Regina Jonas: A Symbol of Female Empowerment in Jewish Life

by Liora Alban

    “God has placed the 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 that God has given.”

-Rabbi Regina Jonas, 1938

             Until five days ago, I thought the equalization of gender roles within Judaism was paved by American Sally Priesand, ordained as what I thought to be the first female rabbi at Hebrew Union College in 1972. I was wrong. She was preceded by a mostly unknown woman named Regina Jonas who made history when she was ordained as the first female rabbi 1935 Berlin. Regina Jonas remains a symbol of female strength and possibility on the shoulders of a long line of Jewish matriarchs.

While becoming a spiritual leader in Judaism is more accessible for today’s Jewish women than it was in the time of Rabbi Jonas, it remains a struggle for women in certain Jewish communities and shows why causes like Women of the Wall remain relevant.

Regina Jonas was born in Berlin on August 3, 1902 to Wolf and Sarah Jonas. She grew up in an impoverished neighborhood where apartments lacked proper plumbing, whole families lived in single rooms, and the population density was five times higher than the average for Berlin. In a 1939 interview, Jonas stated that she grew up in a “strictly religious home” which probably means that her family observed Shabbat, holidays, and laws of kashrut. At the same time though, her parents were open to the modernization of Jewish practice which was taking shape in German congregations at this time. Choral singing and organ music were being introduced, girls were being educated, and they were receiving bat mitzvah ceremonies in synagogue.1.

Jonas received formal Jewish education at the Rykestraße synagogue’s Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule, an orthodox Jewish school for girls which aimed to fuze tradition with modernity. It was obvious that Jonas possessed a special capacity for Judaic study. She received high marks and attention in Hebrew, religion, and Jewish history classes. At this time she began telling classmates of her plan to pursue the rabbinate. Jüdische Mädchen Mittelschule was headed by Dr. Max Weyl who noticed Jonas’ potential and took her under his wing. Her interests were further cultivated as Weyl offered her private instruction and together they studied Talmud and halachic law.

By 1924, Jonas received her teaching certificate and entered the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Germany’s liberal rabbinical seminary a rabbinical ordination program. In truth, Jonas might have preferred to study at the Orthodox rabbinical seminary since she was orthodox in practice. For example, it was reported that while she served as a rabbi, “she would not carry even a handkerchief on Shabbat. She came to daven at the Lyke Strasse Synagogue. She would sit in the balcony with the women with a handkerchief on her wrist”2. so that it did not have to be carried. Unfortunately, Orthodox seminary was not available to women. Although there were steps being made towards women’s empowerment in Jewish leadership during the 1920s, women in even the most liberal synagogues were still being relegated to lay preacher positions.

None of this mattered to Jonas as she continued with her rabbinic intentions. She wrote her thesis in 1930 about why it was halachically acceptable for women to be rabbis. She grounded her thesis in halachic disputation, demonstrating that banning women from the rabbinate had nothing to do with Jewish law, but instead with historical gender biases. “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.”3. She also stressed the necessity of female rabbis, stating, “Nowhere would it be denied that the woman has sensitivity, honesty of aspiration, willingness to sacrifice, love for humanity, and a sense of tact–the basic requirements for the job of a rabbi.”4.  Jonas received a grade of “good” on her thesis from Rabbi Eduard Baneth, showing that he considered female ordination possible. Unfortunately, Rabbi Baneth died unexpectedly before administering the rabbinical ordination exam which Regina Jonas needed to pass in order to be ordained. As a result, Jonas graduated with the title, “Academic Teacher of Religion” instead of “Rabbi” and had to continue teaching for the next five years. The next teacher willing to ordain Jonas was the Liberal Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann. He helped Jonas make history on December 27, 1935 when he finally issued the rabbinical ordination exam to her. She passed and thus became the first ever female rabbi.

Nazi Germany rose to power in 1933 and marked the start of increased restrictions on Jewish life in Germany. After being denied her own congregation, Jonas taught until the start of the Holocaust, when she was needed to ease the pains, fears, and hardships of others.5.  While many Jews fled Germany after the implementation the of the Nuremberg laws, which restricted citizenship, religious freedom, and mobility, Rabbi Jonas was dedicated to German Jewry and never considered leaving. She taught Judaism to community members, visited the elderly and sick in hospitals and old age homes, and spent time with inmates in a German women’s prison. As more and more rabbis fled Germany, Regina had the unfortunate opportunity to take their place. She was hired by the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland as a traveling rabbi which means she would visit small Jewish communities without their own spiritual leaders.

