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Ray Frank Litman (1861-1948) Papers

Identifier: P-46

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains the professional and personal papers of Ray Frank, sometimes referred to as “the first woman rabbi.” Although she was never ordained and disliked the title, contemporary American Jewish feminists often cite her as a predecessor of today's female rabbis. It contains articles written by Frank when she was a journalist as well as numerous newspaper clippings detailing her travels and lectures at synagogues around the United States and her role as a female preacher, including some printed versions of her speeches and sermons. These include, "Why I Preach" (1894), "Jewesses of Today," which includes her views on women's rights, "If I Were a Rebitzen" (1890), "If I Were a Rabbi (What I Would Not Do)" (1890), and her 1890 Yom Kippur sermon delivered at Spokane Falls, which includes a discussion of women's role in Judaism. There is also correspondence with figures such as poet Nina Davis Salaman, Henrietta (Nettie) Adler, Marion and Lily Montagu (involved with Liberal Judaism in England), Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American feminist), Ambrose Bierce, David Phillipson (leader of American Reform Judaism), Israel Zangwill, and Abram Sachar (the first president of Brandeis University, then at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana).

There are programs for lectures and sermons she delivered, calling cards, a typescript biography of Nina Davis Salaman written by Ray Frank Litman after Salaman’s death, an essay about the women of California, whom Frank was supposed to exemplify, and printed and manuscript copies of sermons, speeches, poems, short stories, essays, and an incomplete copy of a novel written by Frank. The collection also includes the passenger list of a ship on which Frank sailed, a school prize given to Frank, transcripts, a certificate of appreciation, a published memoir of Frank (1957) written by her husband, and a pencil sketch of Frank done by artist Maud Ball, as well as a scrapbook (1879-1901) of newspaper clippings of articles by and about Frank, reflecting her views on women's suffrage, Judaism, and other topics. Most folder titles refer to her as Ray Frank since the majority of the collection pre-dates her marriage.

The collection is valuable to researchers studying the history of women preachers and the forerunners of women in the rabbinate, as well as the history of Jews of California, Illinois, and the Pacific Northwest.


  • undated, 1879-1957


Language of Materials

The collection is primarily in English, with some German.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Historical Note

Rachel (Ray) Frank was born in San Francisco on April 10, 1861. She was the second of four children born to Bernard and Leah Frank, liberal Orthodox Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire. Her father was a fruit peddler and her mother was a homemaker. After graduating from Sacramento High School in 1879, Frank moved to the silver-mining town of Ruby Hill, Nevada, where she taught public school. Frank’s older sister, Rosa, and her family lived in the nearby town of Eureka, which had over 100 Jewish inhabitants and the first synagogue in Nevada. Frank’s younger sister, Esther, soon came to teach in Ruby Hill as well.

In 1885, the mining industry in Ruby Hill began to fail and Frank returned to her family, then living in Oakland, California. She supported herself by giving literature and elocution lessons and took courses in philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley. She also taught Bible studies and Jewish history at the Sabbath school at Oakland’s First Hebrew Congregation, where her lectures often drew an adult audience as well. She soon began to make a name for herself within the California Jewish community and when the rabbi and school superintendent of the First Hebrew Congregation resigned, Frank was invited to become the school’s principal.

At the same time, Frank began working as a correspondent for several San Francisco and Oakland newspapers, and as a contributor to numerous national Jewish publications. One of her first assignments, to report on remote Jewish outposts in the West, took her to Portland, Tacoma, and Spokane in the fall of 1890. She arrived in Spokane Falls, Washington on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, where she discovered that, although the town was booming and there were many affluent Jews, there was no synagogue and the Orthodox and Reform Jews were unwilling to join together for services. When Frank expressed her disappointment, a wealthy member of the community, knowing her by reputation, offered to gather together a congregation if Frank would deliver a sermon. She agreed and the services, which were held at the Opera House, drew a crowd of 1000 Jews and Christians. Her sermon, on "The Obligations of a Jew as Jew and Citizen," called on the community to overcome their differences and to build a permanent congregation, mainly for the sake of their children. Frank thus became the first Jewish woman to formally preach from a pulpit in the United States. According to Frank’s own accounts, a Christian man in the audience was impressed enough that he offered to donate the land for a synagogue. The Jewish community of Spokane Falls was also impressed and asked Frank to stay for the duration of the High Holy Days so that she could deliver a sermon at the Kol Nidre service at the start of Yom Kippur. This second sermon, in which she elaborated on her earlier theme, brought her even more acclaim within the American Jewish world.

