Skip to content

Yom Kippur Transitions and Remembrances

I wish you each a Ketivah v’chatimah tovah! A good inscription and seal in the Book of Life. And for those of you that are fasting a Tzom Kal, an easy fast.
In May of 1972 Judaism went through a dramatic transition. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained its first woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand. This was a historical moment not only in the life of Reform Judaism but the entire Jewish world and in America. In the midst of the feminist revolution of the sixties and early 1970’s, Reform Judaism finally lived out its founding principles of equality between men and women in spiritual matters. The moment was hailed by liberal Jews world wide and condemned by Orthodox Judaism and even Conservative Judaism. Two years later in 1974 the Reconstructionist movement would ordain Rabbi Sandy Sasso. In 1975 Rabbi Jackie Tabick became Britain’s first female rabbi ordained by the Reform Movement there. Then in 1984 the Conservative movement jumped aboard a train that had already left the station. Rabbi Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. Each of these moments were transition moments in the history of Judaism. Fast forward to just a year ago when the Open Orthodox movement ordained its first rabbi, Rabbah Sarah Hurvitz. Plus there are a handful of other women who have been ordained in the Orthodox world, including here in Los Angeles, Reb Mimi Feigelson who teaches at the American Jewish University and my good friend, Rabbi Dina Najman who has her own pulpit in Riverdale, New York.
Each of these moments are holy moments, moments hailed by a community of Jews. For many of us it is hard to imagine Judaism without the voice of women as leaders both ordained and lay people.
This summer I went on a study mission with the American Jewish Archives and Jewish Women’s Archives and the first four American women rabbis to rediscover the life of Rabbiner (Rabbi) Regina Jonas. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and in particular the Berlin Wall, the story of Regina Jonas has been rediscovered. It turns out that the headlines in 1972 were wrong. Rabbi Priesand was not the first woman ordained ever. But the first in America. It turns out the Rabbi Regina Jonas was ordained in 1935 in Berlin.
A group of 20 of us Women Rabbis and Women Scholars, Reform Movement Lay leaders traveled together to rediscover her life and her contributions to the Jewish world and to dedicate a memorial plaque in her memory at Terezin, the model ghetto city of the Nazis where Rabbiner Jonas ministered for two years before her death in Aushwitz in 1944.
We gathered in Berlin, went to the house she grew up in. Today a plaque stands outside her home. We visited the remnants of the synagogue she taught and lectured in. We had an opportunity to read her letters and documents from the small archives that are left of her materials. And when I say small, I mean no higher than an inch. This coming year will be 80’s years since her ordination which is a story in itself.
Born in Berlin in 1912, her father died when she was a young girl. She was raised in poverty by her single mother. But she was a bright student and loved Judaism. According to her biographer Elisa Klapchik:
In 1924, she matriculated at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in Berlin in 1872. This liberal institution admitted women as students…but Jonas was the only woman who hoped to be ordained as a rabbi. All her fellow women students were studying for an academic teacher’s degree.
Eduard Baneth (1855–1930), professor of Talmud at the Hochschule and responsible for rabbinic ordination, was the supervisor of Jonas’s final thesis, which dealt with the topic “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women.
Jonas’s thesis received a grade of “good” (Praedikat gut). Soon thereafter, Eduard Baneth died and his successor, Hanokh Albeck (1890–1972), proved unwilling to ordain a woman. None of the other professors of the Hochschule raised their voices on this issue…. As a result, Regina Jonas graduated only as religious teacher. In the following years, she taught religion at several girls’ schools in Berlin, where she was known to be a very popular and committed teacher.
In 1933, the workload for Jewish teachers increased tremendously, since the students who had to leave public schools due to anti-Semitism not only needed Jewish knowledge, but also needed to learn to be proud of their Jewish heritage.
Nevertheless, Jonas continued to pursue ordination. Finally, in 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939), executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis) agreed to the ordination, on behalf of the Verband. 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. She has the heart of a rabbi.”
Jonas became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi. But soon the nightmare of the Shoa was upon them. As many Jews and rabbis fled the country and were rounded up-Rabbiner Jonas taught in many congregations, pastored the elders left in town after Kristallnacht and finally along with her mother was sent in 1942 to Terezin. There for two years, she taught and preached and held up the spirits of the Jews. She led worship and worked closely with Vicktor Frankel the great psychologist on a suicide watch in the camp.
In Terezin this summer, we saw the list of 24 lectures she gave while there. Lectures, adult education that you might have heard from me over the course of the years. Lectures on Shabbat and the holy days, Discussions about God and mitzvoth.
In a small sample of her writings that were left she writes:

Our Jewish people was planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to offer blessings, lovingkindness and loyalty, regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for His creatures, sustain the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world— man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones. May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future (and the future of humanity) … Upright ‘Jewish men’ and ‘brave, noble women’ were always the sustainers of our people. May we be found worthy by God to be numbered in the circle of these women and men … The reward of a mitzvah is the recognition of the great deed by God.

