Breaking Down Barriers
Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
Soon, the American Jewish world was abuzz with the news that a woman—a "latter-day Deborah"—had transcended the traditional boundaries of the female sphere and stepped up to the pulpit. Traditional Judaism had allocated few public religious roles to women, who did not count towards the minyan (quorum) of ten required for public worship, could not read from the Torah, and, if they attended synagogue, were seated separately from men. Religious leadership lay strictly in the hands of men, whose voices dominated the synagogue.
By the 1890s, American Jews had begun to make some changes to this traditional order. The widespread introduction of family pews in acculturated congregations had redefined women's presence in the synagogue, mixed-sex choirs had brought women's voices in to the service, and a new confirmation service for girls as well as boys had acknowledged the importance of female religiosity. Moreover, as Jewish men became increasingly absorbed in the bustle of everyday life, women began to outnumber men at many congregation's services. But despite these advances, Frank still defied longstanding norms when she assumed the right to speak and teach within the synagogue context. "I know that it is unusual, and that in the history of our people no woman except Deborah spoke in the synagogue, yet the experience did not seem strange," she commented.
The newness of the Jewish communities in the West likely contributed significantly to Frank's ability to do what she did. Had more established Jewish institutions and a well-entrenched Jewish leadership existed on the West Coast, Frank might never have been given the opportunity to preach. By occupying the pulpit temporarily, Frank opened the door, however slightly, for Jewish women's long journey towards public religious leadership.
- Quote is from "The Maiden in the Temple," San Francisco Examiner, November 13, 1892.
- Information about changes in women's place in the synagogue can be found in Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).