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Remembering Regina Jonas, First Woman Rabbi

For many years, Regina’s story of becoming the first woman rabbi was forgotten, tucked away in archives, lost among ashes.

This Shabbat, the 27th of Tishrei or October 29th, we honor the yahrzeit of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi. When I began my studies to become a rabbi, I thought often with gratitude of Amy Eilberg, the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, and the challenges she faced as a pioneer. I had not heard of Regina Jonas, who studied in seminary in 1930’s Berlin at the Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentems. I did not know about the thesis she had written, whose title came in the form of a question, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Regina Jonas argued that yes, indeed, according to Jewish law, women were permitted to become rabbis. While her teachers praised her brilliance and scholarship, her seminary refused to grant her the title of Rabbi. She was later ordained privately, in December of 1935, by Rabbi Max Dienemann. Regina Jonas taught Torah to the girls of Berlin, sat with those in pain in the Jewish Hospital, and helped the Jews of her city find slivers of hope as life unraveled. When she was deported from her home city, she served as a rabbi for her fellow prisoners at Theresienstatdt. From there, in 1944, Regina Jonas was taken to Auschwitz, where she arrived on Shabbat Bereishit, as her people went up in smoke, as the cycle of Torah began again. As we don’t know the exact date of Regina Jonas’s death, contemporary rabbis have chosen to mark her yahrzeit on Shabbat Bereishit.

It seems fitting to honor Regina Jonas on this Shabbat, as we read about the creation of the world and the first human beings. The Torah tells two stories about how humans came to be. In one story, Eve is formed from Adam’s rib. In the other version, man and woman are created at the same time. Created in the image of God, full of Divine light and breath, Regina Jonas saw her potential and the potential of women to lead, interpret, and teach the stories and laws of Torah. For many years, Regina’s story of becoming the first woman rabbi was forgotten, tucked away in archives, lost among ashes.

In her book Standing Again at Sinai, Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow writes:

“Jewish feminists… must reclaim Torah as our own. We must render visible the presence, experience, and deeds of women erased in traditional sources. We must tell the stories of women’s encounters with God and capture the texture of their religious experience. We must expand the notion of Torah to encompass not just the five books of Moses and traditional Jewish learning, but women’s words, teachings, and actions hitherto unseen. To expand Torah, we must reconstruct Jewish history to include the history of women, and in doing so alter the shape of Jewish memory.”

As we remember Regina, we reshape our history and our future. We become partners in creating a world where all girls and women are recognized for the wisdom and potential we carry. As the voices of women are daily discredited and silenced, may Regina inspire us to recover stories, raise questions, and restore hope. May the soul of Rabbi Regina Jonas be held in lovingkindness. May we give life to her memory and may her memory give us life.

See a memorial ritual for Rabbi Regina Jonas here. Learn more about her at the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Rabbi Annie Lewis is a passionate organizer, story-weaver, poet, compassionate listener, and teacher of Torah of the heart. Annie was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012 and served for four years as Assistant Rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre. She is currently studying to become a marriage and family therapist with the Council for Relationships. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Rabbi Yosef Goldman, and their daughter, Zohar.

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