[Forgotten Women] Rabbi Regina Jonas

This is the first part of a series on Al Miraah featuring forgotten women in which we tell the stories of groundbreaking women whose names are so often excluded from history.

Read part two: Lubna of Cordoba


Regina Jonas
Regina Jonas (via Jewish Women’s Archive)

In 1972, Sally Priesland was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and pronounced the ‘first ever female rabbi’. What was not known at the time, however, is that one remarkable woman had preceded her and had been ordained four decades earlier. Her name was Regina Jonas, and she was killed, along with so many others, in Auschwitz in 1944. Very little is known about her, and it is unlikely that we will ever be able to discover more. It was purely coincidental that her records were found in the obscure Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden (The Archive of German Jews) in East Berlin in the 1990s. These records only became accessible after the wall came down, which explains why she was only rediscovered nearly half a century after her untimely death.

Jonas was born on 3 August 1902, in Berlin into an Orthodox Jewish family. Not much is known about her early life, other than the fact that her aspirations to become a rabbi began at an early age. She attended the Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule (Jewish Middle School for Girls) and excelled in all subjects pertaining to Judaism and Jewish culture. At this school she was under the tutelage of the moderately Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Max Weyl, who encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. Weyl became her mentor, and they met once a week to discuss and study rabbinic literature together up until his deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Jonas obtained her teacher’s degree, in 1924 allowing her to teach Jewish theology at girls’ schools in Berlin. Yet her ambitions reached further than that, so that same year she enrolled herself at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin to actively pursue her rabbinic ordination. She was under the supervision of Eduard Baneth, professor of Talmud, for her final thesis titled ‘May a Woman hold Rabbinic Office?’. In this paper, she aimed to find a halakhic [1] basis for the ordination of female rabbis. A copy of her thesis has been preserved and can be found at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. Her thesis was awarded the grade ‘good’ (gut), yet Baneth died shortly afterwards and, sadly, his successor, Hanock Albeck, refused to ordain a woman.

Jonas did not give up, and in 1935, she finally found someone willing to ordain her. Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis), oversaw the ordination. Her diploma of ordination reads: ‘Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways’. [2]

Despite reaching this goal, she was not given her own congregation, unlike her fellow male rabbis. She continued teaching during the few years that were left to her. The few surviving accounts of her life post-1935 describe her as being passionate and dedicated. Unlike many German Jews she refused to leave the country, but preferred serving the German Jewish communities she loved so dearly, as well as care for her elderly mother whom she did not want to uproot so late in life. As more rabbis began to flee Germany or were arrested, Jonas took their place and worked as a travelling rabbi, visiting congregations and communities that no longer had their own rabbi.

Her most remarkable work, however, did not start until 1942. Shortly before her deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto, she deposited her papers, letters, two photographs of herself, and her rabbinical ordination certificate, into the Berlin Jewish archive. From there, these would be transported to the archive in East Berlin where they were eventually found in the 1990s. Jonas was deported on 6 November 1942, and this is when, quite remarkably, she reached her full potential as a rabbi and teacher. One of the many things she did was meet shocked and traumatised deportees as soon as they came off the trains. She offered guidance, counselling, and comfort to these people whose sense of normalcy had been ripped from them, and took her time to explain to them what life in the ghetto was like in order to lessen the shock. In addition to this, she was part of a group of 520 people who organised lectures to ensure that cultural life continued to flourish amidst the hardships of the ghetto. She also gave a number of lectures on a wide range of topics related to Judaism and Jewish life. All that remains is a flyer from Theresienstadt listing the 24 topics she lectured on, entitled ‘Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas’. [3]

Other than this, very little is known about Jonas’ time in Theresienstadt. She and her mother were deported to Auschwitz on 12 October 1944. She was murdered on 12 December 1944, aged 42. [4]

What is curious to note about Regina Jonas is that, in spite of her courage, tireless effort, and expertise, she was so easily forgotten by history. Like so many others, she has been marginalised by history because of her gender. Despite everything that she achieved in a relatively short period, as a woman, she was not deemed worthy of being remembered by the history books. What is peculiar, to say the least, is that Rabbi Leo Beck and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, who worked alongside her in Theresienstadt and survived the war, never mentioned her after the Holocaust. Even when Sally Priesland was pronounced the ‘first female rabbi ever’, they kept mum. Sadly we will never know their reasons for doing so.

The problem with history is that it is mostly written by men, and about men’s activities in the public sphere. Very often women are excluded from history, and are not deemed historically “worthy” of a mention. Which is why it is of the utmost importance that the story of Regina Jonas, as well as the stories of countless other women forgotten by history, needs to be told. Because their accomplishments are just as important as those of their male contemporaries, and their stories just as worthy.

Footnotes:
[1] According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “the legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.”
[2] Elisa Klapheck, Regina Jonas. Jewish Women’s Archive (1 March 2009).
[3] Elisa Klapheck, Regina Jonas. Jewish Women’s Archive (1 March 2009).
[4] Regina Jonas: The First Woman Rabbi in the World, haGalil.com.

Sources:
Liz Elsby. I shall be what I shall be” – The Story of Rabbiner Regina Jonas. The International School for Holocaust Studies (Viewed on 22 December 2014).
Elisa Klapheck. Regina JonasJewish Women’s Archive. 1 March 2009 (Viewed on 2 January 2015).
Eric Marx, Remembering Regina Jonas. Al Jazeera America. 5 August 2014 (Viewed on 29 December 2014).
Regina Jonas, The First Female Rabbi in the World. haGalil.com (Viewed on January 2, 2015).


Philippa Raphet Meeng

Philippa Raphet Meeng holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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2 thoughts on “[Forgotten Women] Rabbi Regina Jonas

  1. JoshKrulwich (זיו אדיר) January 3, 2015 / 7:37 PM

    Reblogged this on בלוג של זיו אדיר and commented:
    It was great that the story of the first female rabbi is told. It’s interesting (not to judge either way) that she was ordained with the words about Jewish law that have been ignored by many non-orthodox rabbis today.

    ‘Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways’. [2]

    Like

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