Today in Yiddishkayt… August 3
Birthday of Regina Jonas, First Woman Rabbi
Regina Jonas was the first practicing woman rabbi in Germany and is believed to be the first woman ordained in the entire world. Jonas was born on August 3, 1902 in the so-called Scheunenviertel neighborhood of Berlin — a densely populated district crowded with mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. She grew up in a strictly observant home, though she attended the public advanced high school and trained to be a teacher.
Drawn to further her Jewish education, she attended classes at Berlin’s liberal Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. It was there that she dedicated herself to the mission of becoming the first woman rabbi. In 1930, after 12 semesters of study, she passed her examinations and submitted her thesis on a Talmudic discussion, “Can a Woman Hold the Office of Rabbi?” While she was not ordained for her work at the Hochshule, she became an academically-certified teacher of religion and gave sermons and series of lectures and continued to press for her ordination. In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann of Offenbach agreed on behalf of the Association of Liberal Rabbis to begin the process of ordination. On December 27, 1935, the Association confirmed that Jonas “is capable of answering questions of Jewish law and is suitable to hold the office of rabbi,” and became the first ordained woman rabbi in the world.
As a rabbi, she continued to work in the Berlin Jewish community, although she was never granted the privelege of leading a congregation. With the deteriorating situation for German Jews after 1938, Jonas traveled around Germany acting as a rabbi for communities that were left without leaders because of emigration and the start of mass deportations.
Not long after, Jonas was assigned to forced labor in a Berlin factory and in 1942 was sent with her mother to Theresienstadt. At the Theresienstadt concentration camp, she worked with Viktor Frankl in the department of “Mental Hygiene” to help newcomers to the camp cope with the shock and despair of arrival. Jonas also gave lectures and sermons in Theresienstadt before she and her mother were tranferred to Auschwitz, where they were murdered in late 1944.
In the tradition of women pioneers in Jewish culture, here is the women’s ensemble Mikve, comprised of five of the top international klezmer musicians — Lauren Brody, Nicki Parrott, Alicia Svigals, Susan Watts Hoffman, and the great Adrienne Cooper (עליה השלום). The band joined together to create music that reflects the experience of Jewish women. Here they are singing “װאָס װעט זײַן (What Will Be)” from their self-titled CD.