I remember my dad once told me that when I was little, he had so many colleagues who were female rabbis that he wondered if I might grow up thinking only women could be rabbis. For most Jews, though, the word “rabbi” still probably conjures up images of men, even though in the 21st century, women make up over half of all non-Orthodox rabbinical students. The story of the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi isn’t one that a lot of people know, but it is one that deserves to be told. Her name was Regina Jonas, and she was born in Berlin, Germany on August 3, 1902. She grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Berlin, and showed a passion for Hebrew, Torah, and Jewish history by the time she was in high school.
In 1924, Jonas enrolled at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin. The institute accepted women as students, but only for teacher’s degrees. That wasn’t what Jonas was after. She wanted to become a rabbi. Rabbinical students were required to write a thesis before becoming ordained. Jonas’ thesis was “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic [Jewish law] Sources?” She concluded that “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.” Her professors praised her work, but refused to ordain her as a rabbi. She appealed to Leo Baeck, the leader of the German Jewish community, but he wasn’t willing to ordain a woman and threaten the unity of the German Jewish community. Eventually, Jonas found someone who would ordain her, Max Dienemann, the head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association. She was ordained in a private ceremony on December 27, 1935.
Even as an ordained rabbi, Jonas struggled to be accepted by much of the Jewish community. A 1936 article described her ordination as “treason and a caricature of Judaism.” She worked in schools, hospitals, and homes for the elderly, but had a very difficult time finding a pulpit. Of course, it was the 1930s in Germany, so life was difficult for Jews in general, and finding a pulpit wasn’t the only challenge Jonas faced. Ironically, though, Nazi persecution did, in a way, allow her more opportunities to hold services and deliver sermons. As the threat of the Nazis increased, many rabbis emigrated, leaving some communities without any spiritual leadership. Synagogues which had previously rejected the idea of a female rabbi now welcomed Jonas’ spiritual leadership.
In 1942, Jonas was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Theresienstadt, but that wasn’t the end of her rabbinical work. While in the concentration camp, she continued preaching, counseling, and writing. She worked with the famous psychiatrist Victor Frankl caring for the prisoners in the camp. A collection of 24 hand-written lectures of hers entitled “Lectures of the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas” can still be found in the archives of Theresienstadt. In October of 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed. She was 42 years old. After her death, her life and work were more or less forgotten for decades. Her legacy as the first female rabbi could easily have been lost to history forever, but we can honor her memory and keep her legacy alive by living the words she wrote when she argued her case for becoming a rabbi: “God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”