Regina’s life took a catastrophic turn on November 6, 1942 when she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Before leaving, she deposited her papers, letters, correspondence, and two photographs of herself and her rabbinical ordination certificate into the Berlin Jewish archive so that her story could be unearthed after the war. It was in Theresienstadt that Rabbi Jonas came into her own as rabbi. She worked with the prominent psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl as she greeted shocked and traumatized deportees arriving off the trains at the camp and helped them adjust to their new surroundings. A poster advertising “Lectures by the only female rabbi Regina Jonas” was found in the Theresienstadt archive. She worked with a group of over five hundred others to start a lecture series inside the camp on subjects ranging from the history of Jewish women, Talmudic topics, biblical themes, pastoral issues, and introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and holidays. After tirelessly working for two years on behalf of her fellow prisoners, Rabbi Jonas was deported to Auschwitz in October 1944. She was murdered two months later at age 42.

I recently spoke with several women following in Jonas’ rabbinic footsteps in order to learn about how the experience of being a female leader in Judaism has changed since Jonas’ time. Although it has been over seventy years since Jonas’ ordination, many women are still unaware that the rabbinate is open to them as it is open to men. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Israel’s first female rabbi and current Dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grew up in a family of rabbis. Her father was a tenth generation rabbi and her mother was the daughter of a rabbi. Still though, she always assumed she would grow up and marry a rabbi, not grow up and become a rabbi. She said, “That is what women did.”6.

Conservative Rabbi Iris Richman said, “When I was growing up there was no possibility to even think about becoming a rabbi. Men were rabbis and that was that.” She practiced as an attorney for over twenty years before one experience made her think differently. “I observed kashrut at home, but little else of traditional practice. We [were] invited to this first Shabbat dinner [by] the rabbi in a shul I had started attending, who was a second career rabbi and roughly my age. I asked her ‘So what made you decide to be a rabbi?’ She started to answer—nothing earthshaking, talking about teaching Hebrew—but I had an epiphany. It literally felt like someone had hit me in the head with a hammer and I thought, ‘I could have been a rabbi!’ My next thought was, ‘I must be crazy.’  But by that time, women had already been Conservative (the movement that I identified with) rabbis for about 15 years. By 2005, I was a full time rabbinical student.”7.

Rabbi Pamela Frydman, International co-chair for Rabbis for Women of the Wall, has a similar story. She did not know women could be rabbis until Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi personally invited her to study in the Seminary Without Walls,  a program which evolved into the ALEPH Rabbinic Program. To North American Jews, and especially to younger generations who have grown up seeing female rabbis, cantors, and community leader, female empowerment in leadership seems natural. Clearly though, this is a relatively new phenomenon and one which must be constantly reinforced and spread until leadership roles are fully accepted across the globe.

Jonas faced struggles even after ordination, as do today’s female rabbis as a result of sexism. Victor Frankl spoke about his experience at Theresienstadt yet never mentioned Jonas despite the fact that she joined him in greeting and calming new arrivals. It is possible that amidst the overwhelming chaos of the concentration camp environment, it never occurred to him, or he had difficulties believing that she was a rabbi rather than a rebbetzin or mere learned woman. Maybe he was trying to protect her. Maybe he failed to speak about her because of his own sexist thinking which told him that Jonas and other women were not his equals. A Holocaust survivor recalls, “In Berlin there lived at this time in the thirties the first woman rabbi, Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas. She watched carefully that one said ‘Fraulein Rabbiner’ to her because a ‘Frau Rabbiner’ was the wife of a rabbi.”8. Jonas clearly struggled to be taken seriously as a rabbi amidst the sexist ideology of her time. Similarly, Rabbi Kelman and Rabbi Richman spoke about laypeople still assuming even today that rabbis have to look a certain way. Rabbis are typically thought of as elderly men with beards. “There are still these cultural prejudices, even among secular Israelis.”9.  Through our conversations, I learned that there is not even a word in the Hebrew language to refer to a female rabbi, which shows that the concept is not accepted as normal in Israel. Rabbi Richman went further and said that, “It’s harder for some people of my generation or older, who hold positions of authority in the Jewish community, to see a woman–without a beard—as a rabbi. That leads to reduced opportunities, at least in some situations, for women rabbis.”10.  Rabbi Pamela Frydman told the story of a cantor who refused to take her as a student because he was uncomfortable with the idea of a female rabbi. In explaining this to her, he pulled out a magazine with a picture of a pregnant woman on the cover and explained that he would find it unseemly to see a pregnant rabbi standing on the bimah.

In order to combat reluctance to female empowerment in Judaism, it is important to show how this phenomenon is improving the religion. Rabbi Naamah Kelman insists it is the most exciting time for Jewish female leaders and others who benefit from their innovations. “The past 40 years has witnessed a transformation of Judaism due to the entry of women: rabbis, cantors, scholars, the naming of baby girls, bat mitzvahs becoming universal in North America, woman being full and equal participants in North American tefillah, torah study, scholarship, etc. Women have reclaimed and invented rituals such as Rosh Hodesh celebrations, Miriam’s Cup, and innovative uses for the Mikveh. My bookshelves cannot contain all of the scholarship, literature, and torah interpretations that women have added to our libraries.”11. Rabbi Iris Richman thinks that the increasing female presence in Judaism is enabling Jews to see the connection between Judaism and everyday life. “Rabbis who are women are often quite grounded in the reality and messiness of life, which helps people deepen their Judaism in these encounters.”12. Although she admits that studies suggest that men today are less engaged in religion, she does not think this is because of clergywomen. “This may be the product of other factors, including nonstop work weeks. I think that an as of yet not fully realized frontier is women and men preaching for the importance of work weeks that allow time for family life and religion, as well as other non-work pursuits.”13.

