|Born||3 August 1902
|Died||12 December 1944
Auschwitz concentration camp, General Government
Regina Jonas (3 August 1902 – 12 December 1944) was a Berlin-born rabbi. In 1935, she became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi (though there had been some previous women, such as the Maiden of Ludmir, Asenath Barzani, and Lily Montagu, who acted in similar roles without being ordained).
Jonas became orphaned at a very young age. Like many women at that time, she followed a career as a teacher but was not content with the career she chose. In Berlin, she enrolled at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Higher Institute for Jewish Studies—the Academy for the Science of Judaism, and took seminary courses for liberal rabbis and educators. There she graduated as an "Academic Teacher of Religion."
With the goal of becoming a rabbi, Jonas wrote a thesis that would have been an ordination requirement. Her topic was "Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?" Her conclusion, based on Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was that she should be ordained. However, the Talmud professor responsible for ordinations refused her because she was a woman. Jonas applied to Rabbi Leo Baeck, spiritual leader of German Jewry, who had taught her at the seminary. He also refused because the ordination of a female rabbi would have caused massive intra-Jewish communal problems with the Orthodox rabbinate in Germany.
On December 27, 1935, Regina Jonas received her semicha and was ordained by the liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, who was the head of the Liberal Rabbis' Association, in Offenbach am Main. Jonas found work as a chaplain in various Jewish social institutions while attempting to find a pulpit.
Persecution and death
Because of Nazi persecution, many rabbis emigrated and many small communities were without rabbinical support. The duress of Nazi persecution made it impossible for Jonas to hold services in a synagogue, and she was soon ordered into forced labor. Despite this, she continued her rabbinical work as well as teaching and holding services.
On November 4, 1942, Regina Jonas had to fill out a declaration form that listed her property, including her books. Two days later, all her property was confiscated "for the benefit of the German Reich." The next day, November 5, 1942, the Gestapo arrested her and she was deported to Theresienstadt. She continued her work as a rabbi, and Viktor Frankl, the well-known psychologist, asked her for help in building a crisis intervention service to improve the possibility of surviving by helping to prevent suicide attempts. Her particular job was to meet the trains at the station. There she helped people cope with shock and disorientation.
Regina Jonas worked tirelessly in the Theresienstadt concentration camp for two years, her work including giving lectures on different topics. She was deported with other prisoners to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944, where she was murdered two months later. She was 42 years old.
Regina Jonas's work was rediscovered in 1991 by Dr. Katharina von Kellenbach, a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at St. Mary's College of Maryland, who had been born in Germany. In 1991 she traveled to Germany to research material for a paper on the attitude of the religious establishment (Protestant and Jewish) to women seeking ordination in 1930s Germany. She found an envelope containing the only two existing photos of Regina Jonas, as well as Jonas' rabbinical diploma, teaching certificate, seminary dissertation and other personal documents, in an archive in East Berlin. It was newly available because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of eastern Germany and other archives. It is largely due to her discovery that Regina Jonas is now widely known.
In 1999, Elisa Klapheck published a biography about Regina Jonas and a detailed edition of her thesis, "Can Women Serve as Rabbis?". The biography, translated into English in 2004 under the title Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas - The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, gives voice to witnesses who knew or met Regina Jonas personally as rabbi in Berlin or Theresienstadt. Klapheck also described Jonas' love relationship with Rabbi Josef Norden.
A hand-written list of 24 of her lectures entitled "Lectures of the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas," still exists in the archives of Theresienstadt. Five lectures were about the history of Jewish women, five dealt with Talmudic topics, two dealt with Biblical themes, three with pastoral issues, and nine offered general introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and the festivals.
A large portrait of Regina Jonas was installed on a kiosk that tells her story; it was placed in Hackescher Market in Berlin, as part of a citywide exhibition titled “Diversity Destroyed: Berlin 1933-1938-1945,” to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the National Socialists’ rise to power in 1933 and the 75th anniversary of the November pogrom, or Kristallnacht, in 1938.
