A Forgotten Myth

According to documents uncovered in former East Berlin, Regina Jonas was the first woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi - in 1935. So how come her name has been wiped off the slate of history until recently?

In 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and immediately after the reunification of Germany, a wave of researchers and professors began to visit East Berlin and the other major cities that had been part of East Germany. They came from all over the world, looking for material and documents hidden in various archives of the communist state that had just ceased to exist.

One of them was Dr. Katerina von Kellenbach, a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a small Christian college. Von Kellenbach was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States after one of her uncles, who was the deputy governor of Pinsk in Poland during World War II, was tried for crimes against the Jewish population in that city.

In her doctoral thesis, Von Kellenbach exposed the strong anti-Jewish approach of the "feminist theology" that has developed in recent decades in the Protestant church in Germany. In one study she examined the use of the "Christian discourse of forgiveness" in preventing the trials of Nazi criminals in Germany. In 1991 she came to East Berlin to find material for another paper, which would deal with the attitude of the religious establishment - both Protestant and Jewish - to women seeking ordination in 1930s Germany.

In a small and remote archive in East Berlin, she found an envelope containing a document, written in German and Hebrew, entitled "Teaching certificate." The paper had been received by a woman named Regina Jonas from the administration of the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft der Judentums, a famous and prestigious institution in Berlin that trained teachers of Judaic studies and Liberal rabbis (as the non-Orthodox rabbis in Germany were called). The school was founded in 1896 and operated consecutively until it was destroyed in 1942, nine years after the Nazis came to power and three years after the outbreak of World War II. The document, which was given to Jonas on December 12, 1930, testified that she was certified to teach Judaic studies, including the Hebrew language, in the schools of the Jewish community.

In the same envelope, along with the paper and a large and impressive photo of Jonas wearing rabbinical robes and holding a book in her hand, Von Kellenbach found an even more interesting document that Jonas received five years later. It is signed by Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis Association in the city of Offenbach, who on December 25, 1935, ordained Jonas to serve as a rabbi in Jewish communities in Germany.

Baeck's blessings

Newspaper clippings from Germany and Switzerland that were found in the envelope told of a long and determined battle waged by Jonas until she received ordination for the rabbinate, and about the negative attitude toward her after her ordination, even on the part of German Jews who were known as tolerant liberals. The last document in the envelope bore the date November 6, 1942. Rabbi Dr. Joseph Norden, an acquaintance of Rabbi Jonas, wrote in it that Jonas had given him the documents on the day she was sent with her mother to the Theresienstadt ghetto/camp. Norden, who was sent there himself a few days later, placed the papers into an envelope and left them in the archive where Dr. Von Kellenbach found them 49 years later.

Von Kellenbach had no difficulty understanding the historical importance of the documents. According to what had been known until then, the first woman ever to receive ordination for the rabbinate was Sally Priesand, who was ordained by the Reform community in the U.S. in 1972. In none of the many studies published until then was there any mention of the fact that a woman had been ordained for the rabbinate in Germany about 40 years earlier. Nor did they write that Jonas had received - as proven by one of the letters found in the envelope - the blessings of Dr. Leo Baeck, the liberal rabbi and philosopher who headed the National Representation of Jews in Germany, the body that was established when the Nazis came to power, in order to run the affairs of the Jewish community.

Nor did any study mention another fact, which Dr. von Kellenbach discovered a short time later in the archive of the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic: Jonas continued to serve as a rabbi even in the ghetto, and was a member of the staff of the famous psychologist Viktor Frankl, which was established by the Jewish Council in the ghetto in order to ease the emotional and spiritual suffering of the Jews. The papers discovered by Von Kellenbach in Berlin and in Theresienstadt therefore gave rise to a distressing question: How did it happen that Jonas' name was erased from history, although quite a few of her acquaintances, such as Frankl or Baeck, who met her both in Berlin and in Theresienstadt, survived the Holocaust?

The real reason for ignoring Jonas will never be known. Dr. von Kellenbach, as well as Israeli historian Margalit Shlain and Jewish feminists in Germany, England and the United States, believe the reason was gender-related, and claim that it is implicit, at least in part, in Jonas' life story.

