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Rachel "Ray" Frank (1861-1948)

In 1890,  a 29-year-old San Francisco-born Hebrew schoolteacher stepped to the pulpit in a synagogue in the small Washington city of Spokane, and delivered a sermon. It was reportedly a first for a woman in the United States.

Rachel "Ray" Frank spent her whole life ignoring the boundaries set for women of her day. Hers was a story that could only have taken place in the American West, as it demonstrated the freedom, mobility, and opportunity of  Western Jewish society.

Born in 1861 in San Francisco to Polish Orthodox parents (Her Polish born father Bernard Frank was said to be descended from the famous Vilna rabbi Elija Ben Solomon). Her father was a peddler and fruit vendor, and she was raised in a traditional Jew family. After high school she moved with her older sister and husband to Ruby Hill, Nevada, to teach miner's children.

In the mid-1880s she returned to Oakland and attended the University of California Berkeley, supporting herself by teaching at two synagogues in Oakland, eventually becoming the principal of the  religious school at Oakland's First Hebrew Congregation. She also began writing for San Francisco newspapers, one of which dispatched her to the Pacific Northwest as a correspondent in 1890.

Arriving in Spokane on the eve of the High Holy Days, Frank was dismayed to discover that, despite the presence of many wealthy Jews, the town had no synagogue. As it turned out, the community's Orthodox and Reform Jews were not only too divided to form a form a synagogue, but even to sponsor services on the High Holy Days. Because she already had a reputation as a formidable speaker and teacher, a prominent member of the community offered to arrange for Rosh Hashanah services on the condition that she would deliver a sermon.

Members of the Jewish community quickly booked at the local opera house.  A special edition of the Spokane Falls Gazette appeared that day to announce that a young lady would preach night.  Curious, members of the whole community, Jewish and Christian showed up, forming a full house. Her speech, entitled, "the Obligation of a Jew As Jew and  Citizen," was so mesmerizing, it was reported in the next issue of the national Jewish newspaper, the American Israelite, based in Cincinnati. She was also invited back to speak at the Yom Kippur service.

Thus launched a decade-long career as a preacher throughout the West and Midwest. Frank earned the moniker "The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West" (although she was never ordained), and she was such a novelty she packed houses everywhere she went. She lectured at B'nai B'rith lodges, literary societies, and synagogue women's groups, she spoke at both Reform and Orthodox synagogues, gave sermons, officiated at religious services, and even, at San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El in 1895, did the unheard of for a woman—read Scripture. She drew huge crowds, including 7000 people in Portland Oregon, before the famed orator William Jennings Bryan. She was considered a remarkable speaker who did not need notes. She was described as a latter-day Deborah, the first woman since Biblical times to preach and teach Judaism from the pulpit.

In January 1893 Frank went to Cincinnati to take some classes at the Hebrew Union College. She never officially enrolled in the rabbinical program, but she was embraced by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise himself, the president of HUC, and arguably the most influential Jew in the country.

 "We glory in her zeal and moral courage to break down the last remains of the barriers erected in the synagogue against women," he wrote. "In the laws governing the Hebrew Union College the question of sex or race or confession is not touched upon at all.... We can only encourage Miss Ray Frank or any other gifted lady who takes the theological course, to assist the cause of emancipating woman in the synagogue and the congregation."

Frank only spent one semester there, but it burnished her myth as it gave newspapers the opening to declare her the first female ordained rabbi in America— a false claim, as it  was not until 1972 that a woman actually was ordained.

Although she said she was inspired by divine belief, many of Frank sermons were decidedly secular, even political. She railed against the German Jews treatment of Eastern European Jews in America. She also took the task of the elite German Jews, particularly in San Francisco, who rarely attended synagogue. she would write or preached that the freedom and prosperity of America tempted Jews into losing their spiritual and moral groundings.

Despite her groundbreaking gender role,  Frank was very traditional in her belief system. A Chicago synagogue reportedly asked her to be its rabbi and she refused, insisting it was a man's role. She was strongly opposed to woman suffrage.  In her speeches she would often say that the role of mother was the culmination of womanhood. 

In 1898 Frank traveled to England for a lecture tour.  In  Munich to she met Simon Litman,  a Russian Jewish student.  They married in 1901 when she was 40 years old. They lived in Paris for several months before they returned to California, so Simon could take a teaching position at UC Berkeley in 1902.  In 1908 they moved to the University of Illinois where Litman secured a teaching position.  The rest of Frank's life was largely spent as a faculty wife and advocate for engaging people, particularly the young, with Judaism. She died in 1948.

As it turns out, Rachel Ray Frank's career was not all what it seemed. Later, it was revealed that she had hired a publicist in Portland Oregon, to maximize publicity.

Nevertheless, she was decades ahead of her time and showed the possibilities for other woman.  She proved that a woman could serve in the pulpit as well as a man— and that the American Jewish public was ready to accept a woman as a religious leader and authority.