(1861 - 1948)
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.
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
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. She later wrote, "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." In the 1890s, Frank would examine these ideas in
her sermons, lectures, and newspaper articles.
Frank's time in Nevada set the stage for her subsequent
career in other ways as well. 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
In 1885, with the mining industry in decline, Frank left Nevada and
returned to her family in Oakland, California. While supporting herself
by giving lessons in literature and elocution, 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. Involvement with the
Sabbath school not only gave Frank the opportunity to explore the Jewish
issues that had long interested her, but it also allowed her to hone
her skills as a public speaker and to begin to make a name for herself
within the California Jewish community.
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. When the Jewish Messenger asked its readers
"What would you do if you were a rabbi?," Frank submitted
a letter expounding emphatically on what she would not do if she were
a rabbi. Castigating Jewish leadership for its shallowness, insincerity,
and materialism, she argued that amid the freedom and prosperity of
the New World, many Jews had lost sight of the spiritual and moral bases
of Judaism. She deplored the acrimony
between Reform and Orthodox Jews and even broached the question of women and religious
leadership, concluding with the observation that "Women are
precluded from entering the Holy of Holies; but it is a great satisfaction
to contemplate what we would not do were the high office not denied
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 (then known as Spokane
Falls), 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.
At five o'clock that afternoon, a special edition of the Spokane
Falls Gazette announced that "a young lady" would preach
to Spokane's Jews that evening at the Opera House. Intrigued, the townspeople Christians as well as Jews flocked to the theater. Frank did not
herself conduct the service; a woman preaching from the pulpit on the
High Holidays was extraordinary enough in the late nineteenth century.
But 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. A Christian
man in the audience was so deeply inspired by Frank's words that, at
the conclusion of the service, he offered to donate land for the construction
of a synagogue.
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."
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. Traditional Judaism had allocated few
public religious roles to women, who did not count towards the minyan (quorum) of ten required for public worship, could not read from the Torah, and, if they attended
synagogue, were seated separately from men. Religious leadership lay
strictly in the hands of men, whose voices dominated the synagogue.
By the 1890s, American Jews had begun
to make some changes to this traditional order. The
widespread introduction of family pews in
acculturated congregations had redefined women's
presence in the synagogue, mixed-sex choirs had
brought women's voices in to the service, and a new
confirmation service for girls as well as boys had
acknowledged the importance of female religiosity.
Moreover, as Jewish men became increasingly
absorbed in the bustle of everyday life, women
began to outnumber men at many congregation's
services. But despite these advances, Frank still
defied longstanding norms when she assumed the
right to speak and teach within the synagogue
context. "I know that it is unusual, and that in
the history of our people no woman except Deborah
spoke in the synagogue, yet the experience did not
seem strange," she commented.
The newness of the Jewish communities in the West likely contributed
significantly to Frank's ability to do what she did. Had more established
Jewish institutions and a well-entrenched Jewish leadership existed
on the West Coast, Frank might never have been given the opportunity
to preach. By occupying the pulpit temporarily, Frank opened the door,
however slightly, for Jewish women's long journey towards public religious
The 1890s were a whirlwind for Frank, who became "the most talked
of Jewess of to-day." Dubbed "the Maiden in the Temple"
by the Spokane paper and "the Jewess in the Pulpit" by the
Cincinnati Israelite, 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.
Up and down the Pacific coast, Frank traveled from her home in the
bay area of California to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Stockton, Nevada,
Oregon, and British Columbia, 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 topics
were suffused with a profound spirituality, as Frank explored the connections
between God and art, music, or nature. Titles like "Heart Throbs
of Israel," "Jewish Women in Fact and History," "Music
and its Revelations," "Nature the Supreme Teacher"
reflect only a few of the many issues that interested Frank.
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
not the first female student there, Frank was apparently the first to
be taken seriously. Rabbi Isaac
Mayer Wise, the College's president, welcomed her with open arms.
"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
By the 1890s, several Christian denominations had already ordained
women ministers, and it appeared to many observers that the Jews were
about to follow suit. Reform Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch published an editorial
advocating the ordination of women as a way to revitalize Judaism, and
many others appeared to take for granted that, just as women were moving
into a wide variety of other professions, they would soon enter the
rabbinate. Seventeen of the 26 women Orthodox and Reform who contributed
to Hirsch's 1897 symposium on "Woman in the Synagogue" were
at least willing to consider the ordination of women. But the debates
about the possibility of woman rabbis were fierce, with prominent figures
weighing in on either side.
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
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. With the Congress being
the first occasion on which Jewish women gathered in large numbers specifically
as Jewish women, the organizers knew they would be representing Jewish
womanhood to both the Jewish community and society as a whole. They
assembled a group of nationally-known figures who could speak effectively
on a broad range of subjects of historical and contemporary relevance
to Jewish women. 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. "Women
of the nineteenth century!" she cried. "These are but
a few names from among the many on the old grave stones, testifying
to the splendid work done for the synagogue by women, at a time when
obstacles made up their lives....But enough has been given to disprove all doubts as to the Jewish woman's
capability in religious matters, both as pupil and instructor...."