Regina Jonas was born on August 3, 1902 in a poor neighborhood in Berlin, many of whose residents were religious Jews who had arrived in Germany at the end of the 19th century from Eastern Europe. Like the others, her parents also came from there, had a hard time making a living, and lived an Orthodox lifestyle. Wolf Jonas, Regina's father, was a not particularly successful merchant, who died in 1913 and left his widow Sarah and their two children, 11-year-old Regina and 13-year-old Abraham, penniless. Elisa Klapheck, editor of the Jewish monthly Juedisches Berlin, recently published a book about the life of Regina Jonas ("Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi," 2004). Klapheck discovered that the funeral for Jonas' father, who was buried in one of the Jewish cemeteries in the city, was paid for by the neighborhood Jewish community.

The death of Regina's father forced her mother to move to another neighborhood with the children. In the new apartment, next to a small Orthodox synagogue not far from Alexanderplatz, Regina's life changed. She was attracted to the atmosphere of the synagogue and the rabbi, Dr. Max Weil, who was one of the first in Germany to conduct bat-mitzvah ceremonies for girls, took her under his wing. He was the one who paved the way for her studies, first in a Jewish school and afterward in the Hochschule (high school). In 1930 she was certified there as a teacher, and began to support herself and her mother as a Judaic studies teacher.

According to Klapheck's story, Jonas, who never married and lived with her mother until they were both sent to the ghetto, conducted an Orthodox lifestyle even while studying at an educational institution that was considered Liberal and belonged to the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement. She was Orthodox, but she believed there was no contradiction between halakha (Jewish religious law) and her desire to serve in the rabbinate. After completing her teaching certification, she continued to study at the Hochschule, and when she finished, in 1933, she wrote a final paper discussing the question "Can a woman be a rabbi?" Relying on a large number of halakhic sources, which are cited in the original Hebrew in her paper, she replied in the affirmative. The root of the obstacles placed in the path of women today, she wrote at the time, have their source in prejudices that were created in the Middle Ages, and that can be overcome without changing any of the principles of rabbinic Judaism. Klapheck includes the entire 88-page doctoral dissertation in her book.

Waiting for the trains

All of Jonas' teachers praised her dissertation, but none of them agreed to ordain her for the rabbinate. Rabbi Prof. Hanoch Albeck, her Talmud teacher, explained his refusal by saying he wasn't willing to ordain a woman. Prof. Leo Baeck, on whom Jonas had pinned great hopes, also refused to ordain her. Baeck was then already the head of the National Representation of Jews in Germany, and attributed great importance to preserving the unity of all the branches of the community with regards to the recently established Nazi regime. Although he admired Jonas and encouraged her in her studies, he was not willing to risk this unity for her sake.

Two years later, when a rabbi was finally found who agreed to ordain her, Baeck hastened to send her a letter of congratulation. In 1942, a short time before both of them were sent to Theresienstadt, he added his signature to her ordination certificate. Even after she was ordained, and in spite of the fact that the Nazi persecutions caused the Jewish communities and the spiritual leadership in Germany to dwindle steadily, she was unable to find a congregation that was willing to hire her as a rabbi. Until she was sent to Theresienstadt she fulfilled rabbinic positions only in old-age homes and hospitals of the Jewish community.

Jonas was in Theresienstadt for a little over two years, and in October 1944 was sent with her mother to Auschwitz. Her main occupation in the ghetto, as part of Dr. Frankl's staff, was excruciating: She greeted the trains that arrived from Germany and prepared the arrivals, all of them among the best minds of German Jewry, for the terrible reality awaiting them.

In Theresienstadt she once again met Prof. Baeck, the Reform leader who 10 years earlier had refrained from signing her ordination certificate. Unlike Jonas, Baeck survived; but until his dying day in London, in 1956, he avoided mention of Jonas' activity in the ghetto. Frankl also survived, although he was sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. He, like Baeck, avoided mentioning Jonas in his books. Frankl's behavior can be more easily explained than can Baeck's. In a foreword to his book "Man's Search for Meaning," Frankl wrote that he erased from his memory everything that happened before he entered the gates of Auschwitz.

