Ray Frank

"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.

Early Influences

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.

“The Maiden in the Temple”

The impassioned sermon she delivered after the service made a deep impression on the audience. Speaking on “The Obligations of a Jew as Jew and Citizen,” she entreated her listeners–for their own sake and that of their children–to overcome the differences between Reform and Orthodox ritual and to form a permanent congregation. Frank so impressed Spokane’s Jews that they invited her to remain throughout the High Holidays. In the sermon she delivered on the eve of Yom Kippur, she elaborated on her earlier theme. “Drop all dissension about whether you should take off your hats during the service and other unimportant ceremonials,” she implored her listeners, “and join hands in one glorious cause.”

Career of a Lady Preacher

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. The 1890s were a whirlwind for Frank, who became “the most talked of Jewess of to-day.” Frank was soon launched into a new career. As articles about her groundbreaking preaching appeared in both Jewish and non-Jewish publications across the country, more and more communities wished to hear for themselves the newest sensation in American Jewry.

Frank traveled up and down the Pacific coast, addressing enthusiastic audiences along the way. In addition to giving lectures to B’nai B’rith lodges, literary societies, and synagogue women’s groups, she spoke in both Reform and Orthodox synagogues, giving sermons, officiating at services, or, as at San Francisco’s Temple Emanuel in 1895, reading Scripture. Unfortunately, because contemporary reports do not indicate exactly what her “officiating” entailed, the extent to which Frank ever took on the strictly religious functions of a rabbi remains unclear. Many of Frank’s discourses, such as “The Prayers that are Heard” and “The Sounding of the Shofar,” dealt with deeply religious subjects. But even her talks on cultural, historical, and artistic images were suffused with a profound spirituality, as Frank explored the connections between God and art, music, or nature.

The First Woman Rabbi?

Not content with the novelty of Frank’s position as “the first woman since Deborah to preach in a synagogue,” the press began to speculate about her rabbinical aspirations. Despite Frank’s protestations that she had none, rumors swirled. The buzz about Frank’s potential ordination increased in 1893 when she enrolled in courses in Jewish ethics and philosophy at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati.

Although headlines began to refer to Frank, incorrectly, as the first woman rabbi, and she was reportedly offered several pulpits, Frank insisted that she had never had any desire for ordination. She spent only a few months at HUC; even had she remained, she likely would not have been ordained. Opposition to woman rabbis remained strong, and not until 1972 would Sally Priesand become the first woman rabbi ordained by a theological seminary.

Jewish Women’s Congress

When Hannah Greenebaum Solomon and her colleagues began to organize the 1893 Jewish Women’s Congress, held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair, their eye fell naturally on Frank. As a delegate, Frank took her place among the most illustrious women in American Jewry.

Appropriately, Frank acted as the Congress’s spiritual leader, delivering the opening prayer and the final benediction. In her paper “Woman in the Synagogue,” she presented a subtle but effective argument in favor of Jewish women’s emancipation. While praising highly Jewish women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, she also emphasized women from Jewish history whose activities went beyond the norm. By stressing that learned women in leadership roles have always been part of the Jewish experience, Frank both validated her own actions and hoped to inspire her listeners to greater study and involvement.

Marriage and New Directions

Ray was married to Simon Litman on August 14, 1901. After living briefly in Paris, where Simon worked as a translator, the Litmans returned to California in 1902, and Simon began teaching marketing and merchandising at the University of California-Berkeley.

Holding to her often-expressed belief that married women should not work outside the home, Ray did not return to her life as a preacher and lecturer. Even the articles she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle had become more prosaic. Ray occupied her time keeping house and helping Simon in his work.

Later Years

In the years after the Litmans returned to the United States, Ray was often conscious of the difference between her past acclaim and her present anonymity, and despite her convictions, she missed the respect and praise that had been heaped upon her. The contrast made her uncomfortable in California, and when Simon was offered a job at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1908, the Litmans were ready to move.

Away from California, Ray regained her vitality. Although she gave occasional lectures at venues around the Midwest, her life became focused on her local community. She was particularly eager to work with Jewish students, inviting them into her home and leading a student study circle on post-biblical Jewish history. She and Simon regularly attended meetings and functions of the small Jewish student groups that existed on campus and were active in the formation of the Hillel movement, which originated at the University of Illinois. Ray also helped to organize the Sinai Temple Sisterhood and served as its president for 15 years. Today, the library at Sinai Temple is dedicated to the Litmans, testimony to the mark they left on their Jewish community

Legacy

Ray Frank Litman died on October 10, 1948. Her lifelong enthusiasm for Judaism and tireless work to bring people into the circle of Jewish life left their mark both on those immediately surrounding her and on American Jewry at large. Her words had moved several congregations to overcome differences and “join hands in one glorious cause.”

Although Frank’s experiences were but one step along the long road to the ordination of women, “the Girl Rabbi of the Golden West” played a pivotal role by reinvigorating and redirecting an ongoing conversation about Jewish women’s roles. Jewish women had already demonstrated their importance to communal life over the course of the nineteenth century; Frank’s unprecedented presence in the pulpit demonstrated the contribution they could make to religious leadership as well. While subsequent pioneers in the field would face their own challenges and opposition, never again would they be called “the first woman since Deborah to preach in a synagogue,” for Frank had trod that path before them.

Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA). For more information on Ray Frank, go to JWA’s Women of Valor online exhibit.

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