Journalist Ray Frank, on September 14, 1890, became the first Jewish woman formally to preach from a pulpit in the U.S.
In the mid-1800s, Rebecca Gratz (whom we have mentioned here before) was instrumental in creating a new identity for Jewish women in the public sphere. Then along came Ray Frank to boost women’s profile even further, including in the area of religious practice - inside the prayer space.
Ms. Frank was a correspondent for newspapers in California. She planned to be in Spokane, Washington, during the high holidays, and could not find an evening synagogue service to attend. There were plenty of Jews in Spokane, many of them wealthy. One prominent community member decided to arrange for Erev Rosh Hashanah services if Ms. Frank would speak. Word (including by announcement in the Spokane Falls Gazette that “a young lady” would preach) spread so rapidly and thoroughly that Jews and Christians flocked to hear her, at services held in the overflowing opera house.
She spoke in part about bridging the differences between Reform and Orthodox ritual and forming a unified congregation (about which they were stiff-necked). They unified in wanting her to stay through Yom Kippur and give another sermon.
On Yom Kippur she began:
“… My position this evening is a novel one…. To be at any time asked to give counsel to my people would be a mark of esteem; but on this night of nights, on Yom Kippur eve, to be requested to talk to you, to advise you, to think that perhaps I am to-night the one Jewish woman in the world, mayhap the first since the time of the prophets to be called on to speak to such an audience as I now see before me, is indeed a great honor….”
(The full sermon is on Sefaria.org.) Ms. Frank would thus become a very popular speaker, and though she never wanted to become a rabbi, many referred to her as the first female rabbi. (The first female rabbi actually came much later.)
Ms. Frank also often spoke about prejudice against Jews. After graduating from Sacramento High in 1879, she moved to Ruby Hill, NV, where few Jews lived. She later would write:
"Although reared among non-Jews, my childhood's home being in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mts and later on in the state of Nevada, I at an early age became much interested in all that concerned the Jews. Living where prejudices of a theological kind were unknown, one of the prime factors of this early interest was the desire to understand the cause and meaning of prejudice against the Jew."
Ms. Frank continued her formal education, and continued writing and speaking for a decade, at which point she was tired and took an extended break abroad. Ray Frank’s life was remarkable, well worth reading about.