This Day in Jewish History / Death of Ray Frank, Often Called ‘America’s First Female Rabbi’

Frank become popular in Jewish communities throughout the American West, and was dubbed 'a latter-day Deborah,' 'the Maiden in the Temple' and 'the Jewess in the Pulpit.'

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On October 10, 1948, Rachel “Ray” Frank Litman – one of America’s leading commentators on Jewish values at the end of the 19th century – died. Although Litman was explicit in declaring that she had no desire or intention to become America’s first female rabbi, she was frequently described in the press as being just that.

Rachel Frank was born on April 10, 1861 (or possibly 1864 or ’65), in San Francisco, California, to Bernard and Leah Frank, who were both Jewish immigrants from German-speaking Poland. Bernard, who claimed to be a great-grandson of the Vilna Gaon, worked as a produce peddler and also as an Indian agent for the U.S. government.

In 1879, after graduating from high school in Sacramento, California, Ray moved to the small mining outpost of Ruby Hill, Nevada, where she worked for six years as a teacher. After returning to Oakland, where her parents now lived, she took a job as teacher of Bible and Jewish history at the Sabbath school of the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland. She also took courses in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Frank was so well-regarded at the school that when the position became open, she was appointed its principal.

During the 1890s, Frank began to supplement her income by writing for both the Jewish and the general press (she also was a frequent letter writer to Jewish newspapers). In the fall of 1890, while reporting on the development of the boom towns of the Pacific Northwest, she visited Spokane Falls (today called simply Spokane) in the newly admitted State of Washington. She was surprised to find no synagogue, and disappointed when she was told that the town’s Reform and traditional Jews were unwilling to pray together.

As the story goes, a prominent Spokane Jew offered to organize High Holiday services if Frank would agree to speak at them. When he advertised that a “young lady” would be giving a sermon on Rosh Hashanah eve at the local opera house, a thousand people turned out, Christians as well as Jews.

Ray Frank spoke that night on “The Obligations of a Jew as Jew and Citizen,” and used the opportunity to implore the community’s members to work together to build a congregation. So moved was one non-Jew in the audience that he offered to donate land for the purpose. (It’s not clear whether that offer materialized, but the record does show that Spokane’s first Jewish congregation, a Reform synagogue, opened in 1892.)

Frank spoke again the following day, and stayed in town to give a sermon on Yom Kippur, when she urged her listeners to “Drop all dissension about whether you should take off your hats during the service and other unimportant ceremonials, and join hands in one glorious cause.”

In the years that followed, Frank become a speaker in demand among Jewish communities throughout the American West, and was dubbed variously as “a latter-day Deborah,” “the Maiden in the Temple” and “the Jewess in the Pulpit.” In 1893, she was the opening speaker at the Jewish Women’s Congress that took place at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. She also became a founding member of the National Council of Jewish Women, which emerged out of that congress.

Her public exposure took a toll on Frank, and when she met Simon Litman – the Odessa-born economist who became her husband – during an extended sojourn in Europe, he later wrote that she appeared “as if she had been recovering from a breakdown.”

When she and Litman married in 1901, Frank gave up her public career, although she continued to write for newspapers. She also was very involved in Jewish communal life, first at Berkeley, and especially later in Urbana, Illinois, both places where her husband found teaching positions. The couple never had any children.

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