In 2001, during a conference of Bet Debora (European women rabbis, cantors and rabbinic scholars) in Berlin, a memorial plaque was revealed at Regina Jonas’ former living place in Krausnickstraße 6 in Berlin-Mitte.
In 2003 and 2004, Gesa Ederberg and Elisa Klapheck were ordained in Israel and the US, leading later on egalitarian congregations in Berlin and Frankfurt. Klapheck is the author of Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas - The Story of the First Woman Rabbi (2004).
2013 saw the premiere of the documentary Regina, a British, Hungarian, and German co-production directed by Diana Groo. The film concerns Jonas's struggle to be ordained and her romance with Hamburg rabbi Josef Norden.
On April 5, 2014 an original chamber opera, also titled "Regina" and written by composer Elisha Denburg and librettist Maya Rabinovitch, premiered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was commissioned and performed by the independent company Essential Opera and featured soprano Erin Bardua in the role of Regina, and soprano Maureen Batt as the student who uncovers her forgotten legacy in the archives of East Berlin in 1991. The opera is scored for five voices, clarinet, violin, accordion, and piano.
In 2014, a memorial plaque to Regina Jonas was unveiled at the former Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, where she had been deported to and worked in for two years. There is a short documentary about the trip on which this plaque was unveiled, titled In the Footsteps of Regina Jonas.
In 2015, Abraham Geiger College and the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam marked the 80th anniversary of Regina Jonas’s ordination with an international conference, titled "The Role of Women’s Leadership in Faith Communities."
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- Klapheck, Elisa. Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, Toby Axelrod (Translated) ISBN 0-7879-6987-7
- Makarova, Elena, Sergei Makarov & Victor Kuperman. University Over The Abyss. The story behind 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures in KZ Theresienstadt 1942–1944. Second edition, April 2004, Verba Publishers Ltd. Jerusalem, Israel, 2004. ISBN 965-424-049-1, (Preface: Prof. Yehuda Bauer)
- Milano, Maria Teresa."Regina Jonas.Vita di una rabbina Berlino 1902 Auschwitz 1944" ed. EFFATA' 2012
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- Silverman, Emily Leah. Edith Stein and Regina Jonas: Religious Visionaries in the Time of the Death Camps, Routledge, 2014, ISBN 978-1844657193
- Von Kellenbach, Katharina. "Denial and Defiance in the Work of Rabbi Regina Jonas" in In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the 20th Century (Chapter 11), Phyllis Mack and Omar Bartov, eds., Berghahn Books, New York, 2001, ISBN 978-1571813022
- Von Kellenbach, Katharina. "'God Does Not Oppress Any Human Being' The Life and Thought of Rabbi Regina Jonas," in Leo Baeck Year Book, 1994
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- A Case of Communal Amnesia, by Rabbi Dr. Sybil Sheridan, published May 16, 1999
- A forgotten myth, by Aryeh Dayan, Haaretz, published May 25, 2004
- In the Footsteps of Rabbi Regina Jonas, by Dr. Gary P. Zola, then Executive Director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, published August 27, 2014
- Regina Jonas: Audio feature from The Open University
- Regina Jonas: A Symbol of Female Empowerment in Jewish Life, by Liora Alban of Women of the Wall, published July 22, 2013
- Regina Jonas: "The one and only woman rabbi" during dark times, by Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, August 3, 2002
- Remembering Rabbi Regina Jonas, by Rabbi Sally Priesand, published 2014
- St. Mary's college of Maryland: Rabbi Regina Jonas Memorial page.
- Regina Jonas Remembered at the Jewish Women's Archive website.
- The First Woman Rabbi in the World
- Theresienstadt Ghetto
- "We Who Are Her Successors": Honoring Rabbi Regina Jonas, by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, published 2014
- “Without Regard to Gender" A Halachic Treatise by the First Woman Rabbi, by Laura Major, published the summer of 2010