The Jewish Women's Congress and the National Council of Jewish Women
(NCJW) that emerged from it were part of a much broader transformation
in American Jewish women's roles that occurred in the 1890s. Frank was
strongly committed to the NCJW, a national body to facilitate Jewish
women's education and activity. After working to establish a branch
in Oakland in the 1890s, she remained involved with her local branch
for the rest of her life.
Although Frank spoke out forcefully in favor of greater involvement
in the Jewish community, she was far from a straightforward proponent
of women's rights. Her opinions on such issues as suffrage and the employment
of women were complex, and she often espoused views that would today
be considered decidedly conservative.
Frank claimed often to be "a stout opponent of what is commonly
called 'Women's Rights.'" In the 1890s, she spoke against women's
suffrage, asserting that women's influence on their male relatives already
brought them a say in the political process and that they lacked the
education and experience necessary to use the vote wisely. And although
she supported herself until she married and advocated careers for single
women, she believed married women should not work outside the home.
Even on the issue that affected her most personally, the ordination
of women as rabbis, Frank was highly ambivalent. At times she asserted
that women had both the right and the ability to become rabbis, arguing
at the Jewish Women's Congress that "All in all, [women] have
in the past earned the right to the pulpit.... [A woman] may be ordained
rabbi or be the president of a congregation she is entirely able to
fill both offices." But at other times she put forth a far more
traditional viewpoint: "I do not even aspire to the office of rabbi,
because being a woman I could never be one; that is thoroughly masculine."
While Frank's independence of action might seem incompatible with some
of her traditional ideas, in fact the combination was not unusual in
her day. Caught between Victorian conceptions of women's spheres and
new ideas about women's roles circulating in American society, the late
nineteenth century saw many people freely mixing "progressive"
and "conservative" opinions. Opposition to the suffrage movement
was not uncommon, even among those who championed women's rights in
other spheres. Frank's contradictory positions might also have served
a strategic purpose. Whether consciously or unconsciously, her adoption
of some traditional views likely allowed her to be more daring in other
area. Had she pushed only for radical changes, the Jewish community
might well have ignored her instead of embracing her.
By the late 1890s, after almost a decade of almost constant lecturing,
preaching, and writing, Frank was tired. Wanting a break from her hectic
life, she left the United States in 1898 for an extended stay in Europe.
One night at dinner at her hotel in Munich, Frank and
her traveling companion were discussing the Dreyfus
Affair then taking place in France. As Frank wished aloud that she
had more information about the events, a young man seated at their table
volunteered that he had just arrived from Paris and had the latest news.
They began a long conversation and quickly became friends.
Born in Odessa, Simon Litman had come to Germany to study economics.
When he transferred to Zurich, Frank, too, moved to Switzerland, enrolling
in classes at the Zurich Polytechnikum. Two years later, on August 14,
1901, Ray and Simon were married. 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 at 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. She accepted a few speaking engagements, but her career
as "the Girl Rabbi of the Golden West" was over. Even the
articles she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle had become
more prosaic; instead of the spiritual, religious, and artistic matters
she had dealt with earlier, she now wrote about "The Stock Exchanges"
and "A builder of houses in Berkeley." The Litmans considered
adopting a child, perhaps a Russian orphan, but they never did. Ray
occupied her time keeping house and helping Simon in his work. Later,
Simon would pay his own tribute to Ray and her career by writing a memoir
about her. Published in 1957 as Ray Frank Litman: A Memoir, this
book is the source of much of the valuable information about Frank available
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. True to her longstanding commitments, her main
focus remained fostering people's active involvement with Judaism. 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
Ray devoted much energy to the general Champaign-Urbana and University
communities as well. Despite her earlier opposition to women's suffrage,
she helped to form the Champaign County League of Women Voters, perhaps
deciding that with the vote now a fait accompli, she wished women
to be as well-informed as possible about their political choices. She
also jumped into life as a faculty wife, hosting events for the Economics
Department and assisting Simon in his work.
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";
her leadership and encouragement had inspired many students to pursue
studies in Jewish history and involvement with the Jewish community.
Frank's death occurred almost a quarter of a century before the Reform
movement finally admitted women to the rabbinate. Many observers during
Frank's heyday in the 1890s would have been surprised to learn that
the ordination of women was so long in coming. When asked in 1896 if
she expected at some point to see a Jewish woman in the pulpit, Louise
Mannheimer, one of the speakers at the 1893 Jewish Women's Congress,
responded simply, "We have a woman in the pulpit, though she
has not been ordained. Her enthusiasm impels her to speak. She is Miss
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.
Sources: The Jewish
Women's Archive Exhibits. Photo: American
Jewish Historical Society