In the Footsteps of Rabbi Regina Jonas

Dr. Zola and the Four Pioneers at plaque dedication ceremony
Dr. Zola and the Four Pioneers at plaque dedication ceremony

By Dr. Gary P. Zola

One month ago, I was standing in the Terezin Memorial in Terezinstadt – the former Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic. There, dozens of people had gathered from around the world to dedicate a plaque in memory of the world’s first female rabbi – Rabbi Regina Jonas – who was ordained in 1935, and then murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. I was representing the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, which sponsored this special ceremony.

Rabbi Jonas was deported to Terezinstadt in 1942 from Berlin, yet she continued her ministry there by providing mental-health care to her fellow prisoners – helping them cope with the shock of the horrific experiences that they experienced there daily.

As I approached the podium to offer my remarks, I recall thinking that Rabbi Jonas – whose formidable courage and indomitable spirit remained unbroken to the very end of her days, even in the face of unspeakable evil – could, these many years hence – still teach us and help us to repair and even inspire our chaotic world.

The ceremony at the Terezin Memorial happened to coincide with an expansive outbreak of bitter political conflicts that rage anew all across the globe. And here in the United States, we have been subjected to more and more incidents of incivility, mean-spiritedness and, in some instances, untampered cruelty. As a historian, I believe that that we study the past so that we will gain a greater perspective on life. At its best, history enables us to discover lessons that may well be put to use as we navigate contemporary issues, disputes, and controversies.

The rediscovery in the late 1980s of Rabbi Jonas’ previously lost papers has given new resonance to her once silenced voice; a voice of wisdom, insight and guidance from which all peoples who cherish equality, justice and freedom can learn much.
Regina Jonas’s life  –  her struggles and her attainments  – constitute, above all else, an inspiring tribute to the grandeur of the human spirit. Indeed, Rabbi Jonas’s most enduring legacy is found in her inspiring assurance that a truly earnest, selfless, and noble cause is utterly and always indefeasible. The voices of noble human beings who rouse our spirits, inspiring us to pursue the ideals of righteousness and justice, of goodness and hope, can never be annulled or voided or undone.

Those who championed the greatest achievements in the history of civilized society – the pursuit of liberty of conscience, the drive toward political emancipation, the struggle for the abolition of slavery, the campaign for suffrage, the triumph of democracy over autocracy – testify to the veracity of this assertion. Rabbi Regina Jonas’s life exemplifies this same truth. There can be little doubt she was cognizant of these ideals, and her rabbinate bespoke her intentional commitment to this determination. This is why she declared: “God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given.”

Rabbi Jonas’ personal legacy concomitantly represents the embodiment of the same lofty ideals that our founders implanted into America’s ethos: “All human beings have been created equal,” they insisted, and every human being born into this world is imbued with the natural rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rabbi Jonas not only embodied these cherished American ideals, she literally advocated for them. These are her words:

  • “One [should take] woman and man for what they are: human beings”; and,
  • “ … the searching and penetrating human mind … will guide the destiny of the mortal from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity.”

It should also be noted that Rabbi Jonas fervently believed that all learning is purposeful. We imbue our lives with significance when we learn in order to do. Or, as she taught: “Learning is a commandment which applies to men and women in the same way. Learning, however, is not pure theory. At the end of learning lies the deed.”

So what does this mean for all of us living in 2014? It means that if we hope to make our world a better place for all, we must work harder to apply our knowledge to causes that uphold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – always asking ourselves “what helpful deed lies at the end of the learning we acquire?”

Surely the essential meaning of this “helpful deed” comes to us from words spoken by David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, whose simple but searing exhortation all of us: “Let us never, never live in the past, but let the past always live within us.”

Finally, it should be noted that the dedication ceremony honoring Rabbi Jonas was hosted by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, for the government of the people of the United States of America and, indeed, as a sign for good people everywhere who fulfill Rabbi Jonas’s conviction that together, we – men and women – will one day “guide the destiny of the mortal from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity.”

Dr. Gary P. Zola is Executive Director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

The mission of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad mission it is to preserve and protect cemeteries, monuments, and historical buildings associated with the foreign heritage of United States Citizens.
Among the travelers on the trip to Terezin (and participants in the dedication ceremony) were the three American women rabbis who were the first ordinees of their denominations; and the first Orthodox woman to be ordained “Rabba”: Rabbi Sally Priesand (Reform) – Hebrew Union College, 1972; Rabbi Sandy Sasso (Reconstructionist) – Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 1974; Rabbi Amy Eilberg (Conservative) – Jewish Theological Seminary, 1985; and Rabba Sara Hurwitz (Orthodox) – ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, 2009.