Why Haven’t We Heard of the First Female Rabbi, Regina Jonas?

Can you name the first female rabbi? It’s a trick question, because almost 20 years ago, the answer changed. Most people familiar with the history of the rabbinate or Jewish feminism would proudly answer that the first female rabbi was Sally Preisand, who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1972. Recently retired, Rabbi Preisand served as a congregational rabbi in New Jersey for many years, and has been the pioneer who laid the groundwork for the rest of us. As it turns out, Rabbi Preisand has the distinction of being the first female rabbi ordained in the United States.

The woman who had the distinction of being the first female rabbi in the world, was Regina Jonas. This June, we celebrated the 65th anniversary of her rabbinic ordination. When we discussed Rabbi Jonas in a recent Shabbat service, someone asked a great question: Why has none of us ever heard of Regina Jonas? What is her place in Jewish history? Here, I’d like to share some of the story behind the story.

Regina Jonas was born in 1902 Berlin, to a poor family. Although the family practiced Orthodoxy, Regina was intrigued by a nearby liberal rabbi and congregation. Although Regina continued to live a traditional Jewish life, she was compelled to lead in a way that was not open to women at the time. Regina Jonas trained as a Jewish teacher and for her degree, she wrote a final paper that asked the question: “Can an Woman be a Rabbi?” Jonas concluded that barriers to women reflected prejudices from the Middle Ages and that Jewish law supported the ordination of women. So she began to seek out a rabbi or institution that would ordain her. Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis Association in the city of Offenbach, agreed to ordain her, December 25, 1935.

Rabbi Jonas was unable to find a congregation willing to hire a woman rabbi, so she served old-age homes and hospitals. In 1942, Rabbi Jonas was deported to Theresienstadt. There, she joined Vicktor Frankl’s effort to counsel, support and try to offer hope to the inmates. Rabbi Jonas’ particular role was to greet the new arrivals and orient them to the horror of a Nazi concentration camp. In 1944, Jonas was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1944.

For almost 50 years following the Holocaust, Rabbi Jonas’ story was lost. The famous Rabbi and Holocaust survivor Leo Baeck, who had sent Jonas a note of congratulations upon her ordination, and the famous psychologist and survivor Viktor Frankl, who had worked with Jonas in the camp, mention nothing of her in their later writings. Is this because Rabbi Jonas was a woman? Was she not Reform enough despite being a woman? Did she have too little social status? Or was she just another story, among millions, that was lost in the ashes? No one knows why Regina Jonas’ story was lost for so long. But, it has since been reclaimed.

After the Berlin Wall came down, the former East Berlin was opened up to scholars.  In 1991, documents were uncovered, detailing the life and work of Regina Jonas.  And so now, her story of Jewish commitment and study, devotion and leadership, perserverance and courage, is an inspiring part of our history.  And we celebrate and honor Rabbi Regina Jonas 65 years after her ordination.