The First Woman Rabbi: Bringing Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas into our Past and our Future

Regina Jonas in a photograph presumed to have been taken after 1939. Her stamp on the back of the photograph bears the compulsory name of "Sara," which all Jewish women had to bear after 1939 and reads "Rabbi Regina Sara Jonas." Institution: Stiftung "Neue Synagoge Berlin - Centrum Judaicum," Berlin. Photo courtesy JWA.
Regina Jonas in a photograph presumed to have been taken after 1939. Her stamp on the back of the photograph bears the compulsory name of “Sara,” which all Jewish women had to bear after 1939 and reads “Rabbi Regina Sara Jonas.”
Institution: Stiftung “Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum,” Berlin. Photo courtesy JWA.

By Karla Goldman

This Shabbat, for the second year, Jewish congregations across the United States and the world are being asked to recall the yahrzeit of Regina Jonas, the first ordained woman rabbi. Jonas was murdered at Auschwitz soon after she was deported from Theresienstadt on October 12, 1944. The effort to add memorialization of Jonas to the practice of contemporary Jews represents both tribute and challenge to the story we tell about women rabbis.

The ordination of women marked a radical departure from centuries of male Jewish religious leadership. Although most of us identify this transformation with late twentieth-century American Judaism, Jonas’ trailblazing ordination actually took place in 1935 Germany. Only a few months after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship and a long list of other rights, Rabbi Max Dieneman ordained Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas in a private ceremony in the town of Offenbach. Inevitably, Jonas’s rabbinate became defined by the era in which she lived and died. She found her calling serving a community facing accelerating legal burdens and persecution. Soon enough, she and those she served faced deportation and ultimately annihilation in Nazi concentration and death camps.

The story of Regina Jonas, then, combines two central narratives of twentieth-century Jewish history. On the one hand, she pioneered Jewish female religious leadership. On the other hand, her unlikely rabbinate intersected with the most systematic destruction of any group in world history. By combining female empowerment and brutal genocide in one singular story, the life and death of Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas push us to reframe our own relationship to and understanding of these larger narratives.

Until recently Jonas’ story was barely included in either of these stories. In part, her leadership during the worst of times was cloaked by the anonymity of victimhood she shared with millions of co-religionists. Moreover, even as the outlines of her career began to emerge, those who might feel most connected to her story struggled to incorporate her story into their own.

As biographer Elise Klapchek has documented, glimpses of Jonas’s work under Nazi rule do appear in oral histories of survivors who remembered her as a teacher or rabbi in Berlin or at Theresienstadt. Her unique role in Jewish history seems to have been completely obscured, however, until Sally Priesand, pursuing rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, brought the question of women rabbis into public view. As Priesand moved toward ordination, two scholars now also in Cincinnati – but who had been at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin with Jonas – found occasion to recall Jonas and to correct those pointing to Priesand as the soon-to-be first woman rabbi.

My own notebook from a HUC-JIR class, taught in fall 1988 by the eminent historian of Reform Judaism, Michael A. Meyer, captures most of what we knew about Jonas at that time with a single phrase: “privately ordained in Gy.” In addition, I learned that she had worked with the community under the Nazis and died in the Holocaust. One of the former Hochshule professors had also related that Jonas had written a rabbinical thesis on the question of whether women could serve as rabbis.

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened new possibilities for adding to this limited store of knowledge. When, scholar Katherina von Kellenbach found a small box containing the papers of Regina Jonas in an East German archive in 1991, Jonas’s improbable career seemed poised to enter the fuller light of day. But even as women in European Jewish communities began turning to Jonas as foremother and role model, American Jews have had difficulty integrating Jonas into what has seemed to us a mostly American story.

This habit of marginalizing Jonas was surfaced and challenged by a summer 2014 trip, sponsored by the American Jewish Archives and the Jewish Women’s Archive, which brought the “first” American women rabbis of different denominations into direct contact with Jonas’s story. This journey – which included Priesand, along with other female rabbi pioneers Sandy Sasso (Reconstructionist, ordained in 1974), Amy Eilberg (Conservative, 1985), and Sara Hurwitz (ordained as an orthodox rabba in 2009) – led to the current effort to institutionalize Jonas’s yahrzeit and to connect contemporary Jews with her story.

As the trip to Berlin and Theresienstadt progressed, it was profoundly moving to watch the faces of the American rabbinical pioneers. Again and again they encountered something in Jonas’s story that resonated with their own experience, making them realize they had been unknowingly following in her path all along.

Take Sally Priesand. As girls, both Jonas and Priesand, oblivious to conventional expectations, settled upon the idea of becoming a rabbi. They both entered institutions that welcomed women planning on teaching careers, but were unprepared for a young woman hoping to be a rabbi. Neither saw themselves as part of a broader movement or as role models for other women. Both articulated the feeling that the commitment demanded of them as female religious leaders in the Jewish community would leave no room for creating families of their own. The death of Jonas’s thesis advisor, just prior to his anticipated certification of her ordination, recalled one of the central tropes of Priesand’s ordination story. HUC-JIR President Nelson Glueck , who had committed himself to ordaining Priesand, died during her last year of study. Glueck’s successor, Alfred Gottschalk, fulfilled Glueck’s promise. Jonas was not so lucky with Baneth’s successor as Talmud professor at the Hochchule.

Coming closer to Jonas’s story helped trip participants see beyond the Holocaust narrative to the complex texture of her struggle and triumphs. Details of the way that the Berlin Jewish establishment marginalized Jonas even as they became increasingly dependent upon her skills as a pastor, for instance, resonated with those among her successors who had also encountered significant communal obstacles to their leadership.

The groups’ identification with Jonas’s passion, perseverance, and commitment climaxed with a glimpse of Jonas’s time at Theresienstadt. Among the many relics of the astounding cultural life created by camp inmates, there is a list of themes for twenty-four lectures delivered by Jonas, identified as “the only female rabbi.” Some of these, like “The Responsibility of Jews to Each Other in Terezin,” reflect the grim challenges of that time. Others, even in German, popped off the page to rabbis who had often addressed the very same themes regarding the role of women in Judaism, in the Bible, or in the Talmud. Suddenly, in a space so removed from their own reality, there was a thrill of recognition and identification.

When Priesand embarked upon her rabbinic studies in 1964, she, like Jonas, was bent on an individual quest. By the time of her 1972 ordination, history had caught up with her. The advent of feminism connected her to waves of women breaking into a myriad of male-defined fields. Women who followed Priesand and her pioneering colleagues into the rabbinate have been strengthened by their examples, as the pioneers themselves have been strengthened by those who followed them.

In her lifetime, Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas was always “the only female rabbi.” But now, in a way, history has caught up with her too. The request to American congregations of every denominational stripe to add Jonas’s memory to those they memorialize on Shabbat Bereshit represents an invitation to strengthen ourselves as we preserve Jonas’s legacy. May we stand both humbled and challenged by the example of her courage, commitment, and learned devotion to Jewish values and community. May we take this opportunity not only to preserve, but also to continue her story.

Materials for commemorating the story of Regina Jonas can be found on the website of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. She serves on the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive.