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Paula Ackerman becomes "spiritual leader" of Temple Beth Israel of Meridian, Mississippi

December 12, 1950

On December 12, 1950, Paula Ackerman became the interim "spiritual leader" of Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi after her husband, who was the congregation's rabbi, passed away. Paula Herskovitz had married Rabbi William Ackerman in 1919. As a rebbitzin, Paula Ackerman was an active partner, not only teaching in the Hebrew school and helping out with the sisterhood, but also taking her husband's place in the pulpit whenever he was absent or ill. Ackerman was also a member of the board of the Reform movement's National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) and chairman of NFTS's National Committee on Religious Schools.

After Ackerman's husband died on November 30, 1950, the synagogue's president asked the 57-year-old Ackerman if she could "carry on the ministry until they could get a rabbi." Ackerman wrote in a letter to a friend, "I also know how revolutionary the idea is—therefore it seems to be a challenge that I pray I can meet. If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman's larger participation—if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for congregational leadership—then my life would have some meaning."

Concerns among national Reform leaders about Ackerman's lack of proper ordination and rabbinic education were mostly expressed privately. Many understood the importance of Ackerman's example in showing that a woman could serve in a rabbinical role. She steered Beth Israel for the next three years, leading weekly and holiday services, officiating at weddings, confirmations, and funerals, and participating in meetings of Mississippi rabbis. Eventually, Beth Israel did find a man to serve as their rabbi. In 1962, however, when the rabbi of Ackerman's childhood synagogue, in Pensacola, Florida, suddenly quit, Ackerman agreed to return temporarily to the rabbinical role to hold that congregation together as well. Paula Ackerman died in Thomaston, GA on January 12, 1989.

To learn more about Paula Ackerman, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: Rabbis in the United States.

Source: Pamela Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889-1985, (Boston, 1998), pp. 120-126.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Paula Ackerman becomes "spiritual leader" of Temple Beth Israel of Meridian, Mississippi." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/12/1950/paula-ackerman>.