of the Smithsonian. The National Portrait Gallery already has an oil painting of 19th-century Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Hebrew Union College from which Priesand graduated in 1972. It is not currently on display.
Priesand, who is now 76 and retired, served as rabbi at the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, where the photograph of her holding a Torah scroll was made.
Her image will form part of a collection titled “Recent Acquisitions” that features portraits by or of women, including singer Beyoncé, science fiction author Octavia Butler, Hollywood icon Greta Garbo and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It will be on view from November 3, 2023 – October 27, 2024.
Artist Joan Roth made the inkjet print from a 2022 photograph showing Priesand holding the Torah. The cloth cover over the Torah Priesand holds bears the Hebrew word “avoda,” which means both “worship” and “service.”
While Priesand is America’s first female rabbi, Rabbi Regina Jonas, who was ordained in a private ceremony in Germany in 1935, preceded her as the first ordained female rabbi. Jonas died at Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp, in 1944, and the details of her life were discovered in archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 1974, two years after Priesand’s ordination, the Reconstructing Judaism movement ordained Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. In 1985, the Conservative movement ordained its first woman rabbi, Amy Eilberg, and in 2009, a Modern Orthodox woman, Sara Hurwitz, was ordained.
Today, most of the liberal Jewish seminaries have equal numbers of men and women studying for ordination. The head of the Conservative movement’s seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is now led by a woman, Shuly Rubin Schwartz.
The Orthodox fold has only recently begun tapping women for leadership roles. There are about half a dozen or so ordained women who serve Modern Orthodox synagogues across the U.S., and even fewer who serve as top spiritual leaders.
Yeshivat Maharat, in the Bronx, is the only U.S. seminary that ordains Orthodox Jewish women, and it has ordained more than 50.
Though there’s a growing number of women rabbis, women rabbis are still dealing with issues of equity and respect. In the past few years, multiple Jewish movements have launched investigations looking at both historic and more recent instances of sex abuse or discrimination.