This Day in Jewish History

1935: World’s First Female Rabbi Is Ordained, in Germany

Regina Jonas remained outside the Orthodox establishment, but provided spiritual services in the concentration camps where she wound up and died.

Portrait of Rabbi Regina Jonas.
Centrum Judaica Archive

On December 27, 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained as a rabbi in Offenbach am Main, Germany. With an ordination certificate signed by the head of Germany’s Liberal Rabbis’ Association, Jonas is thought to be the first woman ever to receive ordination – though the country’s Orthodox rabbinate did not recognize her status. Less than a decade later, she was dead, having been murdered at Auschwitz.

Regina Jonas was born on August 3, 1902, in Berlin. Her father, Wolf Jonas, was a not-so-successful merchant, who died when Regina was only 11. Her mother, the former Sara Hess, then moved with Regina and her older brother, Abraham, from the Scheunenviertel neighborhood to smaller quarters in Alexanderplatz. There, the family attended the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where Regina encountered several Orthodox rabbis who encouraged her interest in Jewish studies.

The Rykestrasse’s Rabbi Max Weyl, for example, met with her once a week to study Jewish law. By the time she was in high school, she had begun talking about her desire to become a rabbi.

In 1923, Jonas completed her high school requirements at the Oberlyzeum Weissensee, and the following fall began studying for her teaching credentials at a Berlin teachers seminar.

Jewish sources say, Yes

After earning a teaching certificate, the next year Jonas entered the city’s Academy for the Science of Judaism (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), a liberal rabbinical seminary and teachers’ training school. There were other women students there, but they were all in the teachers track, whereas Jonas took the coursework required of rabbinical students and wrote an 88-page dissertation on the subject, “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?”

Her answer, of course, was yes, and her argument was based entirely on traditional Jewish sources. On the first page of her thesis, Jonas wrote, “I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it,” while concluding with a declaration that, “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

The final decision of whether to grant semikha (ordination) to a student was in the hands of the academy’s Talmud teacher, Eduard Baneth. He was in favor but died a short time later. His successor, Hanoch Albeck – later a professor of talmudic studies at the Hebrew University – was opposed in principle to the ordination of women. Jonas was graduated from the academy with a teaching degree.

She continued her campaign for ordination, however, and finally, on December 27, 1935, received semikha from Rabbi Max Dienemann.

Forced labor and spiritual services

While she sought work as a pulpit rabbi, Jonas began working at several Jewish social institutions as a chaplain. And as more and more rabbis emigrated from Germany, positions opened up at a number of different liberal synagogues. Eventually, Jonas took up a position at Berlin’s flagship shul – the New Synagogue.

In 1941, Jonas was sent to do forced labor in a factory, where she also provided spiritual services for her fellow victims. On November 5, 1942, she was arrested and deported to Theresienstadt.

At that “model” ghetto outside Prague, Jonas gave lectures on many topics, and worked with the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in setting up a crisis intervention service for inmates. This included the task of greeting new arrivals at the camp train station, helping to ease the shock many were experiencing. She also worked with German rabbi Leo Baeck.

Two years later, on October 12, 1944, Jonas was sent to Auschwitz, where she was probably killed on arrival.

Both Frankl and Baeck survived the Holocaust, yet after the war neither ever mentioned Jonas, despite her unusual accomplishments and their own work with her. Regina Jonas would have been forgotten to history had a German Christian scholar, Katharina von Kellenbach, not come across an envelope containing a photo of her, and a packet of her papers – including her ordination certificate – in a Jewish archive in Germany in 1991.

Over the past two decades, von Kellenbach and Elisa Klapheck, among others, have written extensively about Jonas. As a result, her remarkable saga, and achievement of becoming the world’s first woman rabbi, have begun to get the attention they deserve.