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Regina Jonas : biography

3 August 1902 - 12 December 1944

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 and Asenath Barzani, who acted in similar roles without being ordained).

Early life

She became orphaned from her father when she was very young. Like many women at that time, she followed a career as a teacher but was not content. 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 preach in a synagogue, and she was soon ordered into forced labor. Despite this, she continued her rabbinical work as well as teaching and preaching.

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—until she was deported to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944, where she was murdered two months later. She was 42 years old.

There have been many other gifted Jewish people giving lectures in Theresienstadt, such as Leo Baeck. Most of them have been murdered. None of the famous survivors has ever mentioned her name or work at Terezin, nor has there been research on why.Elisa Klapheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, introductory chapter:


Life work and legacy

A hand-written list of 24 of her lectures entitled "Lectures of the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas," still exists and can still be found in the archives of Theresienstadt. Five lectures are about the history of Jewish women, five deal with Talmudic topics, two deal with Biblical themes, three with pastoral issues, and nine offer general introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and the festivals.

In 1995, Bea Wyler, who had studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, became the first female rabbi in postwar Germany, in the city of Oldenburg.

In 2010, Alina Treiger, who studied at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, became the first female rabbi ordained in Germany since Regina Jonas.

In 2013 a documentary about Regina Jonas, titled Regina, premiered. It is directed by Diana Groo, and concerns Regina Jonas's struggle to be ordained as a rabbi, and also her romance with Hamburg rabbi Josef Norden. It is a British, Hungarian and German co-production.

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