Thursday, December 2, 2021
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Jacques Chitayat: Regina Jonas: the First Female Rabbi

In modern Jewish communities, female rabbis are becoming more and more commonplace. Religious schools and modern Orthodox Yeshivas that welcome women attract a growing number of students. It is not rare, in fact, for passionate religiously-serious girls in Montreal to share their desire to study rabbinics in New York, where these modern Orthodox schools are numerous, to fulfill their dream of becoming rabbis. Many believe that this phenomenon is relatively new and a product of Reform Judaism. And for years, it was believed that the first female rabbi was Sally Priesand, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1972. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought to light previously sealed archives, the world discovered that the first female rabbi was in fact Regina Jonas, and Orthodox Jewish woman who lived in Germany around a century ago. Her remarkable story is one of bravery, persistence, and hardship.

According to the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, Jonas was born in a poor Jewish neighborhood of Berlin in 1902 and was raised in a very religious Orthodox household. Her father, a merchant, died of tuberculosis in 1913. We know little about her early years, other than that Regina’s parents gave their children a thorough religious education. With this inherited love for Judaism, she quickly realized that her calling was to become a rabbi. So much so that she often shared with her classmates her passion for Hebrew, Jewish history, and religion at the Orthodox Rykestraße synagogue’s Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule(Jewish Girls School) she attended.

At the time, there were three major streams of Judaism in Germany: the ultra-Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe who had settled in Germany, Germany’s own Orthodox community and German Liberal Judaism, which had created the Reform movement. To name some of the differences between the movements, the Orthodox movements insisted on respecting traditional religious and social practices, kept kashrut,Shabbat, and a close-knit religious community, prayed for the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and return of the Jewish people to their holy Land, and taught and used Hebrew in services.

On the other hand, the Reformists prayed using the local language, drifted away from many traditions such as food restrictions, traditional roles and praying for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (which is why their local synagogues were called “temples”), and wanted fully to assimilate—to become “Germans of the Hebraic persuasion”–to their host country (some even shifted the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, eschewed the wearing of kippoth, head-coverings, and used choirs and organs in services).

In this varied religious environment, Jonas’ ambitions were generally not well-met by her Orthodox community and Jewish authorities. However, her family, friends and teachers helped her pursue her goals.

Over the years, many German Orthodox rabbis who were open to religious education for girls took Jonas under their wings, such as Isidor Bleichrode, a rabbi of Berlin’s Frankfurter synagogue, Felix Singermann, one of the last rabbis of Berlin’s Lippman Tauss synagogue, which closed in 1937, and Max Weyl who officiated at the Orthodox Rykestraße synagogue that the Jonas family attended. This synagogue was considered at the time a “synthesis between tradition and present”, a particularly progressive establishment among Germany’s Orthodox Jewish community.

Thanks to Weyl, girls in his synagogue could receive a religious education and, and thirteen, celebrate their bat mitzvah. Information found within the Yad Vashem archives indicates that teacher and student became great friends, and would meet twice a week to discuss Judaism and study Talmudic as well as other rabbinic literature. Weyl recognized her talents and her strong passion and guided her as much as possible in her ambitions.

When she turned twenty, Jonas earned a degree permitting her to teach Judaism in a Berlin girls’ school. She also joined the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (c School for the Scientific Study of Judaism”, in 1924. This pioneering religious institution, which regularly admitted women, had from the early nineteenth century on adopted a “scientific”, rational and secularizing approach to Judaism, and was connected to other assimilationist circles out of which had emerged German Reform Judaism. Notable products of this institution were Martin Buber, an Austrian-Jewish existentialist philosopher, and German-Jewish theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, whom were, together, the first to translate the Tanakh, he Hebrew Bible,  entirely into modern German. Whereas in the Wissenschaft her classmates studied to become teachers, Jonas was the only one working towards becoming a rabbi.

In 1930, she submitted her ground-breaking final thesis: She was the first to argue hat women could become rabbis based on Halakha (Jewish law). She differed on this point from both the Reform movement, which aimed to modernize by abandoning the Halakha and Orthodoxy, which considered gender equality incompatible withHalakha. Jonas disagreed.  Instead, she deduced gender equality from Jewish legal sources, arguing how a female rabbinate would ensure a continuity of tradition: Halakhic literature, she states, often addresses women’s issues, and many women in history, although not officially rabbis, fulfilled rabbinical functions and played important roles in halakhic interpretation and decision-making.

