This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
When Regina Jonas studied at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, a seminary in Berlin, in the 1920s, every officially ordained rabbi the world had ever known had something in common: They were all men.
To be sure, women have had prominent roles in Judaism, including as scholars and teachers. The Talmud, the central text of Jewish law, mentions women sages. Osnat Barzani, a Kurdish Jewish scholar and teacher in the 1600s, took on roles traditionally reserved for men, as did various women in 19th- and early 20th-century America. A long line of Jewish women developed prayers and traditions.
But Jonas was unsatisfied with these options. She sought official rabbinical ordination, or smicha, which conferred the highest status in Judaism. As she later explained, “God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
In 1930, Jonas completed a thesis at the seminary that directly posed the question, “Can women serve as rabbis?” Drawing on sources from Jewish law, or Halacha, she argued that the answer was yes; only custom and tradition had limited smicha to men.
Bad luck then dealt Jonas’s ambitions a cruel blow: The rabbi she studied under, who gave her thesis a grade of “good,” died suddenly, before he could ordain her. Although Jonas had other prominent supporters, including Rabbi Leo Baeck, who later led the Nazi-era organization for German Jews, none would ordain her.
Finally, on Dec. 27, 1935, the liberal rabbi Max Dienemann of Offenbach agreed to do it. He wrote that “she has passed the exam I have given her in religious legal topics,” adding, “I testify to her that she is capable to answer questions of religious law (the Halacha) and that she is suitable to serve as a rabbi.”
That statement shattered a glass ceiling that had existed for almost 2,000 years. It was, according to one observer, “an earthshaking event.”
Even Baeck ultimately signed the German translation of her ordination letter. She began to teach in Berlin, but because no synagogue would employ her, she joined the Jewish Community of Berlin to minister to Jews in hospitals and old-age homes; she also gained access to work in a women’s prison.
She sought not to reform or revolutionize Judaism, but rather to promote Jewish traditions and counter assimilationist trends she felt were threatening the religion’s survival.
“She made a radical point to be the first woman rabbi, but for conservative reasons,” Elisa Klapheck, a rabbi who wrote “Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi” (2004), said in an interview.
Former students whom Klapheck interviewed recalled Jonas’s “modern pedagogic” teaching style, including annual performances of a Hanukkah play she wrote to bring Judaism alive. She was also renowned for her “oratorical skills” and “sonorous voice.”
“She’s a very strong, authoritative voice, very pious, very devoted, very, very serious — that’s the sort of feeling you get about her,” said Elizabeth Sarah, rabbi emerita of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue in England, who has written about Jonas.
But not all were thrilled; some found Jonas too strident or eccentric. And some male rabbis opposed giving her access to preach from the pulpit in synagogues.
While Jonas’s career was ascending, albeit in fits and starts, conditions for Jews in Germany were going downhill fast. The Nuremberg Laws excluding Jews from German society were passed the same year Jonas received her ordination. As other rabbis fled, Jonas gained prominence, traveling to communities whose rabbis had left.
Jonas, too, was urged to leave Germany, but said she could not abandon people who were suffering, nor her mother, with whom she lived. In the spring of 1939, she wrote ina rabbinical commentary published in a Jewish newspaper that the Nazi persecution was a “trial by fire, testing the strength of our love for children, gratitude, the mutual support of family and friends in these alien conditions.”,
In early November 1942, Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia. The deportation file she was forced to create offers the clearest proof that she identified herself as a “rabbinerin,” or female rabbi. It also contained her thesis. The documents made their way to the archive of German Jews, where they sat untouched for almost 50 years behind the Iron Curtain, until unearthed by a German religion scholar, Katharina von Kellenbach, after the Berlin Wall fell.
The Nazis had established Theresienstadt as a sort of model concentration camp to try to fool the outside world about how they were treating Jews. Jonas worked for Victor Frankl, a psychologist who later attained worldwide fame. She greeted new arrivals getting off the train, orienting them and dissuading thoughts of suicide. Her sermons urged prisoners to find meaning in their lives, even under dire circumstances. One moved Frankl so deeply that he recalled it nearly 50 years later when contacted by von Kellenbach.
“What I find most extraordinary about her,” von Kellenbach said in an interview, “is that she decided to deny the Nazis the power to define Jewish life.”
Jonas was deported to Auschwitz on Oct. 12, 1944, and it is believed that she was killed the day she arrived, on Oct. 14. She was 42.
Several prominent male survivors, including Frankl and Baeck, could have told her story, but didn’t — a choice that has baffled scholars. Jonas’s revival owes itself instead to von Kellenbach, who published an article on Jonas in 1994, bringing her to the world’s attention. There is now a children’s book, a documentary film and an opera about Jonas. She is memorialized at Theresienstadt, Yad Vashem and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, among other places. Women rabbis worldwide now embrace her as the founder of their lineage.
“We really cannot help but stand in awe of her courage,” said Sally Priesand, the second woman rabbi, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1972. “All female rabbis stand on her shoulders.”
Regina Sara Jonas was born in Berlin on Aug. 3, 1902, and grew up in the Scheunenviertel, a poor and crowded district near Berlin’s grand New Synagogue, full of both criminals and pious Jews. Her father, Wolf, a businessman, died of tuberculosis when Regina was 11, leaving her mother, Sara, to raise her and her brother, Abraham. Abraham also became a religious teacher; he and Regina often worked together.
During the period when Jonas was born, German Judaism was swept up in an extraordinary period of creative ferment. Germany in the 1800s gave birth to the Jewish enlightenment and the Reform and Modern Orthodox movements, both of which later became prominent in America. German Jews, while still barred from certain positions in German society, were far more integrated and emancipated than most of their European peers.
Jonas’s thesis embraced this spirit of innovation within Jewish tradition, arguing not that Halacha needed reform to accommodate female rabbis, but rather that it already had room for them. It “remains one of the most comprehensive attempts ever to justify the female rabbinate on the basis of Halacha,” Klapheck wrote.
Jonas believed women rabbis shouldn’t marry, and she had no children. But in 1939 she began a romantic relationship with Rabbi Joseph Norden of Hamburg, then a widower. Letters they exchanged suggest they became engaged, and show a more humorous and playful side of Jonas.
In recent decades, Jonas has been recognized as a trailblazer, though she herself chafed at that status, tellingBerna, a Swiss women’s newspaper, “For me it was never about being the first. I wish I had been the hundred thousandth!”
Still, Jonas’s story poses a “what if”: If the Nazis hadn’t devastated European Jewry, would she have inspired a generation of women rabbis the world never got to know? Instead, it was another 37 years before Priesand was ordained. That event, covered in The New York Times and elsewhere, opened a door, and the number of women stepping through it continues to grow. Women now make up more than half the students in many rabbinical schools in the United States and the United Kingdom, and occupy some of the most prominent positions in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism; several years ago, women rabbis started to be ordained in the Modern Orthodox tradition as well.
“We can only ask the very important question: If the Holocaust hadn’t happened, would we be dating the modern women’s rabbinate from 1935?” Sarah said. “I’m sure we would.”