Over the next few years, Frank’s reputation grew into a sort of sensation as she was invited to preach in communities up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Victoria, British Columbia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Stockton, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. She even hired a theatrical booking agent, Samuel H. Friedlander of Portland, who helped her get preaching engagements and kept her name in the press. Her sermons and speeches often drew crowds of hundreds or even thousands of people in Orthodox and Reform synagogues, B'nai B'rith lodges, literary societies, and synagogue’s women's groups. She was called upon to help establish congregations in various communities and even read from Scripture at Temple Emanuel in San Francisco in 1895. Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers across the country covered the story of her preaching and officiating at services and often reprinted her sermons. She became known as the “most talked-of Jewess of the day,” a “latter-day Deborah,” “the Maiden in the Temple,” “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West,” among other titles. Her newspaper articles began to focus increasingly on Jewish issues, often stressing the importance of women providing Jewish homes and education for their children and advocating for women to take on a greater role in Jewish secular and religious organizations, particularly in the synagogue.

While Frank always publicly maintained that she had no interest in becoming a rabbi, the fact of her preaching from a pulpit caught the public’s imagination and forced American Jewry to consider seriously for the first time the idea of women’s ordination. Women in the late 19th century were entering many new professions, and several Christian denominations had already allowed for women preachers and some allowed women to be ordained. Despite Frank’s insistence that she had no interest in joining the rabbinate and indeed that, although women had the right and ability to become rabbis, it would be improper for women to do so since it was a “thoroughly masculine” role, newspapers continued to refer to her as the “girl rabbi.” These sorts of headlines only increased when she spent a few months in early 1893 taking courses in Jewish ethics and philosophy at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. These courses were her only formal Jewish education, although she did not take any theology courses. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of the Reform seminary, appeared to welcome her as a serious candidate for ordination, although Frank never sought to do so.

Frank served as a delegate to the first Jewish Women’s Congress, held September 4-7, 1893, a section of the Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair. She delivered the opening prayer and the final benediction for the Congress as well as delivering a paper on “Woman in the Synagogue” in which she praised Jewish women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers while also emphasizing that there have always been women leaders in Jewish history. At the end of the Congress, delegates voted to form the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the first national association of Jewish women, which promoted Jewish women’s education and helped to strengthen their connection to Judaism. Frank worked to establish a branch of the NCJW in Oakland, California in 1895 and served as the vice president for the Pacific Coast of the NCJW.

While in Chicago, Frank was invited to lead a local congregation but she refused. She officiated at High Holy Days services at an Orthodox congregation in Victoria, British Columbia in 1895 and was several times asked to become the full-time rabbi of congregations, but she declined these invitations, believing that women were not yet capable of heading a congregation. She continued to write articles and to give lectures around the Northwest, receiving extensive press coverage and numerous requests to speak to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later Gilman) asked Frank to join the Pacific Coast Press Association in 1894 but Frank opposed women’s suffrage at that time. She also spoke out against married women working outside the home, although she supported herself until her marriage at age 40. She was invited to the inaugural ball for the governor of Nevada in March 1895 and, in 1897, “Ray Frank Day” was proclaimed at the Oregon Chautauqua, an annual public festival of lectures and entertainment.

By 1898, Frank was exhausted from eight years of writing and traveling around the country delivering lectures and sermons. She traveled to New York and then on to London, where she met many members of British Jewish society. These included Henrietta Adler, a social worker and politician and the daughter and sister of two Chief Rabbis of England, whom Frank also met; Marion and Lily Montagu, who were both involved with Progressive Judaism; Israel Zangwill; Nina Davis Salaman, a Hebraist and poet with whom Frank formed a lasting friendship and who was the only woman to preach in an Orthodox synagogue in Britain; and, with an introduction from her friend Ambrose Bierce, politician Joseph Chamberlain.

From London, Frank traveled to Munich in 1899. While in Munich, Frank met Simon Litman (1873-1965), who had come from Odessa to study for his doctoral degree in economics, and they began a close friendship. Litman was unable to study in Munich as he had not attended gymnasium and so he transferred to the Zurich Polytechnikum. After a brief return to London, Frank moved to Switzerland in 1900 and took some classes in German literature and economics, also at the Zurich Polytechnikum. Frank and Litman were married in London on August 14, 1901. After a brief period in Paris, the Litmans moved to California in 1902, where Simon Litman taught marketing and merchandising at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ray Frank Litman, having always maintained that married women should not work outside the home, rarely accepted speaking engagements and severely curtailed her journalistic career, instead devoting her energy to keeping house and being a faculty wife. When Simon Litman was offered a position at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1908, she was happy to leave California, where she was uncomfortably reminded of her past acclaim. In Champaign, she started a Jewish history study circle for students, was involved with Jewish student groups that became the Hillel movement, which originated at the University of Illinois, and helped to found the local chapter of Hadassah. She also helped to organize the Sinai Temple sisterhood in 1922 and was the sisterhood president for fifteen years. She even helped to found the Champaign County League of Women Voters in 1922, in a reversal of her previous anti-suffrage position, in the hope that women would be as well-informed as possible when voting.

In 1945, Ray Frank Litman became sick with a hardening of the arteries and eventually entered a nursing home. She died October 10, 1948 in Peoria, Illinois, at age 87.


1 Linear Feet (2 manuscript boxes, 1 OS1 folder)


This collection consists of papers of Ray (Rachel) Frank, the first Jewish woman to preach formally from a pulpit in the United States. It contains correspondence relating to her personal life; her activities as an author and lecturer; programs; and printed and manuscript copies of sermons, speeches, and writings by Frank. There is also a scrapbook (1879-1901) of newspaper clippings of articles by and about Frank, reflecting her view on women's suffrage, Judaism, and other topics.


The arrangement completed in 1995 has been maintained, although folder titles have been somewhat modified and the folders have been numbered. The collection contains 450 items, all in English, organized by correspondent or subject and is arranged in one series.

Physical Location

Located in AJHS New York, NY

Acquisition Information

Parts of the collection were donated by Stephanie Simon on March 29, 2006.

Previous Finding Aids and Box List

This finding aid supersedes the August 1995 finding aid. The box list created for the 1995 finding aid contains additional folder information and can be found here:

Related Material

The American Sephardi Federation has Portraits of Jewish American Heroes, by Malka Drucker, which contains an entry on Ray Frank. The American Jewish Historical Society has "In Search of the Real Ray Frank," by Paulette R. Gross, Ray Frank Litman: A Memoir, by Simon Litman, and Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889-1985, by Pamela Susan Nadell, which contains references to Ray Frank. There are also numerous resources about women in Judaism and several about women’s ordination.

Separated Material

There is no information about materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.

Processing information

The collection was originally processed by Felicia Herman in August 1995. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation. The materials were transferred into acid-free folders, the folder titles were revised and the folders have been numbered.

Guide to the Ray Frank Litman (1861-1948) Papers, undated, 1879-1957 P-46
Processed by Rachel S. Harrison
© 2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.
as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation
Edition statement
[This version was derived from RayFrankLitman_P-46.xml]

Revision Statements

  • March, June 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States