Posted on December 12, 2013
On this date in 1950, Paula Ackerman became the first woman to perform as a rabbi in the U.S., leading the Jewish Services for the Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi.
Her husband had been the rabbi but had died suddenly a few weeks before. Because she had led an occasional service when her husband was away or ill, Ackerman probably felt pretty comfortable leading services again. But she ended up being the rabbi for her congregation for several years! Finally a (male) replacement rabbi was found in September of 1953.
About a decade later, Ackerman led services and did other rabbinical duties for a congregation in Florida for a year or two.
And she was never ordained. She never went to school to be ordained. Women didn't do that then!
Ackerman once wrote to a friend, “If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman's larger participation—if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for congregational leadership—then my life would have some meaning."
Well, she did plant a seed, although it took a while for that seed to sprout. It wasn't until 1972 that a woman named Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States. (Priesand was the second woman ordained anywhere in the world in all of the history of Judaism.)
Now there are hundreds of women rabbis—my sister among them!
Was Ackerman really the first?
About half a century before Ackerman became “the first woman to perform as a rabbi in the U.S.,” a woman named Ray Frank became the first Jewish woman to preach from the pulpit in the U.S. Frank did a lot of public speaking and preaching-from-the-pulpit as a guest speaker / preacher, traveling up and down the West Coast, from California to Washington. And this was way back in the 1890s! But Frank did not act as a rabbi with a congregation, as Ackerman did; she did not perform weddings and funerals and do other congregational duties, as Ackerman did.
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