Just in time for remembrance of the dead throughout November, I was introduced to the fascinating life of Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi (pronounced ReGEEna YOnas). She was honored as part of a program on women rabbis I attended last week at our nearby Jewish Community Center. Although ordained in Berlin in 1935, her story was obscured by the Holocaust and subsequent division of Germany. Jonas perished at Auschwitz in 1944, and without her foresight to leave papers with the Jewish archives in Berlin prior to her deportation in 1942, she may have been lost altogether, even though male colleagues of hers survived the war. In 1972 Sally Priesand was called the first woman rabbi ever at her ordination (in Cincinnati), and no one corrected it until 1991 when Jonas was rediscovered after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall permitted greater access to the archives.
Such is the life of female leaders in traditional religions! Along with the poignant brevity of her service, Jonas’ perseverance despite many obstacles, and dedication to the highest purpose of her calling, touch me very much. Speaking of her vocation, she used words that could easily be said by many women today in the Catholic tradition who have pursued ordination,
“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
Jonas always loved studying Jewish history and texts, and her desire to be a rabbi emerged at a young age. As an adult she found supportive rabbis who taught her and in 1924 she entered theological studies. Not surprisingly, the topic for her thesis was “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” Rather than just calling for an update of Jewish practice based on modern sensibilities, she analyzed the Jewish scriptural and legal tradition to support gender equality, so that female rabbis would be seen as continuing with tradition rather than breaking it, again evoking for me the perspective of many Catholic women.
“I believe that the question of whether a woman may make halachic decisions as a Rabbinerin may very clearly be seen as permitted, and it is not necessary to continue to linger over this matter . . . Just as both female doctors and teachers in time have become a necessity from a psychological standpoint, so has the female rabbi. There are even some things that women can say to youth, which cannot be said by the man in the pulpit. Her experiences, her psychological observations a profoundly different from those of a man, therefore she has a different style . . . If Jewish culture is to be maintained, the woman must contribute particularly in this way and both sexes must deliver their great service.”
On the final page of her thesis, Jonas wrote, “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”
Her mentor died before she could be ordained and no one else would step in, so for several years she taught in girls’ religious schools around Berlin while still working toward ordination. Finally Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis) agreed to the ordination in 1935. No synagogues would give her a pulpit, so she focused on pastoral ministry in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Eventually the toll of Nazi persecution gave her the opportunity to preach and lead for several years in Berlin before she herself was deported to Theresienstadt, a camp-ghetto in Czechoslovakia, in November 1942. Before leaving, she deposited her papers, letters, correspondence, two photographs of herself and her rabbinical ordination certificate into the Berlin Jewish archive.
Jonas’ rabbinic role only deepened at Theresidenstadt as she worked with psychiatrist and author Victor Frankl and others to create support systems within the camp. Jonas greeted the trains of terrified deportees and helped them adjust. She also organized a lecture series inside the camp on subjects ranging from the history of Jewish women to introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and holidays. The camp archives include a poster advertising a “Lecture by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas,” as well as a handwritten document that summarizes her religious worldview and her legacy, including this excerpt:
“Our Jewish people was planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to offer blessings, lovingkindness and loyalty, regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for His creatures, sustain the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world— man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones. May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future (and the future of humanity) … “
Her memory is truly a blessing.
A plaque honoring Regina Jonas was unveiled at Theresienstadt in July 2014.