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BERLIN — Rabbi Sally Priesand, seated at a table onstage, leaned into the microphone to tell the audience her story. Four decades since she became the first woman to break the rabbinic barrier in the United States, Priesand, 68, reflected on her legacy with pride but also with a sense of urgency to tell the remarkable story of another pioneer, Regina Jonas. The first woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi, Jonas was killed in Auschwitz in October 1944. Her daring accomplishment is still very much a footnote to history.
“How many other stories are there?” Preisand asked the crowd of about 200 attendees gathered in Berlin’s famous Neue Synagogue for a forum, Journeys From the Margins to the Mainstream, sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) in Boston and the American Jewish Archives (AJA) in Cincinnati. Preisand, who was ordained by the Reform movement in 1972, continued, “When I think about Regina Jonas, I think, ‘How many other women don’t we know about?’”
By July 21, the JWA and AJA had flown in more than three dozen Jewish leaders for a five-day tour, culminating with the dedication of a memorial plaque at Theresiensatdt, the concentration camp in the Czech Republic where Jonas continued her preaching and counseling before her death.
Alongside Preisand onstage were other female rabbinic firsts — Rabbi Jaqueline Tabick, who became Britain’s first female rabbi in 1975; Rabbi Alina Treiger, ordained by Abraham Geiger College in 2010 (and the first female rabbi ordained in Germany since Jonas); and from the U.S., Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (ordained in 1974); Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg (1984); and Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox Rabba who had the feminist version of “rabbi” conferred on her in 2010. The women had all read about Jonas, and now, with a larger group of rabbis, distinguished historians and educators, they aimed to delve deeper into her life and, in so doing, help establish her legacy.
“I feel this sense of obligation, given that she was written out of history twice, both as a Jew and as a woman,” said Eilberg. “Now we have a chance to bring her back to life to the honor she so deserves.”
The women marveled at Jonas’ bravery, calling her a hero and a revolutionary. None faced the dire circumstances defined by her rabbinate, yet all the women said they could identify with her plight, given the opposition she faced from members of the community establishment. Many said they had confronted the same challenges in their own careers and in Jonas’ writings found shared ideals of egalitarian faith and an inspiring love for all humanity.
“Like Regina Jonas, I’m a person who thinks every individual has certain God-given potential that they should be allowed to fulfill, in any way they find meaningful,” said Priesand.
‘God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender.’
Rabbi Regina Jonas
Interest in Jonas was sparked in the early 1990s when her papers were discovered in an East German archive. At the time, the archive was being transferred to the hands of what remained of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. A range of publications followed, including Elisa Klapheck’s book, “Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi,” considered the definitive source. But none of Jonas’ male colleagues, among them Rabbi Leo Baeck and the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, ever mentioned her after the Holocaust. There was considerable controversy around her ordination as a rabbi, notes Klapheck, who cites the magnitude of the trauma suffered by German Jewish survivors as a contributing factor. Also, Jonas was such a trailblazer — carving out a path independent of both the liberal and Orthodox approaches to Judaism — that when she died, no clearly identifiable group remained that had a strong interest in the preservation of her legacy.
It would take the arrival of a new generation for Jonas to be rediscovered. Klapheck, a rabbi with a pulpit in Frankfurt, sees Jonas as an icon whose rediscovery gave German and European female rabbis the opportunity to find their own voices.
“I would like to join more female rabbis in going beyond this pioneering era,” Klapheck said. Progress has been made in the adoption of liberal practices such as mixed-sex prayer and the ordination of women, but, she adds, in the end, most self-described liberal congregations continue to opt for male rabbis.
What remains of Jonas’ biographical record is a slim stack of letters and newspaper clippings that she safeguarded from the Nazis. Only one photograph of Jonas survives, along with transcripts of talks she gave and a copy of her dissertation, titled, aptly, “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?”
Caught between the liberal and more conservative parts of the community, Jonas would have to wait five years before finally receiving ordination in a private ceremony. During and after this period, she succeeded in carving out alternative ministries, Klapheck wrote, by visiting hospitals and private homes in Berlin where she looked after the impoverished elderly whose children had fled Nazi persecution. Over time, her stature in Germany grew and Jonas became a traveling preacher, giving sermons in several cities where communities remained without rabbis. She lectured to women’s groups and preached in several liberal synagogues in Berlin, even after she was forced to work in a factory.
Klapheck believes Jonas had several opportunities to escape Nazi Germany but stayed because of a deep-rooted commitment to Jewish life in the country. What emerges, then, is the picture of a woman with steadfast convictions who refused to abandon her community.
“God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender,” Jonas wrote in a 1938 newspaper article, describing why she became a rabbi. “If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.”
No one knows how Jonas’ papers were saved. “It’s simply astonishing that she had the forethought to say ‘My story matters, and someday someone will be interested in this story,’” said Gail Reimer, founding director of the JWA.
The archive is gathering the papers of women like Priesand, Sasso, Eilberg and Hurwitz, along with those of other pioneers. “We are seeking models of what’s possible,” said Karla Goldman, until recently a historian-in-residence at the JWA.
One big difference between Jonas and the women onstage was the lack of a constituency.
“Sally [Priesand] had one in the Reform movement, and Amy [Eilberg] eventually had the Conservative movement,” noted Laura Geller, who serves as the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California, and is among the few women ordained in the 1970s. “The seminaries were the champions … however ambivalent they were right at the beginning.”
Given the continued resistance women face in Orthodox communities, individual stories of success are important. In Germany, “Orthodox” still means nonegalitarian. “That’s so obvious, and I can’t see anything happening currently to change that,” said Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Neue Synagogue, Berlin’s only Masorti (Conservative) congregation.
In that sense, the challenge in Europe is different from in the U.S. Female rabbis in Europe are confronting not only more conservative societies but also the very rebirth of Jewish life from near extinction. “I can't tell them how to do it … but I can cheer them on and provide encouragement,” offered Eilberg.
On the panel, the women said they felt an obligation to not only tell but also to document their own stories, noting the importance of such guidance for those who follow in their footsteps.
“Jonas also had people who supported her,” said Hurwitz, who in 2010 founded a school in New York (with her mentor Avi Weiss) that is training Orthodox women to be spiritual leaders. “I think that without her teachers and without the male rabbis who stepped back in order to push her forward, Jonas wouldn’t have been able to achieve the heights she did.”
On Nov. 6, 1942, Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt. For two years she continued to perform rabbinical functions in a place where, amid death, malnutrition and disease, many felt abandoned by God. Yet even there, Jonas remained unbroken in her faith.
At the ceremony, Sasso read an excerpt from Jonas’ last sermon in Theresienstadt: “To be blessed by God means to bless, to do good and be loyal to others wherever one goes, in every situation. Humility before God, selfless devoted love to his creatures, preserve the world. It is the task of all Israel to build these foundations for the world.”