Shrouded in mystery

Even today, 13 years after the discovery of Jonas' papers in East Berlin, the woman is shrouded in mystery: Why was her name forgotten for decades? How did it happen that a woman, who was a very well-known figure among the Jews of Germany in the decade preceding the Holocaust, had no memorial until the 1990s? How is it possible that her activity on Frankl's staff in Theresienstadt didn't rate her a mention in the books written about the ghetto?

There are no real answers to most of these questions. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that because Jonas was a nonconformist, she became a person with whom no religious sector or social class could identify fully.

Jonas, an Orthodox woman who defied the rabbinical establishment and was ordained by a Reform rabbi, fell between the cracks: The Reform movement didn't perpetuate her memory because they didn't consider her a part of their legacy; and the same was true of the Orthodox movement.

Only in the 1990s, after the discovery of the papers in East Germany, did her name begin to infiltrate people's awareness. Male and female Reform rabbis in England and the United States began to praise her in sermons they gave on the anniversary of her birth. Dr. Elizabeth-Tikvah Sarah, a rabbi in the synagogue of the Reform community in Brighton, England, extolled Jonas in an article she published in an anthology about female rabbis. She praised Jonas' pioneering spirit, and leveled criticism at the Reform Movement, which she claimed tried to erase her memory for reasons of gender. How is it possible, asked Dr. Sarah, that during the entire period of study for the rabbinate at the Leo Baeck Institute in London, I didn't hear her name even once? Why, she continued, was the ceremony in which the papers found in Berlin were handed over to the head of the institute, conducted in a side room, with fewer than 10 people present?

Elisa Klapheck established Deborah House in Berlin (as a feminist answer to the Hillel House) - a Jewish community center that is designed to serve as a meeting place for Jewish feminists from all over the world. In the lobby she placed a large photo of Jonas, and a sign that perpetuates her memory. "Stories like that of Regina Jonas," she says, "are today inspiring the renewal of Jewish life in Germany." Jonas' name and photo have recently been publicized with increasing frequency on the Internet sites of Jewish feminist movements the world over. From a visit to some of these sites one can see that she is slowly becoming a feminist symbol, a model for imitation.

In Israel there is still almost no interest in her. Prof. Judith Baumel, a lecturer and researcher from Bar-Ilan University who has also researched gender aspects of the Holocaust, says Jonas' story has been publicized only during the past decade. In the archive of Terezin (Theresienstadt) House in Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, an institution that was established to commemorate the Jews who spent time in Theresienstadt, the file that bears her name comprises no more than two pages that were translated from a single document found in the ghetto archive in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, these two pages contain impressive information: a list of dozens of lectures given by Jonas to the Jews of the ghetto during the two years she lived there. The subjects about which she spoke include "The Jewish woman in the Tanach and the Talmud," "Humor in the Talmud," and "The religious commandments in Theresienstadt."

The first female Israeli researcher to show interest in her is Margalit Shlain, who is working on a doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University that deals with the behavior of the Judenrat of the Theresienstadt ghetto. Jonas was not a member of the Jewish Council, and therefore her activity in the ghetto is not central to Shlain's work. But Shlain, who came across Jonas' name when she was gathering material for her research, is convinced Jonas deserves greater attention than she has enjoyed up until now. A few months ago, when she was invited to Terezin House to lecture about her doctorate, she decided to devote her lecture to Jonas. Shlain says she has difficulty understanding why Jonas' memory and activity have been kept a secret until now, and claims that "a man of similar stature would have been commemorated prominently."

"Regina Jonas was an exceptionally charismatic woman," says Shlain. "A model of a public emissary, both in 1930s Germany and in Theresienstadt. In the ghetto she took extremely difficult tasks upon herself, and she knew how to give hope to people whose entire world had been destroyed. She was well versed in all the Jewish sources, spoke Hebrew fluently, and fought against the Jewish establishment in Germany, which didn't make it easy for her to receive rabbinic ordination. She was the first woman in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. I really don't understand what else is necessary in order for her to become a myth."