The Legacy of Rabbi Regina Jonas

For most of my life, I was taught that the first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi, was Sally Priesand, who was ordained 50 years ago, in 1972.

But it isn’t true.

Although Rabbi Priesand, was the first woman to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary, she was not the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi. That particular glass ceiling was shattered almost 90 years ago by Rabbi Regina Jonas. But unfortunately – and unforgivably – most people have never heard of her.

 Born in Berlin on August 3, 1902 to Wolf and Sara Jonas, Regina grew up in a poor, mostly Jewish neighbourhood, and felt called to the rabbinate early in life. Fellow students from her high school remember her talking about wanting to be a rabbi, and at that age she was already demonstrating a passion for Bible studies, Jewish history and Hebrew.

Growing up, these interests were encouraged by her teachers, among them, Orthodox rabbis such as Max Weyl, who was known for his open attitude regarding religious education for girls. In 1924 Jonas matriculated at The Academy for the Science of Judaism, which was also a rabbinical seminary. It admitted women as students, but only ordained men. Regina’s final thesis was entitled: “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” Submitted in June 1930, it is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women. On the first page of her thesis, Rabbi Jonas wrote: “I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it.”

In her thesis, Rabbi Jonas named and recognised  Jewish women who came before her, who did not hold the title of “rabbi”, but who nevertheless fulfilled rabbinical duties in different ways, and in different communities throughout history. These women, such as the scholar Beruryah, who is written about in the Talmud, and the daughters and granddaughters of the famous Torah commentator Rashi, were all involved in halakhic decision making in their time.

It is said that Rabbi Jonas’ thesis advisor, Rabbi Eduard Baneth, was prepared to ordain her himself, however he died shortly after her thesis was completed and his successor, Hanokh Albeck, was unwilling to ordain Regina, or any other woman for that matter. None of Regina’s other professors stood up for her. So when she graduated, it was as a religious teacher.

In 1933, when Jewish students in Germany had to leave the public school system, Jonas returned to her pursuit of rabbinic ordination. In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann, who was then the executive director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis, finally agreed to give Regina smicha on behalf of the Conference. On her diploma of ordination, Rabbi Dienemann wrote, “Since I saw that her heart is with the God of Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and (since) she passed her examination. . .  I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law, and is entitled to hold the rabbinic office. May God protect her and guide her on all her ways.”

This should have begin the beginning of an illustrious and history-altering career. But like so much of Jewish life, Regina’s rabbinic potential was cut short by the Holocaust. Rabbi Jonas began her career employed by the Jewish community of Berlin as a “pastoral-rabbinic counsellor” in its welfare institutions, and at the Jewish hospital. She also cared for the elderly, many of whose children had had no choice but to leave them behind, as they fled Nazi Germany.

As more and more rabbis were either imprisoned by the Nazis, or able to evade and escape them through emigration, Rabbi Jonas was able to fill the rabbinic needs of the communities left behind. Holocaust survivors from Berlin have reported that her sermons and pastoral work during this time were especially uplifting and encouraging.

In 1942 Rabbi Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstat. There, she continued serving as a rabbi, preaching and counseling alongside Viktor Frankl, who seemingly became her mentor, though he and the other German rabbis who knew her, failed to mention her or keep her history alive after the Holocaust was over. Yet, in the archives at Terezin the final remains of her rabbinic writings are preserved – a handwritten document summarising her religious worldview and legacy. She titled this document, “Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas”, and it listed twenty-four topics for lectures, followed by notes on a sermon that she had delivered in the camp.

Among these notes are the following words: “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. . . 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. . .  “

On October 12, 1944, Almost 10 years after fulfilling her lifelong dream to become a rabbi, Regina was deported to Auschwitz, also with her mother, and was likely murdered the same day.

This past year, the New York Times, published a series of obituaries called “Overlooked”, about remarkable people whose deaths, as far back as 1851, went unreported in The Times until now. Regina Jonas’ obituary in this series begins with these words: “When Regina Jonas studied at (seminary) … in the 1920s, every officially ordained rabbi the world had ever known had something in common: They had all been men. To be sure, women had had prominent roles in Judaism . . . Osnat Barzani, a Kurdish Jewish scholar and teacher in the 1600s, took on roles traditionally reserved for men, as did women in the 19th – and early 20th century America. . . “

Okay – wait a minute. Who were these women, and what happened to them?

If there are so many examples of fabulous women teachers and leaders in Jewish history – women who were noted to have led other women in prayer in the ezrat nashim (the women’s section) of medieval synagogues; women who composed prayers for other women, called ’techines’; women who married rabbis in eastern Europe, who rendered halachic decisions in the areas of family-purity and the kosher slaughtering of meat, then why did it take almost 2000 years for the rabbinate to include women? And why do we, still, almost never hear about these women?

