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The International School for Holocaust Studies

“I shall be what I shall be” - The Story of Rabbiner Regina Jonas

By Liz Elsby

…But if I must say what drove me as a woman to become a rabbi, two elements come to mind: My belief in the godly calling and my love of people. God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given….[1]

The story of Regina Jonas is a story that has been forgotten for many years. It is a story of bravery and of one woman's struggle: to become a rabbi, and through this position to do what she did best – use her love of humanity to minister to the Jews around her who were suffering in Germany and in Theresienstadt. As such, it is an amazing story of one attempt to maintain Jewish solidarity during the Holocaust.

For many years, history’s first female rabbi was thought to be American Sally Jane Priesand, who was ordained in 1972.

But this is not the case . . .

There was a woman who came before her, who with great determination and tenacity, broke through conventions and prejudice to pursue her religious calling. In 1935, in Berlin, Regina Jonas became the first ordained woman rabbi in history. And as such, she offered not only spiritual guidance but compassionate support, counseling and hope to ease the suffering of the persecuted and desperate Jews of Nazi Germany and later, of the Theresienstadt ghetto. In October 1944, Regina was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered. And yet, until her files were found in the early 1990s in an obscure archive in East Berlin, she was almost completely forgotten by history. Rabbiner Regina Jonas, a woman who blazed a trail for Sally Jane Priesand and all women rabbis who would come after her, a woman who was selflessly dedicated to easing the suffering of her afflicted people, giving them light in their darkest hour, deserves to be remembered and honored.

Who was Regina Jonas? And how did she come to be ordained? What led her to choose to remain in Nazi Germany, to support and spiritually lead a Jewish community that was facing destruction?

Regina, who was born in Berlin on August 3, 1902, came from an impoverished but close-knit orthodox Jewish family, comprised of her brother Abraham (2 years her senior) and parents Wolf and Sarah Jonas. Sadly, very little is known about her early years, but since both Regina and Abraham[2] pursued careers as religious teachers, it was probably their parents who imbued their two children with a love of the Jewish religion. Regina’s formal religious education continued after her father’s death in 1913, and she attended the orthodox Rykestraße synagogue’s Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule (Jewish Girls School). Here she excelled at all subjects pertaining to Judaism, Jewish language and culture. Significantly, her classmates remember that, even at a young age, Regina aspired to become a rabbi.

Jewish life was going through a change in Germany in the early 20th century. A shift away from strict orthodoxy to a more liberal Judaism was shaking traditional foundations. The classical alter ritus (old way), was replaced in many congregations with the neuer ritus (new way) which would often include mixed choral singing, accompanied by organ music in the synagogue. Even orthodox congregations were beginning to embrace a more “modern” approach to Judaism. The Rykestraße synagogue, which Regina attended with her family, was billed as a “synthesis between tradition and present” and was headed by the moderate orthodox rabbi, Dr Max Weyl. Under Rabbi Weyl's tutelage the status of women in the synagogue was elevated – after 1917, girls were able to receive religious education (at the same Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule that Regina attended) and celebrate a bat mitzvah. In this new, more progressive atmosphere, Regina’s aspirations of being a rabbi, while controversial and groundbreaking, could actually be feasible.

Rabbi Weyl recognized early on Regina’s talents and abilities and encouraged and guided her in her ambitions. He became Regina’s mentor and dear friend; the two would meet twice a week to study the Talmud and other important rabbinic literature, right up to his deportation to Theresienstadt, in 1942.

Regina received a teacher's degree in 1923, and in 1924 began her studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. Although she would have preferred a more orthodox school, the liberal Hochschule was the only one which would consider letting a woman train to become a rabbi. In 1930, under the supervision of Talmud professor Eduard Baneth (1855–1930), she presented her final 88-page treatise entitled "Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic[3] Sources?" It is a remarkable work, showcasing not only Regina’s wide breadth of knowledge of Talmudic and halachic issues and text, but also her complete assurance and belief in the validity of her mission.
Her biographer, Elise Klaphek, analyzes Jonas's position.

