This Shabbat–Shabbat Bereshit, is the yarzeit, (the anniversary of the death) of the first ordained woman rabbi, Regina Jonas. She died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis. Born in Berlin in 1902, Jonas died in October of 1944 after being deported from Terezin Concentration Camp to Auschwitz Death Camp. Jonas was ordained in 1935 in a private ordination ceremony after completing her studies and dissertation. She had been a teacher and attended the famed German, liberal seminary Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, She wrote her thesis on “Can a woman be a Rabbi according to Halachik sources?” She combed through complex Talmudic arguments showing how indeed women could be ordained. But her Talmud professor refused to ordain her. She was ultimately ordained on 27 December 1935. Regina Jonas received her semicha and was ordained by the liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, who was the head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association, in Offenbach am Main.Jonas found work as a chaplain in various Jewish social institutions while attempting to find a pulpit.
In November of 1942 she was deported by the Nazis to Terezin and worked there with the great Dr. Viktor Frankel helping fellow Jews. She gave lectures, taught Torah classes there.
Her story was forgotten for many years.
I had the privilege of rediscovering her story on a pilgrimage to Germany and the Czech Republic with the American Jewish Archives and Jewish Women’s Archive several years ago. That special trip included many leading women rabbis including the American Firsts :Rabbi Sally Priesand, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Sandy Sasso and Maharat Sara Hurwitz plus many others of us the first women rabbi in England Rabbi Jackie Tabak, the first woman rabbi working in Israel, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon and other of us from the US, Israel, and Europe.
Rabbi Jonas, story was almost erased from history. But we reclaim it. And we honor her life, scholarship, leadership, innovation, service to our people and God and we bless her memory. May her teachings and life continue to inspire us all.
“Our Jewish people is sent from God into history as ‘blessed.’ This means that wherever one steps in every life situation, bestow blessing, goodness and faithfulness — humility before God’s selflessness, whose devotion-full love for his creatures maintains the world.” – Rabbiner Regina Jonas