Choosing a Place
A Yom Kippur sermon by Karla Goldman
"I can scarcely tell you how much I feel the honor you have this evening conferred upon me in asking me to address you. For a woman 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, an event in my life which I can never forget.
The time is short, and the story I have..."
No, wait, that can't be right --- I am very honored to be here tonight of course, but I can hardly claim to be the first woman since the time of the prophets to speak to a Jewish religious assembly on erev Yom Kippur. This very night, hundreds of women around the world are addressing solemn assemblies like this one. These words were actually spoken by a woman named Ray Frank who in 1890, one hundred and ten years ago, addressed a Kol Nidre service in Spokane Washington. On assignment as a reporter for a California newspaper, Frank arrived in Spokane just before the high holidays and learned that the Jews of Spokane had no worship service planned. When she appealed to an influential member of the community for an explanation, he being aware of her reputation as a Sunday school teacher and principal, agreed to organize a service on the condition that she agree to preach. Not surprisingly this plan drew much local attention and on the evening in question, accounts from the time report that 1000 people turned out at the local opera house to hear the "lady rabbi."
This story alerts us to how much the world and Judaism has changed not only since 1890 but since 1972 when Sally Priesand was the first woman to be ordained by an established rabbinical institution. Today we can clearly see how the transformative dynamic of the emergence of women as spiritual leaders have contributed to the creative energy that marks so much of contemporary Judaism. As much as challenges focused on women's roles have redefined American Judaism in recent years, however, Ray Frank's story also illustrates that the push towards women's integration into the public sphere of American Judaism long preceded Sally Priesand and the feminist movement of the late 20th century.
Not surprisingly Spokane's unconventional Yom Kippur celebration drew a great deal of attention to this girl rabbi from the west, and through the 1890s, Frank made a career of lecturing and sometimes presiding over worship services around the country. Although Frank's example raised questions for many about the possibilities of female Jewish leadership, Frank herself often emphasized her belief that women should not serve as rabbis, but had a more important role to play within the home. In fact, Frank withdrew from the public role she had pioneered for Jewish women when she got married in 1898.
Frank's example reminds us of the appeal of stories of special individuals, people like Sally Priesand, Jackie Robinson, Sandra Day O'Connor, or even Joe Lieberman, who have taken the significant steps that change the playing field -- or the court, government, or sanctuary-- for those who follow them. The symbolic achievements of cultural pioneers never stand alone. In all these settings, meaningful change is never brought about solely by the acts of one person. Even when change seems to come quickly, it almost always emerges out a long slow process of growth and development.
A brief history of women in American Judaism as I have come to understand it would point out that American Jews very quickly came to understand that an American synagogue must find a different place for women than those that had become accepted in Europe. In 1763, the Jews of Newport Rhode Island built the second synagogue building in what was to become the United States. Their building included a women's gallery as was traditional, but this gallery dispensed with the additional grids, curtains, and lattice-works that separated women from men in European versions of this space. This design innovation was replicated in the early synagogues of other American cities.
American synagogue designers were responding to many societal forces, not least of which were the desires of young women who understood that America expected them to demonstrate their piety by their presence in public worship. They crowded the galleries often enlisting their fathers, brothers, and uncles in the struggle for good seats.
Eventually, continued adjustments to the synagogue gallery could no longer contain the pressure either of women's collective presence or of societal expectations that women should be given an honored place in religious worship -- the synagogue had to be reconfigured to accommodate the changing religious identities of Jewish women. The elimination of the women's gallery and the introduction of mixed seating in a number of American synagogues in the 1850s addressed concerns of women's marginalization within divine worship. By the 1870s, family pews had become the mark of an Americanized Jewish congregation. Though the process to universal adoption of this synagogue feature was derailed by the arrival of millions of more traditionally inclined East European Jews at the turn of the century, the model of women's inclusion as a way to show meaningful acculturation had been firmly established for American Jews.
If the nineteenth-century introduction of family pews did not change women's religious status or afford them access to religious leadership, it did confirm the evolving notion that going to synagogues should be a central part of their image of themselves as Jewish women. The extent to which women adopted this model can be measured by the complaints of male Jewish leaders throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, one of whom noted in 1884 that "were it not for the women and children -- God bless them-- and thanks to the introduction of family pews . . . our large and costly temple would be nearly empty." He professed that although he was pleased to see the women, "at the same time, I would have been delighted much more if I had the pleasure of seeing our members in the Temple, if only occasionally."
