"Latter-day Deborah" challenged the traditional role of Jewish women.
Born in San Francisco on April 10, 1861, Rachel ("Ray") Frank was the daughter of Polish immigrants, Bernard and Leah Frank, whom Ray later described as "Orthodox Jews of liberal mind." Her father, a peddler and Indian agent, claimed descent from the eighteenth-century Jewish sage, the Vilna Gaon.
Soon after her graduation from Sacramento High School in 1879, Frank moved to the silver-mining town of Ruby Hill, Nevada, where she taught public school. Although nearby Eureka, where Frank's sister Rosa lived, had over 100 Jewish inhabitants and the first synagogue in Nevada, Ruby Hill was home to few Jews, as were the western territories overall. The contrast between the non-Jewish surrounding environment and the Jewish household in which she was raised provided rich food for Frank's fertile mind.
Frank's time in Nevada set the stage for her subsequent career in many ways. Six years as a teacher gave her a self-assurance and confidence as a public speaker that would impress subsequent observers. She also published her first article, about education, in the Daily Elko Independent.
Establishing a Reputation
In 1885, with the mining industry in decline, Frank left Nevada and returned to her family in Oakland, California. She broadened her own education by enrolling in courses in philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley. She also began working in the Sabbath School of Oakland's First Hebrew Congregation, transferring her already established teaching skills to a Jewish setting.
Frank proved extremely popular as a religious-school teacher. She soon attracted a wide following of adults as well as children to her classes, to such an extent that when the rabbi and school superintendent resigned, the congregation invited her to become principal.
Frank's work as a correspondent for several San Francisco and Oakland newspapers added to her growing reputation. She also began to use letters to the editors of national Jewish publications to express her ideas about the state of American Jewry, increasing her visibility in Jewish circles.
In the fall of 1890, Frank's newspaper work took her to the Northwest to visit a number of the region's booming new towns. During this tour, an event occurred that transformed Frank into the Jewish community's first "lady preacher."
Arriving in Spokane, Washington on the eve of the High Holy Days, Frank was shocked to find that, despite the presence of many affluent Jews, the town had no synagogue. Apparently the community's Orthodox and Reform elements were so divided that they were unwilling to join together for services. When Frank expressed her dismay, a prominent member of the community--knowing her by reputation--offered to arrange for Rosh Hashanah services if she would give a sermon. Frank readily agreed.