How could the world forget a woman like this? How by 1972, could the world forget a rabbi, a teacher, a compassionate Jew whose selfless devotion to our people eased their comfort and pain in a most tumultuous time: in a transition time of Jewish life?
Our mission this summer tried to atone for that loss of her dignity and memory. We gathered in Terezin to dedicate a memorial plaque to her. In a solemn ceremony, with dignitaries from both Germany and the Czech Republic, European Jewish community leaders and the first four American Rabbis of each stream along with several other leading Women Rabbis and Women Scholars we dedicated a memorial to her in the Kolumbarium at Terezin. With the child and grandchild of a child survivor of Terezin: Helga Weissova-Hoskova playing the music, we read Rabbiner Jonas own words chanted the El Maleh Rachamim, recited the Kaddish in her memory.
This holy and extremely moving spiritual moment that I experienced taught me a great lesson. And one that I wish to share with you this morning on Yom Kippur. Memory is a fragile thing. If we do not share our memories, our stories, our remembrances, it could be as if we never existed. We cannot build the future fully if the past is forgotten.
Clearly Rabbiner Jonas had an important impact on the people she met. At one of the darkest hours in the life of our people, she brought love and compassion and dignity to their lives-and yet by 1972 no one knew or spoke of her existence. The deep shadows of the Shoa wiped out the remembrance of Rabbiner Jonas. She died in Aushwitz in October 1944. Deported from Terezin on Oct 12 with her mother, she arrived by train in Aushwitz on Shabbat October 14, 1944, the 3rd of Cheshvan. Scholars believe she was gassed the same day, Shabbat Bereshit. That is why next Shabbat we will observe her yarzeit. So that we shall never again forget the incredible and important contributions of this tenacious, loving, brilliant, caring Rabbi of our people. While her ordination was a tremendous transition point for Judaism, the Shoa and its darkness and pain was also a transition point.
I tell you her story on this Yom Kippur morning because she is a hero. She imagined a future in a time of darkness. If we forget the past completely, as we did Rabbiner Jonas, we may miss some important understanding and teachings that could help us along the way to imagining our present and future.
And on holy days such a Yom Kippur we are commanded to remember the past precisely for this reason. We will recite the Yizkor service later on this morning. We will recall our loved ones memories, their lives, and everything about them. We pray that their teachings and guidance they gave us will help ground us in the New Year. For some of you it will be the only time you ever say Kaddish for them. Your lives are seemingly too busy to take a Shabbat to recite the prayer for their memorial. But my friends this is the way of forgetting the past and excising them from your present and future. But you have the power in your hands to keep memory and history alive by the choices you make and in doing so shape a bright Jewish future.
Judaism as a whole is in another huge transition moment. Our institutions are reeling from the changes in attendance patterns and support; in generational interests that differ from the past. The recent Pew study confirmed for us in leadership what we already knew that Jews were marching with their feet to a different drummer. They were marching away from the synagogue and affiliation in the community. In an increasingly secular America, Jews are increasingly secular and non-observant. Many call themselves spiritual not religious. Perhaps like some of you, once or twice a year is enough. But it is not enough to sustain institutions dedicated to Jewish life yearlong. On this holiest of days I ask to you to consider if Judaism has relevance in your day-to-day life, if the values and teaching of our traditions have impact upon your actions, if the rituals of our year and life cycle speak to you? I ask you to turn towards the Jewish people and community and amid this time of transition in Jewish culture is to re-create and re-imagine how the synagogue and other Jewish institutions function. How they are funded; how they look; and perhaps even what their missions are all about. But it isn’t only the institutions that must take stock; but each of us. I am asking each of you, challenging each of you to be a more committed and connected Jew.
At this holy season of turning, of teshuvah, let us repent for the sin of indifference to Jewish life and the life of our Jewish spirit. Individual Jews, each one of us at this season must look inside to see whether our own actions contribute to this dramatic transition in Jewish life.
In this time of Jewish transition, as the world is less than safe for Jews, the Jewish people needs each one of you and your families whether your spouse or children are Jewish or not. We need your connection and involvement. The Jewish community and the synagogue are going through transitions but we cannot and will not survive the dark forces of assimilation and annihilation that lurk ever so close if each of you absent yourselves from the process. The Jews of Berlin thought they were safe as well and although we ultimately have survived and thrived. Much was lost and much not remembered as Rabbiner Jonas’ story demonstrates.
There is one more transition at this season that we must make mention. And that is of our beloved Cantor Saltzman. After today he will transition to that glorious position of Cantor Emeritus. After more than 40 years of cantoring—(he has been doing this since he was a young teenager in Barstow). His transition to retirement from the active Cantorate is not the end of a relationship with all of us but a new phase. This is a transition for him, and for our temple. For many of us his voice carries our prayers heavenward and spirit embraces us. I know you join me in wishing him b’hatzlacha, success, rest, creativity, joy, and lots of time in Italy with Walter! But he will always be a part of us even as we transition eventually to new musical spiritual leadership.
Yom Kippur itself is about transitions. The transitions in each of you. From the person you were in the past year to the person you are yet to become. This holy day through our prayers, our remembrances, our teshuvah, and tzedakah, we can bring out the person who we always hoped to be, we can be born anew and we can with the right imagination heal ourselves and the relationships we have entered into so that they may blossom with vibrancy.
Jewish life is still rich and alive even with its many transitions. Like Jonas and Frankl who sought to make meaning out of that dark time, we too are searchers for meaning in our own day and time. We look to create a sense of belonging when there is none, a sense of hope when we are hopeless, a sense of goodness when there is evil in the world. That is our Jewish task and this is what we try to do as we today on Yom Kippur as we cleanse our souls of the traumas, sins, and imperfections that marred our daily life in the past year. God, help us start fresh, Help us remember that which we have forgotten, Help us face our future with hope and strength, and embolden us to think and act with You, God in mind. Help each one of us transition in this New Year to being a more active part of the Jewish people carrying on the covenant of our ancestors. As our Torah portion this morning will tell us. You stand commited before Adonai Your God this day, Atem Nitzavim Hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. Today we too must stand committed before our God to a life connected by our covenant to the Holy One of Blessing and a covenant to one another to strengthen our souls, our people, and ourselves. Ken Yehi Ratzon.