Through my conversation with Rabbi Frydman I became fully aware of the female potential which was wiped out with the Holocaust, and which we are only now regaining. Before the  Holocaust, there were almost eighteen million Jews worldwide. A third of the world’s Jews and two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered, and with them, eighty to ninety percent of Judaism’s spiritual teachers including a number of teachers who were nurturing the idea of female equality. It was declared at the Reform Jewish Breslau Conference in 1846 that women are equal to men in Judaism in terms of religious privileges and duties. The result was that women were now able to participate in minyans, the daily prayer in which a man thanks God for not having made him a woman was dropped, women began studying Torah and Talmud, and women and men were mixed in congregation. In 1904 Bertha Pappenheim founded the Jewish Woman’s League. She later went on to find the Home for Jewish Unwed Mothers in Isenberg and the Central Welfare Board of the Jewish Community. She also combatted the prostitution of Jewish women and pressed for the allowance of women to vote and run for office.14.  1928 Lily Montagu was the first woman to deliver a sermon from a German synagogue pulpit at the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Conference in Berlin. Rabbi Dr. Max Weyl, the rabbi under whom Rabbi Jonas studied, committed himself to religious education of girls, introduced bat mitzvah celebrations, and led a girl’s section of his religious school.

Rabbi Frydman argues that only today is Judaism and especially the status of women in Judaism thriving like it was in the past. She says that Judaism is thriving again as a forward looking faith rather than as a faith rooted in the suffering of the past. With the Holocaust’s millions of murders, generations and progressive moves were lost. People clung to religious traditions which felt safe, and this included a harkening back to the image of the aged male rabbi deeply steeped in the lifelong pursuit of Judaic knowledge. We cannot know how many women would have become rabbis had the Holocaust never happened. Seventy years later, these ideas of what a rabbi can and cannot be are beginning to change again. Rabbi Frydman explained that this does not diminish the male role in Judaism. Instead, men today must step up as they did to ordain Jonas so that we can liberate female prayer at the Kotel together. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and Co-founder of Rabbis for Women of the Wall with Rabbi Frydman vocally fights for a Woman’s right to freedom of prayer. He has stated, “I am a man who cannot pray at the Kotel, because my prayer is based in this world, a world in which Jewish access to God cannot be limited based on gender. I can only truly pray if my wife, daughter, sister, and mother are treated by the Jewish State as equals in the eyes of God.”15.

The blessing of Women of the Wall is to introduce freedom of prayer to all women.   “Regina’s desire to be a rabbi was a desire to step into a stream in which she was confident she could swim. She was not asking men for permission to learn to swim. She was asking to go into the water and be allowed to swim along with the men.”16.  We stand on the shoulders of Jonas and matriarchs before and after her. Jewish women may now take charge of their personal Jewish practices and change the face of Judaism for the better. In the words of Rabbi Frydman, female empowerment in Judaism is impacting our faith “l’olam” with a twofold meaning: for the improvement of the entire world, and for forever. Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be.

1. Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 19.

2. Rabbi Pamela Frydman, interview, Jerusalem, Israel, 6 May 2013, based upon her interview of Rabbi Ted Alexander who was a teenager in Berlin during the years that Regina Jonas served as a rabbi there.

3. Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas, 124.

4. Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas, 33.

5. Liz Elsby, “I shall be what I shall be” – The Story of Rabbiner Regina Jonas, (2013).

6. Rabbi Namaah Kelman, personal email, 13 May 2012.

7. Rabbi Iris Richman, personal email, 14 May 2012.

8. Katharina von Kellenbach, “Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: Eine religiöse Feministin vor ihrer Zeit.” Schlangenbrut 38: 38.

9. Rabbi Namaah Kelman, personal email, 13 May 2012.

10. Rabbi Iris Richman, personal email, 14 May 2012.

11. Rabbi Namaah Kelman, personal email, 13 May 2012.

12. Rabbi Iris Richman, personal email, 14 May 2012.

13. Rabbi Iris Richman, personal email, 14 May 2012.

14. Rabbi Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas, 23.

15. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, I am a Man with No Rights at the Kotel, (2013).

16. Rabbi Pamela Frydman, interview, Jerusalem, Israel, 6 May 2013.

Liora Alban is a rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley where she is majoring in Religious Studies and Art History. She recently completed her third year of study at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem which afforded her the opportunity to intern at Women of the Wall. Coming from a pluralistic Jewish background, Liora was angered by the lack of freedom of women’s prayer at the Kotel and aimed to combat this during her time in Jerusalem through her internship at Women of the Wall. 

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