Osnat Barzani, whom the Times obituary downplays, did far more than “take on roles traditionally reserved for men”. She was educated by her father who was the head of the yeshiva, and then, when her husband succeeded him, but was too busy with his own studies to manage all his duties, taught the students herself. When her husband died, she became the official head of the Yeshivah and chief teacher of Torah. The few writings of hers that have survived, demonstrate a complete mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, as well as Kabbalah, and her rabbinic missives were not only erudite, but also lyrical.

Barzani held the title of Tanna’it, which is actually  equivalent to a rabbinical title. Her father also used the title of “Tanna” rather than “Rabbi”,  so it is likely that this was simply the preferred title in Kurdistan in the 16th and 17th centuries. And yet, we do not trace the female rabbinate back to her.
The role of Head of the Yeshiva passed to Barzani’s son, and as far as we know, no woman followed in her footsteps. And so, over time, Barzani was lost to history, just as Jonas’ was. The men of her community did not pass down her story as history. Rather it was shared more as a form of folklore, until later historians deemed it worthy to be written down in discussions of Jewish female leaders who predated today’s “official” women rabbis.

Less than 15 years before Regina Jonas was born, a journalist named Mary M. Cohen, in Philadelphia, wrote a short story published in the Jewish newspaper asking the question: “Could not our women be ministers?” And yet, despite the women who came before this article, and the women who came after it, almost a century went by before mainstream Judaism answered “YES”.

In 1893, when a woman named Hannah Solomon organised the first Congress of Jewish Women in Chicago, many of the women involved in the conference were not strangers to leading Jewish prayer and study from podiums and pulpits. Several of them were experienced speakers, having appeared before large congregations throughout the United States.

Another American woman, Ray Frank, known as the ‘girl rabbi of the golden west.’ had also been preaching all over the country. She was, in fact, so popular that she needed an agent to manage her bookings!

Frank had studied at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where Sally Priesand (and later, myself) would, years later receive rabbinic ordination. Although the college seemed willing to ordain her, Ray Frank said it had never been her intention to become a rabbi.

How might history have been different if she had been ordained? Or if Barzani’s history had not be ignored? Or if Jonas had not been led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz? But instead of being able to trace women rabbis back to the 1600’s or the 1800’s, history, and women who aspired to be rabbis, had to wait.

Perhaps other women might have accepted the invitation that Ray Frank turned down,  but the First World War redirected the attention of the global population, and by the time a new generation of women arrived in the rabbinical seminaries of the 1920’s, everyone seemed to have forgotten what little progress had been made by Ray Frank and the women of her time.

Thus, while Jonas was struggling to achieve rabbinic ordination in Germany, four American women who shared her dream, entered Hebrew Union College with the intention of becoming Rabbis as well. But when they completed their studies, all four were refused ordination.

Again, the world broke out into war, and again, the world’s attention was drawn away from the issue of women on the pulpit. Regina Jonas became a rabbi, and died a rabbi, without anyone outside of Germany seeming to notice. And so when Sally Priesand and her contemporaries achieved ordination in the 1970’s and 80’s – they were hailed as “the firsts”.

Although Jonas was written about in the 1990’s, her story and career remained mostly unknown until 2014, when a group of pioneering women rabbis traveled to Germany to discover and honour her legacy.

It is known that there were twenty six other women who studied with Jonas at the seminary in Berlin. Because of the Holocaust, we will never really know if any of them also aspired to the Rabbinate. We will never really know what the rabbinate might have looked like if Jonas had survived, or if the women who came before her, had been able to continue to fight for female ordination, without history and patriarchy getting in their way. 

One person’s potential can change the world. Or, without them, the world can remain unchanged. This means that if any of us fail to live up to our potential, we might be robbing the world of meaningful change without even realising it.

Judaism teaches that we are created with an equal potential for good and for evil. Jewish text and tradition – Torah – serve to guide us toward choosing a life of good, making the most of our potential. And on Yom Kippur, we atone for the times when we have failed to do so.

As this afternoon of Yom Kippur passes, and the Gates of Repentance begin to close, let us be inspired by the stories of these women – the known details and the many missing pieces; let us be motivated by all the stories that never had the opportunity to be written; and let us work to achieve our potential, so that we each might bring meaningful change into the world.

If we fail to aspire to this, we do a disservice to the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas, and all the countless others throughout time who weren’t given the opportunity to achieve or complete their dreams. Whatever time we have, whatever privilege we have – let us make the most of it.

May their memories be a blessing to us and may their memories be the reason we continue to strive to be the best we can be in the year to come.

Kein Yehi Ratzon

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