Ray Frank: "Lady Preacher" of the West
One-hundred and nineteen years ago today, Ray Frank became the first Jewish woman to speak from a synagogue pulpit in the United States. Ray Frank's story is particularly intriguing due to its complexity and the questions it raises. This was undoubtedly an important event in American Jewish women's history, but its impact is not straightforward, and thinking of Ray Frank as a heroine of the women's movement is somewhat problematic.
On September 14, 1890, Ray Frank was invited to give the Rosh Hashana sermon for a community in Spokane, Washington, thus becoming the first woman to preach from a synagogue pulpit. The momentous event was quickly picked up by the press, which called Frank the "Maiden of the Temple," the "First Lady Preacher," and even incorrectly referred to her as the first woman rabbi. The first American woman rabbi was actually Sally Priesand, ordained in 1972, a whopping 82 years later.
As I learned from the JWA's Women of Valor exhibit, several Christian denominations had already ordained women ministers by the 1890s, and many took it for granted that Jewish women would soon enter the rabbinate. What took so long? I wonder if Ray Frank's lack of interest in being the first woman rabbi played a role in this curious outcome, and I cannot help but wonder what the true impact of Ray Frank's Rosh Hashana sermon really was.
Adding another layer of complexity, Frank's opinions about the roles of women and the women's movement do not align with today's feminist values. Frank claimed often to be "a stout opponent of what is commonly called 'Women's Rights.'" She spoke out against the women's suffrage movement, arguing that women already had a say in the political process through their influence on their husbands, and that they lacked the education and experience necessary to be responsible voters. She supported careers outside the home for single women, but not married women, and gave up her own career when she married. And as for women rabbis, Frank was ambivalent.
At the same time, Frank spoke passionately about the abilities and spirituality of Jewish women and advocated that they have a greater presence in the synagogue. She was an inspiration to the women who heard her, and also demonstrated that Jewish women were ready to bring widespread change in a number of areas. She did a great deal of work for the cause of Jewish women in her lifetime. She was strongly committed to the NCJW, and in her later years supported the League of Women Voters despite her original feelings towards women's suffrage. Her contradictory views were fairly common among women of that era, however, and the Women of Valor exhibit points out that if she pushed for more radical changes, the Jewish community might well have ignored her rather than embraced her.
At a glance, Ray Frank's Rosh Hashana sermon appears to be just another historical "first," but a closer look reveals its complexity. This story has reminded me that our "heroes" are rarely the one-dimensional figureheads they are made out to be, and that historical events are not always as straightforward as they seem.
To read Frank's own words, check out her second sermon, given on Yom Kippur and originally published in American Hebrew (October 1890), titled, "A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady."
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "Ray Frank: "Lady Preacher" of the West." 14 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/rayfrank>.