So with that, I present to you Regina Jonas, an Orthodox Jew growing up in a Berlin slum in the 10s, 20s, 30s and 40s. What makes her special, though? She was THE FIRST WOMAN RABBI ... in the history of time ... as we know it. Now, people will say, what about Sally Preisand? Ordained in the 1970s in the U.S.? Wasn't she the first? Nada, nope, niet. Sally holds the honor of being the first female rabbi ordained in the U.S., but she's often considered the first woman, period. There is another woman -- Regina Jonas -- who seems to have fallen through the cracks of history, after her death in Auschwitz in 1944.
I happ'd upon this while looking for some books on Rashi's daughters on Amazon.com. I noticed a book, "Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi," by Elisa Klapheck. I had never heard of this Jonas woman and started searching the web. I then wondered ... how the heck did I miss this woman? How did I miss a woman being ordained in Germany in the 1930s? How did I miss this!? I'm astounded by this woman, though, because she managed to surpass the acceptance of a woman into ordination in any organized group. It would be another 40 years until another woman was ordained.
Shocked at my own ignorance, I searched out Rabbi Regina Jonas and found out the following: She was Orthodox, and maintained her Orthodox observance, even as she was ordained by a Liberal (what the Orthodox called Reform) rabbi in 1935, several years after she'd gotten her certificate to teach Jewish studies and Hebrew. Her thesis, tellingly, was "Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?" which I hope to be able to find, though I don't know that it's possible.
See, the reason Rabbi Jonas was a ghost for so long was that she died in the Holocaust and those Liberal rabbis and scholars who KNEW her, knew her work in the concentration camps (she gave lectures in the camps, which are still on file there), those who prized her work and friendship ... were mute. Leo Baeck, a very well known Jewish scholar who survived the camps, neglected to ever mention Regina Jonas. Why? WHY? Was it because she was a woman? Or was it because she was part of the past -- that part of life before and during the Holocaust? Either way, I find it inexcusable and frustrating. Her existence was only acknowledged when her certificates of ordination were found in 1991 in an archive in Berlin, put there by another scholar who Jonas had entrusted with the documents.
It was not until 1995 that another woman was ordained in Germany.
Jonas is an inspiration, not only because she was the first female rabbi, but because she was absolutely determined. Her father passed away when she was very young, and her mother and her moved near an Orthodox shul, where the rabbi took her under his wing, teaching her all she needed to know. Her passion was outstanding and no one questioned her motives or drive, and after years of trying and trying to become ordained, she achieved that goal. Then the Nazis came to power, sent her away, and killed her at the age of 42.
Here is to you, Rabbi Regina Jonas, for all that you did, all that you set in motion, and all that we hopefully can and will learn for you. May your name be a blessing. Amen.
Some resources (web resources, of course, can be taken with a grain of salt, but taken none the less):