Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
"My position this evening is a novel one.... 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..."
Ray Frank's position in American Jewry was truly a novel one. In 1890, she became the first Jewish woman to preach formally from a pulpit in the United States, inaugurating a career as "the Girl Rabbi of the Golden West" that would help to blaze new paths for women in Judaism. Virtually overnight, Frank became a sensation in the Jewish world, and she would remain so for nearly a decade.
Coinciding with a broader emergence of public roles for Jewish women, Frank's career reinvigorated and redirected an ongoing conversation about the proper boundaries of the female sphere. Earlier in the nineteenth century, women like Rebecca Gratz had explored new responsibilities in many area, including education and philanthropy. But the expansion of American Jewish women's social and cultural opportunities had not been matched by expansion of their religious roles. Although women had become the majority at many congregations' services, their participation in public ritual was still limited to the occasional mixed-sex choir.
Despite the fact that Frank claimed to have no interest in becoming a rabbi, her actions forced American Jewry to consider the possibility of the ordination of women seriously for the first time. Frank spoke passionately about the abilities and spirituality of Jewish women and had no doubt about the necessity of their becoming a greater presence in the synagogue. The content of her speeches and her presence as a female religious leader not only served as an inspiration to the women who heard her, but also demonstrated to the Jewish world that Jewish women were ready for widespread change.
- Opening quotation from "A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady," The American Hebrew, October 1, 1890, 183.