Initially traditional synagogue organizational structures and a singular emphasis on the male-led worship service meant that Jewish women -- unlike contemporary Protestant women of the time --were kept out of much of the community's work and were slow to develop meaningful sisterhood-like groups. But in the 1890s, the increasing needs of millions of new Jewish immigrants, the example of leadership provided by someone like Ray Frank, and the structures of public activism offered by the leaders of the National Council of Jewish Women (founded in 1893) propelled acculturated Jewish women into a myriad of new roles and organizations that helped to redefine the life and role of the synagogue -- as its new women workers expanded the life of the community.
Subsequently, when the fight for women's suffrage opened up the question of women's political roles within the congregation, women's active presence in so many spheres of communal life made it difficult for communities to deny the legitimacy of women's claims for representation in governance and among the synagogue's trustees. Later yet, with the advent of the feminist movement, the important role taken by women in so many realms of synagogue life, made it impossible for liberal Jewish denominations to maintain resistance to opening the sphere of religious leadership to those women willing to bear the burden of entering this previously exclusive male world.
The symbolic achievements of cultural pioneers (whether they be black, Asian, Jewish, women, or gay or lesbians) never stand alone. Without the long history of women who chose to come to American synagogues, who sat through long services and sermons, who did the heavy lifting for their congregations, who dealt with male leaders who again and again failed to take them seriously, today's Judaism would be much different than it is. We can look back over the long history of Jewish women's experience in America and see that even women who may not have thought much about the broader significance of their own religious choices helped to shape the course of American Judaism. And those who believed in the importance of what they were doing raised questions that continue to resonate for us all today.
In the example of Sally Priesand, I see somebody who changed Judaism by forever redefining notions of what Jewish leaders could or should be. She acted on her vision that the world could be different and she made it so. But her real courage should be measured not by profound symbolic moments like that of her ordination but in the long everyday experience of her career both as a student and subsequently as the first woman rabbi. Thirty years ago there were surely many at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati who were not particularly pleased by her presence or her intentions. We cannot dismiss the personal costs that she had to incur to win provisional acceptance from those who controlled the world of which she sought to be a part. Her true courage was in persevering, in accepting the responsibility of her position, and in facing every day with integrity and strength.
And this after all is something that we all have the capacity to do. Perhaps there is somebody here tonight who will find a way to take on the kind of pioneering symbolic role adopted by Sally Priesand or even Ray Frank. None of the rest of us, however, should feel that we are free of the responsibilities that such pioneers have assumed, or believe that our status as educated, mainly affluent and privileged members of our society can or should spare us the burdens of true pioneers. None of us can anticipate the challenges with which life may confront us, and none of us should forget the impact that our own choices can have in shaping the world around us.
If we are able to remember every day that we are shaping our world, shaping those around us, and shaping the future, then it may turn out that even the everyday, seemingly mundane periods of our lives matter much more than we may have thought. And we should realize that if we take our responsibilities seriously, if we appreciate the impact of what we do as Jews or as human beings than we will realize that although we cannot always turn frustrating situations to our liking, if we cannot find a way to effectively help a friend, or challenge an institution, or find a mode of worship that meets our needs, or even do something to address the pain that is currently afflicting Israel, we still need to remember that our efforts matter, that they will not be lost on those around us. We define ourselves by our choices and our commitment. And even when we are bound to fail -- those to whom we offer support will not forget, and others will learn from our passion. Our stories may focus on the extraordinary symbolic moments in our lives as individuals or as a people, but how we define ourselves in those moments is built upon whom we've chosen to be everyday.
As the Torah portion we will read tomorrow (in Reform congregations) reminds us, the great lessons and challenges in life are not just for those whose lives we would see as extraordinary. God offered the covenant not just to "your tribal heads, your elders and your officials," but "to all the men of Israel," and not just to them, but "to your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer." Nor was the responsibility of the covenant and its teachings reserved for great leaders alone. As the text reminds us: "Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.' No, the thing is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to observe it." It is within our mouths and our hearts. We cannot leave it to Moses, or Herzl, or Sally Priesand, or even Joe Lieberman, -- our own actions and choices, those we make on this solemn day and what we do every other day are what's important. "I set before you this day," the text continues, "life and prosperity, death and adversity." "Choose life"-- the torah instructs, choose life. We choose life when we understand the importance of our own choices, our responsibility not only to ourselves and those around us, but equally to those who will come after us.
Tonight, 110 years after Ray Frank's sermon in Spokane, hundreds of women rabbis including Sally Priesand are busy teaching their congregations, challenging them to think about what it means to be a Jew today. May we draw strength from this reminder not only that the world does change, but also that we are exactly the sort of people who can change it.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Choosing a Place." (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/infocus/throughtheyear/new-words/karla-goldman-sermon>.