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Ray Frank's Yom Kippur Sermon, 1890

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.

"A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady," a Yom Kippur sermon, Part 1 of 3
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The text of a sermon given by Ray Frank on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Part 2 and part 3.
The text of the sermon reads as follows:
A LAY SERMON BY A YOUNG LADY.*
Ladies and gentlemen, and--considering this is Yom Kippur eve, I know you will permit me to say--friends, brothers and sisters; for surely to-night is one of the most solemn and sacred periods in the lives of Israelites, for to-night, at least, we must be brother and sister in letter and spirit, My position this evening is a novel one. From time immemorial the Jewish woman has remained in the background of history, quite content to let the fathers and brother be the principals in a picture wherein she shone only by a reflected light. And it is well that it has been so; for while she has let the stronger ones do battle for her throughout centuries of darkness and opposition, she has gathered strengths and courage to come forward in an age of progressive enlightenment and do battle for herself if necessary, or prove by being a noble helpmeet how truly she appreciates the love which shielded her in the past.
I can scarcely tell you how much I feel the honor you have this evening conferred upon me in asking me to address you. For a woman to be at any time asked to give counsel to my people would be a mark of esteem; but on this night of nights, on Yom Kippur eve, to be requested to talk to you, to advise you, to think that perhaps I am to-night the one Jewish woman in the world, mayhap the first since the time of the prophets to be called on to speak to such an audience as I now see before me, is indeed a great honor, an event in my life which I can never forget.
The time is short, and the story I have to tell a long one; I must therefore do as a young friend of mine did who was once called upon for a narrative--that is--"begin in the middle."
I have been requested to speak to you concerning the formation of a permanent congregation. On Rosh Hashanah I was surprised to find such a large number of you assembled her for worship, and at that time the idea of a permanent congregation first occurred to me. Mentioning the matter to some of the prominent Jewish gentlemen of Spokane, I was informed that the number of Hebrews and their financial standing was sufficient to warrant an established congregation. "Theo," said I, "how is it you are content to go on in this way having neither schule not a Sabbath School? Do you think you are doing right towards yourselves, towards your children who are growing up without a creed of any kind, a most dangerous thing for society and a most ungrateful way of paying tribute to God." I was answered that such a difference of opinion existed among you, so many were prejudiced...
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*This is the address delivered on Yom Kippur eve before the worshippers at Spokane Falls by –– Ray Frank, a young Jewess from Oakland, Cal., who was visiting the formet [sic] place. We referred to this...

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.

Ray Frank in San Francisco, circa 1897
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Ray Frank in San Francisco, circa 1897. Institution: American Jewish Historical Society

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ray Frank's Yom Kippur Sermon, 1890." (Viewed on February 10, 2016) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/sep05>.

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