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Ray Frank's Yom Kippur Sermon, 1890

Ray Frank, San Francisco
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Ray Frank, San Francisco, c. 1897. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Ray Frank (1861-1948), called the "Girl Rabbi of the Golden West," became the first Jewish woman to preach formally from a pulpit in 1890, when she delivered sermons for the High Holy Days in Spokane, WA. Although the language of her Yom Kippur sermon may sound old fashioned, Frank's message remains both relevant and compelling.

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Biography: Ray Frank (1861-1948)

Born in 1861 in San Francisco at a time when no prominent public religious roles were open to Jewish women, Rachel (Ray) Frank blazed new paths for women in Judaism. Through her career as the "Girl Rabbi of the Golden West," she prompted many people to recognize Jewish women's skills and experiences and to contemplate the ordination of women as rabbis.

Excerpt from Frank's sermon, as published in American Hebrew.

Read transcript of sermon

As a young woman, Frank taught in a public school in Nevada and then in a Sabbath School (similar to modern Sunday School) in Oakland, California. When her congregation's rabbi and school superintendent resigned, Frank became principal. At the same time, she worked as a journalist, filing reports for several newspapers on Jewish and non-Jewish topics from locations in the Northwest.

Arriving in Spokane Falls, Washington, on the eve of the High Holy Days in 1890 to cover a story, Frank was shocked to find that the town had no synagogue because the Orthodox and Reform Jews were unwilling to join together. When she expressed her dismay, a member of the community, who knew her by reputation, proposed to arrange for services if she would give a sermon. That night, Frank became the first Jewish woman to preach formally in the United States. Her position was so unique and her reputation already so well established that she attracted a large audience of both Jews and Christians. Speaking on "The Obligations of a Jew as Jew and Citizen," she entreated her listeners to overcome the differences between Reform and Orthodox ritual and to form a permanent congregation. Frank so impressed Spokane's Jews that they invited her to remain and preach throughout the High Holy Days.

Frank was soon in demand across the West as a preacher and lecturer. Her public presence in the male domain of the pulpit, however, provoked much debate. Several Christian denominations had ordained women ministers, and the Jewish community had already begun to reconsider the position of women, yet actual changes for women in Judaism had been limited. Newspapers dubbed Frank "The Jewess in the Pulpit" and "The Maiden in the Temple" and speculated about her rabbinical aspirations, particularly after she enrolled for a few months in classes at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati. Although she claimed to have no interest in being ordained, journalists persisted in referring to her—approvingly or disapprovingly—as "the first woman rabbi."

Frank's opinions about women's rights and responsibilities were complex. Although she spoke from the pulpit and urged women to take on broader roles within the Jewish community, she was ambivalent about ordination for women. Similarly, while she advocated careers for single women and supported herself until she married, she opposed women's right to vote and believed married women should not work outside the home. But Frank's seemingly contradictory ideas made sense in her day, when women found themselves caught between traditional conceptions of women's proper spheres and new ideas about women's roles. Her adoption of some traditional views likely allowed her to be more daring in other areas; had she pushed only for radical changes, the Jewish community might well have ignored her instead of embracing her.

In 1901, Frank married Simon Litman. Holding to her belief that married women should not pursue professional work outside the home, she did not return to her life as a preacher and lecturer. Instead, she volunteered in her local Jewish community. She died on October 10, 1948.

For more information, please visit our "Women of Valor" web exhibit on Ray Frank.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ray Frank's Yom Kippur Sermon, 1890." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/sep05>.