Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell the Story.
by Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Sandy Sasso, ordained in 1975, the first woman rabbi in the Reconstructionist movement, opened her remarks [last Wednesday evening] with a quote from a Mary Oliver poem: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell the story.” It was a panel organized to honor the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman in history to be ordained a rabbi. Participating were the modern pioneers, the first women to be ordained in their respective movements, each of whom told her story. Rabbi Sally Priesand, ordained in 1972 by HUC-JIR ; Rabbi Amy EIlberg, ordained in 1985 by JTS, Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, ordained in 1975 by Leo Baeck College, Rabbi Alina Treiger, Germany’s first modern woman rabbi, ordained at the Geiger institute in Berlin in 2010, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of Jonas’ ordination; and, on the phone from Jerusalem because Ben Gurion airport had been closed due to the escalating conflict with Gaza, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained in 2009, the first woman to be ordained by an Orthodox institution. In the audience were other European women rabbis serving in Germany and Poland as well as the first woman rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon. I was part of the delegation of women and men from the United States organized by the American Jewish Archives and the Jewish Women’s Archives – rabbis, Jewish scholars, lay leaders.
The next day we traveled to Terezin where we dedicated a plaque to the memory of Rabbi Jonas as part of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Hebrew Union College. It reads:
Regina Jonas (1902-1944) the first woman rabbi in history, spoke these words in a sermon at Terezin. Born in Berlin, Jonas was ordained in 1935. She served the Jewish community of Berlin in a rabbinical capacity from 1937 through November 1942 when she was deported to Terezin. With extraordinary spiritual strength, she continued to preach uplifting sermons, give lectures and provide pastoral care to her fellow prisoners. In October 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.”
The ceremony concluded with El Maleh Rachamim chanted in her memory. It asked that the soul of Ha Rav Malka Reyna bat Ze’ev Wolf v’ Sarah find perfect peace. It was the first time that prayer was sung for her. You could feel her soul soar.
Why didn’t any of the rabbis or others who survived who knew her tell her story? Were they ambivalent about her because she was a woman? Were they just so focused on surviving the trauma of the Shoah that her story didn’t matter? We’ll never know. Her story only came to light after the fall of the Berlin Wall when her papers were discovered in an East German archive. We saw those papers. There are just a few, really, with a handful of pictures and a copy of her thesis entitled “Can A Woman Be A Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Among the papers is a ordination document written on behalf of the Liberal Rabbinic Association by its leader Rabbi Max Dienemann. Terezin has a few of her papers as well, including a handwritten list of the topics she lectured on in Terezin, including women in the Bible, women in the Talmud, and Jewish holidays and beliefs.
Each of us women rabbis have given talks with the same names … under such different circumstances.
All of the pioneer rabbis are standing on the shoulders of Rabbi Jonas. She had been totally alone, independently ordained, unsupported by most of the Jews around her. As I listened to the stories of these modern pioneers, I wondered: could Rabbi Jonas even have imagined us? Could she have imagined the rebirth of Jewish life in Europe and the role of so many young women rabbis in nurturing that renewal? Could she have imagined the flowering of Jewish scholarship from gifted women academics or the number of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and, in the not so distant future, Orthodox woman rabbis? Could she have imagined the way feminism has totally transformed Jewish life so that women’s experience is no longer marginal and that women’s stories are fully part of the larger Jewish story?
The American Jewish Archives and the Jewish Women’s Archives are trying to determine the date of her death so we can say Kaddish for her. It is most likely the day or the day after she arrived at Auschwitz. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, we will read her name every year on her yartzeit. Her memory is a blessing.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell the story.
Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Hartman Institute, and a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University from where she graduated in 1971. Rabbi Geller was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1976, the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi.