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Paula Herskovitz Ackerman

(1893 - 1989)

ACKERMAN, PAULA HERSKOVITZ (1893–1989), first woman to assume spiritual leadership of a U.S. mainstream Jewish congregation. Born in Pensacola, Florida, Ackerman was active in the Reform movement throughout her life. Graduating as high school valedictorian in 1911, she received a scholarship to Sophie Newcomb College, which she declined for personal and family reasons. To supplement her family's income, she became a private music instructor and high school math and Latin teacher. She also taught at Temple Beth-El, the Reform congregation to which her family belonged, leading its congregational choir as well. In 1919 she married Dr. William Ackerman, the rabbi of Temple Beth-El; the couple left Pensacola for a better-paying rabbinic position in Natchez, Mississippi, and in 1922 moved on with their 15-month-old son, Billy, to Meridian, Mississippi. During her husband's tenure as rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Ackerman taught preconfirmation classes and led worship services when her husband was ill or out of town. Initially hesitant when the congregation invited her to succeed her husband as rabbi following his death in 1950, she accepted the position when the congregation received informal permission from Maurice *Eisendrath , president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Ackerman viewed this invitation as a divine call to service and an opportunity "to plant a seed for enlarged activity for the Jewish woman." Soon after, Eisendrath withdrew his approval, maintaining that he had become convinced that congregational leaders unqualified to discharge full rabbinical duties would create more problems than they would solve. However, the synagogue's leadership upheld the appointment, declaring that "practically all of the members of our congregation believe she is qualified, and we want her." Paula Ackerman served as Temple Beth Israel's spiritual leader from January 1951 through the fall of 1953; she conducted services, preached, taught, and officiated at weddings, funerals, and conversions. Attracting international attention from the press, she erroneously was labeled "America's first Lady Rabbi." After retirement, she remained active on city, state, and national religious and cultural boards and traveled throughout the U.S., lecturing on religious themes. In 1962, she briefly served as spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Pensacola until a new rabbi could be found. In 1986 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations formally recognized her pioneering contribution to Jewish communal life at a special ceremony held at The Temple in Atlanta.


P. Ackerman, Papers, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio; idem, Sermons (1915–53), private possession of Dr. William Ackerman; K.M. Olitzky, L. Sussman, and M. Stern (eds.), Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary (1993), 1–2; E.M. Umansky and D. Ashton (eds.), Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook (1992), 184–86.

[Ellen M. Umansky (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.