It is fascinating that what would seem to really be a Jewish human interest story–that Martha Neumark was studying to be the first female rabbi in the U.S.–made the front page of the Santa Ana Register in 1920! It just goes to show that while antisemitism was afoot in Orange County, the local press wasn’t having any of it.
Now for a little background on this quintessentially Jewish American story. Neumark was the 17-year-old daughter of David Neumark, a philosophy professor at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and began her rabbinical studies at HUC in 1918. In 1920, perhaps emboldened by the fact that the 19th amendment had just been ratified, she requested permission to be a rabbi-in-training during the upcoming High Holidays. This request indicated that her goal was, indeed, to become America’s first female rabbi, and led to a 56 to 11 vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, affirming (in principle only) the right of women to become rabbis.
Unfortunately, the HUC board of governors voted against the motion in 1923; interestingly, while two rabbi members voted in favor of ordination for women, it was six laymen who opposed it. For Neumark, the decision of the board marked the end of her dream. She left HUC having completed seven and a half years of the nine-year curriculum, with a certificate that qualified her to serve as principal of a religious school. However, almost 50 years later, when Sally Priesand become the first female rabbi in the U.S. in 1972, Martha Neumark Montor was alive and able to see that what had been denied her was now available to other women, and that, indeed, progress had (slowly) been achieved.
Dalia Taft, archivist of the Orange County Jewish Historical Society, highlights images from the archives every month. For more information, please visit www.jewishoc.org/history. You can also contact Dalia at email@example.com or at (949) 435-3484, ext. 167. The Orange County Jewish Historical Society is a program of Jewish Federation & Family Services and is fully funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.