Regina Jonas: Putting Female Rabbis on The Map

In 1972 Sally Priesand was ordained and given the title as the first female rabbi. It was quite an honor, yet it was an honor that she wouldn’t hold for even twenty years. When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, records would be discovered in east Germany that would rob Priesand of that title. Records that would point to Berlin native, Regina Jonas. Who was Regina Jonas and why had her name never been written or mentioned among her colleagues after the holocaust? No one can know why particularly, but once the records were found, her story came to light.

Her story begins in 1902 in Berlin. Regina got her start in a rather poor neighborhood. It was a bumpy start that would get bumpier before it would ever smooth out. Her father and first teacher died when she was only eleven and she became an orphan. It was in those early years that garnered a passion for studying the Torah and for her jewish culture.

Before becoming an ordained rabbi, Regina had started a career as a teacher, yet she never really felt fulfilled with this job. She really wanted to teach the Torah. She eventually left the job and went to study at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies. It was there that she graduated and became an academic teacher of religion.

Though she still wasn’t a rabbi and with that goal in mind she wrote a thesis about women becoming rabbis according to halachic sources. She the person in charge of ordaining rabbis wouldn’t ordain her simply because she was a woman. She tried getting ordained by Rabbi Leo Baeck, but he refused stating that ordaining a female would cause mass hysteria. She finally ordained by the liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann in 1935. Her dream had come true.

Sadly, her career as a Rabbi would be short lived. With the Hitler taking over Germany, it wasn’t long before Regina became a victim to their brutality. In 1942 she would be taken to Auschwitz and murdered. Her name would be forgotten for nearly fifty years.