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Centennial: Regina Jonas The First Woman Rabbi

Regina Jonas was born 100 years ago to an Orthodox family in Berlin’s worst slum. How did she come, 30 years later, still an Orthodox Jew, to be studying for ordination as the first woman rabbi? Elisa Klapheck, editor of Berlin’s Jewish monthly, has published a biography of Jonas which answers the question (Fraulin Rabbiner Jonas: Kann die Fran das rabblnische Amt bekleiden?).

Even as a little girl, Regina told her friends that when she grew up she was going to be a rabbi. The 1920s and 1930s were a high point of European feminism, when women entered fields formerly closed to them. Regina was first certified as a teacher, and financed her further education by teaching Hebrew and religion. She began to study at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, and began lecturing around 1924. One of her themes was that the “Jewishly lonely” soul could find its way back into Judaism through symbols—seeing a lulav or hearing a shofar.

Jonas insisted that at the end of her studies she would take the rabbinical exam. She took all required exams and submitted two lengthy dissertations—a Biblical one on Rashi, and a halakhic one on the issue of a woman’s fitness to “clothe” the office of rabbi. Then her teacher died unexpectedly, and his successor categorically refused to ordain a woman.

However, Leo Baeck, who presided over the Orthodox rabbinate, did give her a certificate to preach, which she did in various parts of the country during the early 1930s. She also taught at girls’ high schools, and produced an annual Hanukkah play she wrote, which stressed the roles of powerful women such as Hannah, Esther, and Deborah.

Before the Nazis came to power, Jonas was referred to in sarcastic terms by the Jewish press and the Jewish community. Beginning in 1933, ironically, her role expanded as Jewish schools had to admit an overflow of Jewish children, who were no longer permitted in public schools. And in outlying places where the rabbis had either fled the country or been arrested or murdered, there was great need for preachers offering hope and strength to the remaining Jews.

In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann declared that he was ready to give Jonas the oral exam leading to rabbinical ordination. He tested her and certified in the official document that she could treat the pros and cons of religious issues. He declared her fit to be a rabbi.

Professor Harry Torczyner, who had taught her Bible, wrote from Jerusalem: “Thank God, I don’t have to tackle such delicate halakhic problems as that which you put before us all those years: may a woman be a rabbi. Now you are.”

Jonas, who was Orthodox, never had a pulpit of her own. While she found support from a liberal faction within the Berlin Jewish community, others referred to her mockingly as “Miss Rabbi.” However, in 1936 the community gave Jonas a job taking care of the souls of patients in hospitals and homes for the aged. She tried to get permission to minister to incarcerated women. And as more and more rabbis were arrested, murdered, or driven from the country, she was finally given the opportunity to preach. Her steady theme was the mission of the Jewish people: no matter what others did, Jews had been sent into the world to teach pure love of God. The difficulties of the times were to be viewed as tests of Jewish virtue and steadfastness.

Jonas rejected all suggestions that she try to flee. Instead, she cared for her poor people (sometimes writing to their relatives abroad on their behalf), studied weekly with Max Weyl, and taught young girls in her home.

Then, in 1939, she fell in love with a retired Reform rabbi, Joseph Norden of Hamburg, 32 years her senior. The two friends, platonic or otherwise, spent time together in Norden’s Hamburg apartment. He was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942, a few months before Jonas was.

Jonas arrived in the camp with her mother, only to be snubbed by the Chief Rabbi, who would not acknowledge her ordination. Nevertheless, she gave at least 27 lectures to the prisoners. In 1944, she and her mother were taken to Auschwitz, where both perished.

A century after her birth, this pioneer’s influence remains. In 1999, the first conference of European women rabbis, cantors, and other scholars was dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas.