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Regina Jonas, the forgotten rabbi

When the Reform Jew Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1972 she was thought to be the first woman rabbi in history. This is how the media presented her and she herself thought so too. In fact Sally Priesand was only the second, there had already been one woman rabbi but she had been forgotten. No one remembered either her name or what happened to her. And yet an interesting, bizzare sequence of events had led her to obtain rabbinic ordination in Hitler’s Germany in 1935 and then to die in Auschwitz in 1944. Her name was Regina Jonas and she was born in Berlin in 1902. At the time her ordination had caused quite a stir and it had even been been mentioned in the German press too. But then Regina Jonas was completely forgotten. She emerged from oblivion only after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the beginning of the 1990s, when Katharina von Kellenbach, a scholar, found a bust in an archive in East Germany with some of her documents, including the certificate of her rabbinic ordination. Since then she has attracted increasing attention, not only in Germany but also in the United States, where from the beginning of the 1970s a very active Jewish feminist movement had come into being and had moreover sparked a lively debate on women rabbis.

Marlis E. Glaser, portrait of Regina Jonas

We only have one photograph of Regina: she is in dark clothing, her hair is covered, she has a lovely face and intense eyes. She looks more like an orthodox woman than the first woman rabbi in Jewish history. She came from a modest and traditionalist family, with both her father and her mother having been born in Germany. Her father was a small shopkeeper who died prematurely. After his death the family began to frequent the synagogue in Rykerstrasse, inaugurated in 1904, a mixed synagogue in which worship was mainly traditionalist but open to change. One of those who officiated there was Rabbi Max Veil who became Regina’s teacher, monitoring her in her studies. He was a rabbi bound to tradition but was particularly attentive to the question of women, to the extent that he was one of the first to introduce the bat mizvah, the religious coming of age for girls. In short, it was a complex world of entanglements, what with calls for tradition alongside innovation which Regina was to modulate in her own way but which, in other forms, we already find in the direction taken by her studies. The first stage of these studies was in 1924 when Regina earmed a diploma and was accepted at the religious school of Annenstrasse, directed by Rabi Bleichrode, who was very close to the traditionalists but not without openness, especially in the field of education. The following year Regina enrolled in the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the seminary for rabbinical studies founded in Berlin by Abraham Geiger in 1872. It was a school born on the wave of the reform movement but officially without any formal adherence to any religious movment, whether orthodox, liberal or reformed. Eduard Baneth, Regina’s professor at the Hochschule, assigned to her a doctoral thesis significantly entitled “Can women officiate as rabbis?”.

Such is the context in which Regina was trained and in which she brought her complex project of becoming a rabbi to completion. It is a context – not of course uninfluential – that was a blend of attachment to religious tradition and openness to the new which was distilled in the young scholar’s mind, and both marked and moved her. Regina was far from being the crank that some portrayals of the time sought to depict. She studied at open schools, as were all those which were not exclusively orthodox (and the orthodox were then a minority among German Jews), and was admitted to an institute of rabbinical studies born directly from the Haskalah and from the Reform movement. It was an institute, we emphasize, to which women had been admitted since its foundation (women were not admitted to the Hildesheimer orthodox rabbinical institute): indeed, in 1872 at least 4 out of 12 students were women and later the proportion increased further. In truth, however, not one of them was aspiring to rabbinical ordination but rather to teaching diplomas and to relations with Jewish society. Regina alone was absolutely determined to become not a teacher but a rabbi. One of her teachers at the Hochschule was Leo Baeck, who held her in high esteem but at the very moment when she required support sought instead to dissuade her. At last, in 1935, Regina obtained the longed-for title and became the first woman rabbi in history. It was the liberal rabbi Max Dienemann who ordained her, in an almost private form.

The period between 1935 and 1942, in which Regina exercised her rabbinical function in Berlin, saw her emerging as a result of her charism and her abilities. Although at first she was kept on the fringes, it was not long before she became a known and appreciated figure. She lived with her mother and had rencounced – although this was hardly in keeping with the Jewish tradition – making a family for herself. Nevertheless she had a relationship of love with Joseph Norden, a rabbi from Berlin, much older than her and likewise deported to Theresienstadt, where he died in 1943. It was Norden, moreover who, in 1942, took upon himself to enable her to emigrate to the United States, where she would have been far from danger. But Regina refused to leave Berlin, her mother and her congregation. On 6 November, together with her mother, she was deported to Theresienstadt.

Two intense years then began for Regina, enclosed in the ghetto, entirely devoted to working to allieviate the suffering of the Jews, and of children and the elderly in particular. In her deportation she put her whole heart into filling the role of “protector”, which she had always stressed as a task of rabbis when, years earlier, she had championed the importance of the female rabbinate. One of the directors of the Jewish Council was Leo Baek, her former teacher, who had refused her ordination 10 years earlier. He worked beside Regina, giving lectures too, putting his extraordinary oratorical skills at the service of the Jews waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. She also worked with Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who invented logotherapy.

The 12 October list of those deported to Auschwitz includes her name beside that of her mother and also mentions her profession: Rabbinerin.

Neither Baeck nor Frankl, both of whom survived, were ever to mention her name in their writings. Baeck, who died in 1956, never said a word about her. Frankl, who died in 1997, spoke of her only after her story was discovered in the 1990s. But why?

Yet Regina Jonas had been a noteworthy person, the first woman rabbi in history. Her activity as a rabbi in the 1930s in Berlin had been significant. After her rediscovery, voices and testimonies emerged telling of her charism and her sermons; people who had seen and met her remembered her at last. So why didn’t Baek, why didn’t Frankl, both of them men of letters, remember her? Why this consignment to oblivion, which prevents us from knowing what her role was in working beside Frankl and in giving lectures organized by Baeck? In the absence of any testimonies we could hypothesize that her role was important, more important than one might think, and hence that it was the Auschwitz gas chamber that prevented her fundamental abilities from being recognized.

One hypothesis we could make to explain this silence is that it was hard to remember after the Shoah; that the first woman rabbi was swept away in the great ocean of the fallen, of the annihilated and of the forgotten. Had she survived things would have been otherwise. We can imagine her resuming her rabbinical functions in Berlin after the war, remaining in Germany as she had chosen to do when she was offered the possibility of leaving. The other hypothesis is that what was condemned to silence was her very role as a woman rabbi; that those who knew her would have thought that the Shoah had taken with it too this strange woman, who had wished to assume a solely male role and to demonstrate that perhaps women were better suited to exercise this task than men. She may thus have been condemned to oblivion precisely for what instead should have given her fame and remembrance.

At the time of her rabbinical ordination, Regina had answered in writing a journalist who was asking her the reasons for her decision. “But if I really must reveal what it was that guided me as a woman to become a rabbi, two points spring to my mind: my faith in God’s call and my love for people. God places ability and vocations in our hearts, without distinction of gender. Thus each one of us, a man or a woman, is duty bound to fulfil and to act in accordance with the gifts that God has given. Looking at the question in this perspective male and female should be seen for what they are: human beings”.

Anna Foa

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