You should know - Rabbi Regina Jonas
Shabbat Shalom! And, I wish a merry Christmas to those in our community who celebrate it. For my family, Christmas day is always restful with little to no expectations – and today did not disappoint.
This Shabbat, I would like to introduce you to a rabbinic colleague – who you probably don’t know. Her obscurity is central to her story. Regina Jonas was born in 1902 in Berlin. By the time that she was teenager, she had declared her intentions: she wanted to be a rabbi. Of course, at that time, there were no female rabbis.
Eventually, Regina Jonas entered the liberal seminary Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. There were other female students at the seminary, studying to be teachers; only Regina Jonas was working towards Rabbinic ordination. She wrote her thesis about why women should be ordained. The thesis convinced her professors that she should graduate – but with a teacher’s degree, not ordination. So, Regina Jonas began her career as a teacher and quickly developed a stellar reputation, but never gave up on her ambition of becoming a rabbi.
Finally, her insistence and hard work paid off. Eight-five years ago this weekend, on December 27, 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis, ordained Regina Jonas. She became the world’s first ordained female rabbi – at least, who we know about. While other German rabbis did not participate in her ordination, they accepted her as a rabbi after the fact.
She served first as a hospital chaplain and, as the Nazis arrested rabbis and sent them to the camps, Regina Jonas began preaching at Berlin’s synagogues. And, then, her story was largely lost. In November, 1942, Rabbi Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, where records show she took on a rabbinic role. And, on October 12, 1944, the Nazis deported Rabbi Jonas and her mother to Auschwitz and murdered them in the gas chambers, probably the day they arrived.
Although several prominent rabbis who knew Rabbi Jonas survived the war, nobody talked about her or her story.
For fifty years, it was almost as though she had not existed. In fact, when Sally Priesand was ordained in 1972, she was called the world’s first ordained female rabbi. Then, the Berlin wall fell. In East Berlin, Rabbi Jonas’ papers were found, hidden away. Her name, her story and her achievements were unveiled. Her story was finally known again.
The Jewish Women’s Archives produced a 10-minute documentary about Regina Jonas. I encourage you to watch it and learn more about the extraordinary life lived and lost. https://jwa.org/rabbis/regina-jonas-remembered/film
My children and I have spent part of Christmas watching the Wonder Woman movies, and enjoying the performance of the extraordinary Gal Gadot. The Regina Jonas short was an excellent complement, albeit with a little less action. Rabbi Regina Jonas - a real life Jewish wonder woman!