Jewish archive reveals information on the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, who was ordained in the 1930s.
When Sally Priesand was ordained as a rabbi in the U.S. in 1972, everyone believed that she was the first ever female rabbi in history. But because of the recent German reunification, an obscure Jewish archive in East Berlin revealed that the real first female rabbi in the world lived during the early 20th century and became a victim of the Holocaust. Her name was Regina Jonas.
Regina Jonas was a Jewish German born in Berlin on August 3, 1902. Her family lived in Scheunenviertel, a poor neighborhood known for its mostly Jewish population. Young Regina’s interest in Judaism is said to have been an influence of her parents who together with her brother Abraham regularly visited the Rykestrasse Synagogue. The synagogue headed by Rabbi Max Weyl is noted for its modern orthodox views. Weyl was supportive in the idea that women may receive education, celebrate the bat mitzvah and should occupy higher roles in the synagogue. The rabbi also became an influence for Regina and the two would become close friends later on regularly meeting to study rabbinic literature.
Jonas manifested her desire to become a rabbi early on. She went to the Judische Madchen Mittelschule. After successfully passing Oberlyzeum Weissensee’s abitur in 1923, she eventually became a teacher. But her desire did not stop at becoming a Jewish religion teacher, she want to become a rabbi. In 1924, she enrolled at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a liberal Jewish institution. Though Jonas wanted to undergo training in an orthodox or traditional seminary, she knew that her chances of being ordained as a rabbi were higher at a liberal institution.
In 1930, she completed her training and received a “good” grade for her treatise or thesis. But her hopes of an ordination weren’t fulfilled because of the demise of her Talmud professor Eduard Baneth. No other rabbi and professor from the Hochschule wanted to ordain Jonas so she was left with no other choice than to become a Jewish teacher. Five years later, she found Rabbi Max Dienemann of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband or the Conference of Liberal Rabbis who eventually agreed to ordain her. Rabbi Dienemann agreed to ordain Jonas because “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.”
But even if Jonas had officially became a rabbi, there was no pulpit or congregation made available to her except for the Jewish hospitals, old age homes and prisons. Because of the rising Nazi regime, lives of Jews in the country became much harder and desperate. Those who could afford it fled from the country. Though Jonas and her mother had the opportunity to avoid persecution, she chose to stay and serve the suffering Jews. Because many Jews and rabbis had left, it eventually gave an opportunity for her to become the rabbi of the remaining but small communities of Jews.
In November 6, 1942, Jonas and her mother were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, a place where Jews are forced into labor by the Nazis. Together with Rabbi Leo Baeck and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, Jonas continued to help the Jews primarily by giving hope, uplifting the prisoners’ spirits and serving the weak and dying. After two years on October 12, 1944, she and her mother were eventually sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and perished in its gas chambers.
Jonas’ contribution to modern Judaism is contained in the handwritten documents titled “Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas”. Jonas is also noted for her thesis at the Hochschule entitled “Can A Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halakhic Sources?” In her research, there were really no prohibitions for women from becoming a rabbi. She explained that such prohibition was just a product of rabbinical interpretations and not something divine. Jonas later on pointed certain Jewish female figures that held halakhic decision making positions that are tantamount of becoming a rabbi or more.