Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Elisa Klapheck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A really fascinating portrayal, translated from the German, of the first woman ordained as a rabbi. I researched her for this year's seder, where I present a brief bio of a Jewish woman, living or dead, for the Miriam's Cup ritual (see miriamscup.com) for more information.
Here's what I said at seder this year, largely gleaned from this book:
This year, we dedicate Miriam’s Cup to the memory of…
Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the year 1972 likely remember when Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement and hailed in news outlets all over the world as the “first woman rabbi.” The Reconstructionist Movement followed by ordaining a woman in 1974 (and we should note it was only the second year of ordination at RRC), and the Conservative movement finally ordained a woman rabbi in 1985. However, these women were the first in America, but not the first in the world. The first woman to be ordained as a rabbi was ordained with Orthodox smicha. In Germany. In 1935. Her story was lost until the fall of the Berlin Wall, as much of the documentation was unavailable to scholars until that time.
Regina Jonas was born in Berlin in 1902 and raised by her widowed mother in a poor Jewish neighborhood. As early as high school she expressed her desire to become a rabbi and after high school got a degree from a Jewish teaching college in 1923. Her family attended services at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Germany, where Rabbi Max Weyl tutored her twice a week in rabbinic literature and biblical text from the 1920s until his deportation to Theresienstadt. She entered rabbinical seminary in 1924 and completed her studies in 1930. Her senior thesis was a halakhic defense of women in the rabbinate. It took another five years, though, before she found a rabbi willing to grant her smicha – Rabbi Max Dienemann.
Rabbi Jonas had few years to serve but she served admirably until her death. She was initially hired by the Jewish community of Berlin to provide pastoral care to the infirm and elderly. As many towns in Germany lost their rabbis to emigration (if lucky and early) and deportation (if not) she was sent to fill in and provide rabbinic services throughout the country. In 1942 she was deported to Theresienstadt, where she continued to work as a rabbi, offering pastoral care to the other inmates, giving divrei torah and other speeches, and leading services. She and her mother were together sent to Auschwitz in 1944, where it is believed they were murdered immediately.
Rabbi Jonas’s talks at Theresienstadt have not survived, although a list of the speeches is in the camp archive. Her senior thesis is, however, extent and displays the breadth and depth of her Jewish knowledge and her strong motivation. She believed that the generally accepted notion that women could not be rabbis was rooted not in halacha but in old cultural attitudes limiting expression of women’s full potential. As Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas said in her thesis
“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.” She felt it was time that those attitudes change enough to let women prove they could perform rabbinic functions. May her memory be always be for a blessing.
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