This Day in Jewish History

1950: America Gets First (Unofficial) Female Rabbi

The establishment frowned but Paula Ackerman bowed to popular demand and led the congregations, not once, but twice.

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On December 12, 1950, Paula Ackerman, the widow of Rabbi William Ackerman, became the first female rabbi in America, not that she was recognized or ordained as such. She simply acceded to the request of her late husband’s congregation, Temple Beth Israel, in Meridian, Mississippi, and began serving as the synagogue’s spiritual leader.

She would continue as the community's unofficial rabbi for nearly three years, the first woman to fulfill such a role in a mainstream American Jewish movement. And she did so with the tacit approval of the national movement.

Paula Herskovitz was born December 7, 1893, in Pensacola, Florida, the daughter of Joseph and Dora Herskovitz. She grew up there in a family that was active in Temple Beth El there, the state’s first Reform synagogue.

An excellent student in high school, she was offered a scholarship to study at Sophie Newcomb College, in New Orleans. But when her father told her he would not permit her to attend medical school after college, she opted out of an undergraduate education altogether.

Instead she worked as a music teacher, a math and Latin tutor, and taught Hebrew school at Beth Israel. That’s also where she fell in love with William Ackerman, the synagogue’s young new rabbi.

The couple married in 1919, after a seven-year courtship, and moved, first to Natchez, Mississippi, and, in 1924, to Meridian, when William Ackerman became rabbi of Reform Temple Beth Israel. He served in that position until his death, on November 30, 1950, a week short of his 64th birthday.

Planting a seed

Over the years, Paula Ackerman had taught at Beth Israel’s Hebrew school, and she had filled in for her husband when he was traveling or sick. With those things in mind, and with the understanding that it might take them some time to hire a new rabbi for their small congregation, the board of Beth Israel asked the rebbetzin if she would be willing to take William’s place on the pulpit until a new rabbi was found.

After more than a month of deliberation, as well as consultations with officials at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, she agreed.

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

In a December 12 letter to Rabbi Jacob Schwartz, then the national director of synagogue activities at the UAHC, she expressed her understanding of the gravity of the decision she was considering: “I … know how revolutionary the idea is -- therefore it seems to be a challenge that I pray I can meet. If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman’s larger
Participation -- if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for
congregational leadership then my life would have some meaning.”

Not so fast, lady

Schwartz, a personal friend, gave her his blessing, but Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the president of UAHC, after initially giving her his informal support, told her that after further consideration, he had concluded that her not having ordination would present too many obstacles for the experiment to be worthwhile. (Of course, it would be more than another two decades before a woman was ordained in the Reform, or any other, movement.)

By that point, however, the synagogue board was set on having her as their “spiritual leader.”

Paula Ackerman served in that position from January 1951 until the autumn of 1953, during which time she led services, and officiated at funerals, weddings and even conversions. The novelty of a female rabbi garnered a lot of attention nationally, and after Beth Israel hired a permanent rabbi and Ackerman resigned, she began to teach and lecture around the United States. (In 1968, Temple Beth Israel, which had taken a congregational stand against the frequent bombings of black churches in the South during the period of civil rights activism, had its education building bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.)

In 1962, she received a request from her childhood synagogue, Beth El, to return to Pensacola and serve as its leader until the board could find a new rabbi; she did so, holding the position for nine months. Thus she wound up becoming a de-facto rabbi not once, but twice, despite never being ordained.

She remained in Pensacola until 1982, when she moved to Georgia, and died in Thomaston, about 100 kms south of Atlanta, on January 12, 1989, at the age of 95.