The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West

In the first of our "Heartthrobs of AJHS" series, we explore the life of Ray Frank, who was a gifted orator, teacher, and journalist in the 19th and 20th centuries, and known as the "girl rabbi from the Golden West."

"Heart throbs of Israel.”  The headline in Ray Frank’s scrapbook of 1890s clippings immediately caught my attention. Did Ray Frank, the “girl rabbi from the Golden West,” write about attractive late 19th century Jewish men? Frank (1861-1948) used the term "Heart Throbs" to refer to Isaiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, whose stories and lessons she summarized and popularized for contemporary audiences. 

In “Hearththrobs of AJHS”  we will shine the spotlight on the fascinating men and women whose stories live inside our archive. This month we  highlight Ray Frank herself (1861-1948), a gifted orator, who was the first woman to speak from the pulpit in a synagogue.  Raised in San Francisco, by Russian immigrant parents, Frank became a teacher and a journalist. In 1890 she traveled to Spokane, Washington as part of an assignment to report on new Jewish communities.

Upon arrival, she was surprised to learn that though the High Holidays were approaching, differences between Reform and Orthodox Jews had stopped them from creating a permanent congregation. Frank expressed her outrage.

“Mentioning the matter to some of the prominent Jewish gentlemen of Spokane, I was informed that the number of Hebrews and their financial standing was sufficient to warrant an established congregation. ‘Then, said I, how is it that you are content to go on in this way having neither schule  nor a Sabbath School?’”

Ray Frank LiptonApparently, one Jewish gentleman was so impressed by her force of conviction that he promised to sponsor the services under the condition that she would speak from the pulpit. She did, and spoke vehemently and persuasively about the importance or organizing a permanent congregation and school. Her words would be reprinted in the Jewish press, and her reputation as both a writer and speaker skyrocketed -- as attested by the many notices, speeches and features in our scrapbook.

Frank crisscrossed the country, speaking at halls and synagogues, and even the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 where she helped organize the National Council For Jewish Women. Frank’s work earned her additional noteworthy monikers such as “Most-talked about Jewess of the Day” and “latter day Deborah.”  Yet though she took classes at Hebrew Union College she did not become ordained. And while several congregations invited her lead, she declined.

Even as Frank’s actions challenged assumptions about women’s roles, she initially opposed the women’s suffrage movement  and also believed women should not work outside the home. Her actions and views seem surprising from a 21st century perspective, but also reflect the pervasiveness of  late 19th century gender norms.

Whether in the public eye or as a local communal leader, Frank remained a teacher committed to Jewish teachings and history, organizing Jewish history study circles and sisterhoods.

Ray Frank's 1890 sermon

Don't forget to share this post!