Since rabbinic literature did not deal with ordination per se, Jonas embraces the halakhic literature which relates more generally to women’s issues. She names important women who, though not holding the title “rabbi,” fulfilled rabbinical functions, most specifically as decisors of halakha. In addition to biblical protagonists, she mentions Talmudic personalities such as Beruryah, Yalta, the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra, and also Rashi’s daughters and granddaughters, who were involved in halakhic decision making. She quotes negative Talmudic statements about women, not only countering them with positive statements, but also contextualizing them by quoting equally negative statements about great sages.[4]

Regina believed that rabbinical rejections of women’s roles were a reflection of the times in which they were written, and not actual halachic sources. She wrote:

The wheel of time turns, moving our world of Jewish thought, and with the general development of humanity and our world, attitudes toward the woman also have developed and changed.[5]

She also addressed in her treatise the new duties a rabbi must embrace in Germany – not only spiritual advisor, judge and religious leader, but also preacher. According to Regina, the modern rabbi should lead and guide his congregants with stirring sermons and lectures aimed at teaching and inspiring them. Furthermore, rabbis should move beyond the pulpit, involving themselves in community outreach and youth work. Regina wrote:

Aside from studying, teaching and paskan[6], 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. Whereupon we must see how far her work as a teacher may go […] Then what is the difference if she teaches eighteen-year-olds, females as well as males, or that she therefore teaches people between the ages of twenty and eighty through her sermons in the synagogue? [7]

In regard to providing social services, Regina added:

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.[8]

Regina received a grade of “gut” (good) on her treatise by Rabbi Baneth. Unfortunately, he died before she could be officially ordained, and she would have to wait another five years until she was finally given her smicha – rabbinical ordination – by the liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann.
Becoming a rabbi, however, did not guarantee Regina a pulpit. Besides occasional offers of a “second havdalah” speech, she was not given her own congregation, and thus continued teaching. Circumstance, however, soon provided a way for Regina to act upon her desire "of easing the pains and fears and hardships of their lives.

Starting in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, life for the Jews of Germany became more restricted and difficult with each passing year. Harsh edicts and antisemitic legislation, among them the laws known as the “Nuremberg Laws”, were passed, rescinding the citizenship of German Jews, restricting their education, religious freedom, freedom of movement and other basic liberties. Many Jews who had the financial means – and a place to go – fled Germany. Many, however, could not – or would not – leave the country and culture they embraced as their own. Regina had dedicated herself to German Jewry, and therefore was not willing even to consider leaving the Jewish communities she loved, nor subjecting her elderly mother to the upheaval of exile. Paradoxically, even as Nazi propaganda sought to demonize the German Jews, many Jews in Germany found a renewed interest in their own religion and culture, leading to a brief but doomed flowering of Jewish life and study.
Rabbi Regina Jonas was there for them. She taught Judaism, with joy and passion, to the young, while reaching out to the old and the sick in Jewish hospitals and old age homes – the only congregations she was allowed to serve. She nurtured these elderly Jewish people, attending not only to their spiritual needs, but going out of her way to visit them every day, offering them much needed comfort and attention. On her own initiative, she requested and was granted permission for pastoral visits to a woman’s prison, offering consolation and succor to those incarcerated there.

As more rabbis fled Germany or were arrested, Regina was able to take advantage of the shortage and take their places. She was hired by the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland as a traveling rabbi for communities that no longer had a spiritual leader. An article was written in the last German Jewish newsletter that the Nazis allowed to be published, the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt, about her visit to the Jewish community of Stendhal.

