It is not possible to visit The Jewish Museum without seeing Joan Rosenbaum's strong yet gentle hand. I want to take the occasion of her announcement that she will step down from the post of museum director after 30 years of excellent and creative leadership to salute her on behalf of the trustees, faculty, students, and staff of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The history of The Jewish Museum is deeply interwoven with that of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1904, 26 ceremonial objects used in traditional Jewish rituals were presented to JTS by Judge Mayer Sulzberger—master collector of Judaica and Hebraica, founder of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and a friend of JTS—"to serve as a suggestion for the establishment of a Jewish museum in connection with the library." These artifacts were housed at our old address on Lexington Avenue in what was called the "Museum of Jewish Ceremonial Objects" and later at 3080 Broadway in what is today the Stein Chapel. But as additional objects were added over the years, JTS sought a larger space in which to properly exhibit what was, at that point, a sizable collection. In 1944, that new space was donated by Frieda Schiff Warburg, widow of businessman, philanthropist, and JTS trustee Felix Warburg in the form of their home, a mansion at Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Three years later, in 1947, the former Warburg mansion, filled with the JTS collections, was opened to the public as The Jewish Museum, under the auspices of JTS, its parent organization.
Today, The Jewish Museum features a world-class compilation of more than 26,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, artifacts, and ceremonial objects, and stands alongside many of the world's greatest art and cultural institutions. The museum's high profile has much to do with Joan's diligent efforts as its Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director.
Joan's dedication to The Jewish Museum is legendary. She has taken what was at the beginning of her tenure in 1981 a relatively small institution, more than doubled its physical size, and cultivated its collections and reputation. She organized superb exhibits and developed a myriad of engaging, interactive programs. She established the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting and helped found, along with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the annual New York Jewish Film Festival. And Joan continues to oversee the endowment she initiated, which now stands at $92 million.
In the short time that I have been at JTS, I have come to know Joan as the dynamic spirit of The Jewish Museum, and take pride in our ongoing relationship with the institution. For the 2009 Marc Chagall and Jewish Theatre in the Soviet Union exhibition, JTS lent the museum our more than 300-year-old Sefer Raziel from Amsterdam. Last year's A Day of Reinventing Ritual at JTS, an all-day program of workshops, performance, and commentary based on the museum's Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life exhibition, was a joint project between our institutions. Joan was kind enough to invite me to contribute a preface to the accompanying book and featured my comments in the video that was part of the exhibit. In March, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary will present an exhibit of ketubbot (marriage contracts) at the museum—all signs of expanding partnership between the two institutions that I hope will grow ever stronger in coming months.
In 2003, Joan was awarded a much-deserved honorary doctorate in Hebrew Letters by JTS, not simply for being a beacon for and leader of The Jewish Museum, but also for being a true friend of JTS and the Jewish people. I know that wherever she goes next, she will innovate and energize, and produce results just as fundamental, profound, and important as her work at The Jewish Museum has been. We wish her well and look forward to our ongoing partnership.