She went as far as to consider female rabbis a cultural necessity, since personality traits typically required for rabbis were “female qualities”: compassion, social skills, psychological intuition and the ability to communicate with young people. She also believed that rabbis in Germany had to embrace new duties. In her thesis, of which excerpts are available in the Yad Vashem archives, she writes:

“Aside from studying, teaching and paskan [ruling halakhically]today’s rabbi is also a preacher in the synagogue and on special occasions. Now the question arises: can the woman as a rabbi also fulfill these tasks? To answer this question, one must define the sermon, as there is no halachic material on the sermon as such available in the sources. I believe one may understand the sermon as teaching the community. […]  This brings one to the points […] of so-called “pastoral care”. That women can and do work for others with tact, sympathy, and a sense of sacrifice need not be demonstrated from the historical past and in the present; what the Talmud says and what other passages add on this have been mentioned often in this work. Welfare, care, the ability to speak and hold community evenings already have been enriched by her contribution and her independent actions. That her ability lies particularly in caring for youth almost goes without saying. After all, the Talmud ascribes to her insight into human nature and gentleness and armed with these abilities she is capable of easing the pains and fears and hardships of their lives.” (Jonas, 1930, Yad Vashem Archives)

In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann, an influential Liberal rabbi and head of the Rabbinical Association of Germany, agreed to ordain Regina Jonas as a rabbi, despite protests from both within and without the Liberal Rabbis’ Association. She was ordained on December 27th1935, effectively making her the first of her kind.

At first, Berlin’s Jewish community was not welcoming. She applied to work at the Neue Synagogue, one of Germany’s most important synagogues, and was turned down. She had to look for work outside of Berlin, and found support from the WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), enabling her to work as a chaplain in some Jewish social institutions. Unfortunately, the condition of Jews in Germany at the time (Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933) quickly brought a change to her stable situation. The Nazis’ antisemitic laws restricted the rights of Jews and of community activity, prompting many to flee the country. Besides being the only female rabbi, Jonas also displayed great bravery, differing from other rabbis – some of whom were imprisoned, while others escaped – by refusing to leave the community she had dedicated herself to her whole life.

Given the subsequent shortage of rabbis, Rabbi Jonas showed a remarkable willingness to dedicate herself entirely to Germany’s Jewish community. She filled rabbinical positions in Berlin as well as in neighboring cities: in Jewish hospitals, various Liberal synagogues and giving lectures for the WIZO, other Jewish groups and sisterhoods. She preached during daytime services (Shacharit) at the Neue Synagogue, now willing to hire her. The official Berlin Jewish community employed her as pastoral-rabbinic counselor in various welfare institutions, such as the Jewish Hospital. Even as Nazi laws made it increasingly hard for Jonas to hold services in a proper house of worship, she continued rabbinical work, teaching and holding impromptu services.

Jonas also well used her teaching skills, teaching Judaism with joy and passion to children. Well-known for her generosity, Rabbi Jonas would, according to the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, often visit patients in hospitals and go out of her way to support Jews whose financial situation had gone up in flames after Kristallnacht (1938),

Together with all European Jews, her dreams were ultimately shattered. As the 1940s began and the persecution of Jews ramped up exponentially, Rabbi Jonas showed remarkable and inspiring bravery. Jews were forced to labor in factories, Jonas included. Amidst brutally relentless conditions, she led services and sermons for these workers. Survivors who experienced her sermons recall how uplifting and encouraging they were, even during such times.

In 1942, Regina and her mother were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, along with writer and friend Viktor Frankl. Enduring inhumane conditions, she continued working as a rabbi, preaching to and counselling   her fellow inmates. Impressively, she along with other Jewish intellectuals ensured a vibrant cultural and religious life in Theresienstadt. In the confines of the ghetto, Jews created art, wrote and performed music and held intellectual discussions and lectures, helping them rise above the daily hardship. However, this perceived liberty in the ghetto was artificial: The Germans permitted a certain degree of cultural life, artistic freedom and religious observance for propaganda purposes, broadcasting footage of Theresienstadt to mislead Jews, and the world, about the existence of the Final Solution.

In the end, almost all Jews of this ghetto were eventually sent to Auschwitz. Nonetheless, an astounding 2,300 lectures were given over the years by this group of prominent Jews, including Regina. In fact, one flyer from Theresienstadt still exists today: titled “Lectures by the only female rabbi, Regina Jonas,” it lists the 24 lectures she gave in the ghetto, which dealt with the history of Jewish women, Talmudic topics, Biblical themes, pastoral issues, and introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and holidays.

Tragically, Regina Jonas did not escape the fate of millions of other European Jews. On October 12, 1944 she and her mother were deported to Auschwitz and were probably murdered the day they arrived. Her lifelong journey as a rabbi was brutally shortened.

For decades after the war, history forgot Regina Jonas. Those who knew her story either did not survive or, strangely, did not speak of her. Fortunately, before she was deported from Berlin, Regina had had the foresight to deposit her papers, letters, and correspondence, two pictures of herself and her rabbinical ordination certificate in the Berlin Jewish archive. However, after the war, they were transferred to an obscure Jewish archive depository in East Berlin. Sealed and unknown, they remained inaccessible to the general public. For this reason, she was seldom mentioned by historians. This explains why Sally Priesand was considered for years the first female rabbi.  It was only when those previously hidden archives became accessible that Jonas’ story was, finally, rescued from oblivion.

Fortunately, memory of her has survived and spread.   Regina Jonas remains a prime example of an individual who embodies the best values of Judaism: its ability to thrive under hardship and create beauty amidst ugliness; its love of knowledge and education, its rootedness in community, and its generosity. She serves as a model inspiring Jews to give to their community, expressing their love of learning, and   women to pursue their goals, even and especially in dark times.

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