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Ellen Frankel

b. 1951

by Susan Berrin

The first woman CEO of a major Jewish publishing house, Ellen Frankel is a pioneering feminist leader in business and the literary arts, a soaring spirit, a cultivator of women’s imaginative thinking, and an engaged and engaging teacher. She follows in the distinguished footsteps of the Jewish Publication Society’s first editor, Henrietta Szold, who served from 1893 until 1916. Frankel’s tenure at the JPS, where she has served as editor-in-chief since 1991 and as CEO since 1998, reinvigorated a declining institution. After JPS experienced a moribund eighteen-month hiatus in publishing, she restructured the non-profit organization’s financial operations and reduced its institutional debt, revived the Editorial Committee, and refilled the book acquisition pipeline while remaining true to the institution’s 115-year core mission of popularizing Jewish scholarship for lay readers. JPS remains the only non-denominational, non-profit publisher of Judaica in North America, and it also remains committed to undertaking long-term, labor- and capital-intensive projects that are of enduring value to the Jewish community but may never prove commercially profitable. Frankel’s insightful acuity, determination, perseverance and success have re-established the publishing house as a major player in contemporary American Judaism. She has shepherded dozens of books through publication, many of which have won National Jewish Book Awards.

Ellen Frankel was born in New York City on May 22, 1951. She was the first of two daughters of David Frankel and Ann (Frieda) Frankel (née Gordon). Frankel was almost three years old when her sister, Barbara, was born. Ellen Frankel grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, attended the University of Michigan and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1973. At the University of Michigan she was the James Angell Scholar and received her B. A. in Comparative Literature. She earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1978, writing on “Allegory and Irony in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire.” While still a graduate student at Princeton, she taught writing classes to Princeton staff as part of their extension program.

On August 10, 1975 Frankel married Herbert Levine, whom she had met while they were both graduate students at Princeton. They both became active in the Princeton Havurah Minyan at Hillel and were the only two graduate students in literature during their time there who took their classical language examinations in Hebrew rather than in Greek or Latin.

Her husband is Executive Director of Fellowship Farm in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The Farm is an educational retreat center focusing on human relations and conflict resolution. Levine’s commitment to diversity, education and intergenerational relations is shared by Frankel. Together they have two adopted children—Sarah, born December 30, 1980, and Les, born April 30, 1982. The family lives in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, a diverse area known for its ethnic diversity and vibrant Jewish life, home to rabbinical students and faculty at the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a thriving Pnai Or congregation, and the lively Germantown Jewish Center, where three minyanim meet and work together on many social action projects.

Ellen Frankel is author of several books, including three children’s books: Choosing to be Chosen (1985); George Washington and the Constitution (1987) and Tell It Like It Is: Tough Choices for Today’s Teens (1995), which she wrote with her teenage daughter, as well as five adult titles: The Classic Tales: Four Thousand Years of Jewish Lore (1989); The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992), co-authored with Betsy Platkin Teutsch; The Five Books of Miriam (1996); The Jewish Spirit (1997) and The Illustrated Hebrew Bible (1999). She has been a contributor to a multi-volume series launched in 2000 entitled My People’s Prayerbook.

Ellen Frankel’s intellectual lucidity and adventurousness proved most persuasive in The Five Books of Miriam, a compelling retelling and woman’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah. The book brings to life the stories of the Bible recast in the voices of women. The book’s imaginative format and deeply textured explication reveals Frankel’s creativity and skill as a text scholar. Her work adds a uniquely modern element of critique and feminist dialogue with the ancient text. Drawing on the rich tradition of Jewish folklore, rabbinic midrash, contemporary feminist scholarship and criticism, and her own invention, Frankel has produced a modern Ze’enah u-Re’enah, an earlier anthology of story, ethics, legend and tradition intended for women unschooled in the Hebrew classics.

In addition to her books, Frankel is the author of numerous stories, essays and reviews. She is also an accomplished storyteller, lecturer and teacher, speaking in numerous capacities and appearing on national radio. She is a member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council and serves on the Board of Advisors of the National Bible Literacy Project.

Prior to her work at the Jewish Publication Society, Ellen Frankel worked as Editor of the B’nai B’rith Book Club and as the Judaic Principal of the Lancaster Jewish Day School. She has taught in several academic as well as informal educational settings, including Franklin and Marshal College, Drexel University and Millersville University, as well as running her own freelance writing consulting business, The Write Angle. In addition, she has taught at the National Havurah Summer Institute, the UAHC Kallot, the Limmud Institute and, most recently, the Clergy Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she taught Christian clergy and students.

Ellen Frankel continues to serve as a model of a Jewish woman who has shattered the proverbial glass ceiling. She is widely known for her intellectual thoughtfulness, innovative midrashic voice, storytelling and writing. Her contributions speak to her place as an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor.

How to cite this page

Berrin, Susan. "Ellen Frankel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/frankel-ellen>.

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