Lessons from "A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady"

Journalist Ray Frank (1861 – 1948) made her name as a "latter-day Rebecca." She was the first Jewish woman to preach from the pulpit in America and was known for her ability to bring feuding Jewish religious factions together.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society.

One hundred and twenty years ago today, Ray Frank delivered a historic sermon on what was the first night of Rosh Hashanah in Spokane, Washington. Ray Frank, featured in JWA's Women of Valor exhibit, is one of those "complicated" heroines. She is a pioneer in that she was the first woman to speak from a synagogue pulpit, but despite her important "first,"  Ray Frank does not fit the idea of a feminist heroine. In fact, she called herself "a stout opponent of what is commonly called 'Women's Rights.'" (Last year's post about Ray Frank delves into this deeper.)

Ray Frank's Rosh Hashanah sermon entreated her audience to overcome the differences between Reform and Orthodox ritual that had divided Spokane's Jewish community. It was so moving that she was invited to deliver a second sermon on Yom Kippur. The original newspaper clipping of her Yom Kippur sermon is available to view on jwa.org.

In her Yom Kippur sermon, Ray Frank continues to urge the community of Spokane, WA, to set aside their differences and form a permanent congregation with a religious school. She believes this is necessary for practical and spiritual reasons, arguing that religion is more than something you begrudge twice a year on the High Holy Days.

Below are some excerpts from this sermon that stood out to me.

"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 brothers 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 strength 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."


"This is a progressive age, and some of the customs of two or three thousand years ago will not do for to-day, and at the same time many customs that were good then are just as good now, and can be just as appropriately used. It would be well for you to throw aside all little disagreements and unite in the one cause -- that of upholding the creed of our religion. Do not pursuade yourself that coming to shule once or twice a year, or fasting for twenty-four hours, will make you a good Jew. Do not comfort yourself with the belief that God will, at the eleventh hour, accept your tithe, which you pay because you must. For three hundred and sixty-three days you are content to go your way, doing as you please, piling up the coin of the United States, and congratulating yourself that your credit is good. You never give a thought to the One from whom all blessings come until reminded that Rosh Hashanah is here and Yom Kippur will follow. O, the growls that come because the store must remain closed for two days; perhaps you refuse to close it at all! O, the shameful, ungrateful sneers and remarks by the too reformed to be good once! Friends, you are making a mistake. For such as I have mentioned it would be better to keep the store open -- the sin would not be so great.

Religion is not compulsory. God wants not grudgingly that which you give; keep it, you cannot be poorer than you are. 

Whatever you do for religion, or whatever you give, must be voluntary and sincere. Coming here because your neighbor does is not religion; neither is it religion to give a certain amount because your neighbor has done the same. True religion is true repentence for our many sins and mistakes."


"Friends, I thank you for the patience with which you have listened to me, and in the name of all we Hebrews hold most dear, I ask you to be patient with each other. Drop all personal feelings in this matter, and meet each other halfway over your differences; give each other a hearty handshake for the sake of the cause, and I prophesy Heaven will crown your efforts with peace and prosperity.

From tonight on, resolve to be something."

Ray Frank may have be a controversial figure in Jewish women's history, but there is no question that she was a brilliant speaker. As we continue through these days of reflection, perhaps we can take her message about overcoming small differences to heart, and find meaning and wisdom in the words of a pioneer who didn't exactly believe in "women's rights." And if we can do that, perhaps we can extend that compromise to others today with opposing political or religious viewpoints. Perhaps we can work on meeting halfway for the good of a common cause, working together to rebuild a Jewish community that is something we will want to engage with more than twice a year.

For other historic High Holiday sermons, visit JWA's feature High Holy Days: New Words for a New Year.

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What an interesting post! Ms. Frank was "complicated" indeed ... but her urging to "meet each other halfway over your differences" is more timely today than ever. Both in and beyond the Jewish community, we need to work to find ways to bring communities together, rather than stand by and watch them become increasingly divided.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Lessons from "A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady"." 14 September 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/lessons-from-a-lay-seromon-by-a-young-lady>.