Recently, the members of our Jewish community met for a program. Whereas our membership before 1933 was about 70, today it has dropped to 12. So we were able to fit comfortably in the living room of one of our community members. Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas of Berlin soon won our hearts with her excellent remarks. She […] receive[s] our most sincere thanks for looking after even such a small Jewish community as ours.[9]

Regina’s life in Germany came to an end on November 6, 1942, when she was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Before leaving, however, she deposited her papers, letters and correspondence, two photographs of herself and her rabbinical ordination certificate, into the Berlin Jewish archive, from which, after the war, they were transferred to an obscure Jewish archive in East Berlin.

It was in Theresienstadt, in an atmosphere teetering between hope and despair, that Regina really began to reach her potential as teacher and rabbi. Among the Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt were those whom the Nazis considered the Prominente – the prominent Jews of Europe, including artists, writers, scholars, musicians, decorated war heroes, scientists, doctors and Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Leo Baeck.[10] Viktor Frankl was another one of her ghetto colleagues[11], and under his auspices she would greet the shocked and traumatized deportees arriving in the ghetto straight from the trains. These were disoriented people who had been ripped away from any semblance of normalcy still remaining to them, and thrust into a terrifying new reality of overcrowding, disease and despair. Regina would offer them guidance and comfort, explaining the harsh realities awaiting them but assuring them that she would be there to offer her assistance to smooth the way. Remarkably, even in the shadow of death, a cultural and intellectual life flourished within the confines of Theresienstadt. Art was created, operas written and performed, intellectual evenings were held, and lectures were given to people who thirsted to rise above the misery surrounding them. A group of 520 Jews, including Regina, formed a lecture circuit and 2,300 lectures on a wide range of subjects were given to packed audiences. A flyer from the Theresienstadt archive survives, entitled “Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas.”[12]
It lists 24 lectures she gave in the ghetto, ranging from the history of Jewish women, Talmudic topics, biblical themes, pastoral issues, and introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and holidays. A lonely excerpt remains from a lecture she gave, giving the modern reader a taste of the power of her inspiring words:

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. Rabbi Regina Jonas, formerly of Berlin.”[13]

Regina, who was in the ghetto with her elderly mother, must have also carried on the dedicated and selfless work she began in Germany with the aged and infirm in Theresienstadt. In keeping with her nurturing character, she must have visited them in their hour of need, spiritually preparing them for the comforts of heaven after the horrors of Theresienstadt. Sadly, we will never know for sure. Most of the people who worked with and knew Regina in Theresienstadt did not survive to bear witness. They died either from the appalling conditions in the ghetto, or shared Regina’s fate: murder in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Why was such an incredible woman and all of her achievements and sacrifices forgotten? Why did such luminaries as Leo Baeck and Viktor Frankl, men who worked with her and believed in her, never mention her name after the war?
We may never have a satisfactory answer for these painful questions. But we can right a wrong. By learning and teaching the story of Rabbiner Regina Jonas, we can pay tribute not only to history’s first ordained female rabbi, but also to a true “woman of valor” who gave selflessly of herself to her people in their greatest hour of need. Regina Jonas deserves this.

[1] Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), p. 51.
[2] Abraham Jonas was deported to the east during the Holocaust and most likely murdered there.
[3] "Halacha" refers to the collective body of Jewish religious law covering the way Jews are to live.
[4] Klapheck, Elisa, "Regina Jonas." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (1 March 2009); Jewish Women's Archive, Accessed August 1, 2012.
[5] Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas, p. 124.
[6] "Paskan" here is used in the sense of making halachic decisions about Jewish law.
[7] Ibid., p. 160-161.
[8] Ibid., p. 161.
[9] Ibid., p. 71.
[10] Baeck signed Regina’s ordination in 1941, prior to his deportation, and was a supporter of Regina's rabbinic aspirations. Ironically, however, although Baeck survived the Holocaust, he never mentioned his female colleague.
[11] Frankel, as well, never mentioned Regina Jonas after the war.
[12] Klapheck, Elisa, "Regina Jonas."
[13] Klapheck, Elisa, "Regina Jonas."
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