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Regina Jonas Remembered

The "Lost" Story of Regina Jonas

A major theme of our shared JWA/AJA journey is the recovery of the lost narrative of Regina Jonas. We are here in the company of America’s pioneering women rabbis to bring Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas back into the story we tell of them and those who followed.

It’s important to think about why we speak of this story as “lost” even though Sally Priesand and others were well aware of Jonas when Priesand was ordained in Cincinnati in 1972. I have written on occasion about the pioneering significance of women like Priesand, Sasso, Eilberg, and Hurwitz. And it occurs to me that even though we’ve known about Jonas, there’s a way in which we may have marginalized her, because her life and career didn’t really fit into the story we wanted to tell. In some ways her main impact on me was that in writing about Priesand; I had to say first American woman rabbi rather than first woman rabbi. We also noted that Priesand received ordination from a seminary thus reflecting mainstream change in the American Jewish community, suggesting that we didn’t really understand what the significance of Jonas’ private ordination may have been.

I know that for me, Jonas seemed a shadowy figure from of a time and place far removed from the social progress we associate with the ordination of women rabbis. The essence of her story was obscured by that hard-to-comprehend period of Jewish life under the Nazis, so definitively defined for us by hatred, death, and extermination. Her reality was much removed from us by both time and tragic circumstance. How could we understand her—what could she have to do with us? It’s strange now to realize that the 37 years that separated Jonas’ ordination from that of Priesand’s is less than the 42 years (!) from Priesand’s ordination until now.

As we have learned more about Jonas from the work of diligent scholars searching the now available Jewish communal records that had been kept inaccessible in East German archives, Regina Jonas has begun to emerge from that shadowy historical obscurity. As Rabbi Priesand noted in her blog post, there is a lot that seems to connect her with Rabbiner Jonas. To pursue the dream of becoming a rabbi, both paid little attention to conventional expectations and prevailing realities. In setting out toward ordination, neither planned to be a role model for other women. Both felt that the commitment demanded of them as female religious leaders in the Jewish community would leave no room for creating families of their own. Both faced significant resistance to their leadership, and both made an historic difference to their communities.

When Sally Priesand began her pursuit of rabbinic ordination in 1964 by enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she was bent upon an individual quest. But by the time she approached ordination in 1972, history had caught up with her. The advent of feminism connected her to waves of women breaking into a myriad of male-defined fields. When other women in the Reform movement took up their studies, most of them were aware that Priesand, and then others, had preceded them. Rabbis Sasso, Eilberg, and surely Rabba Hurwitz have played similar roles in their movements.

All of these women have overcome significant communal obstacles in the course of redefining the meaning of what it means to be a rabbi. Obviously, none of them has faced the dire circumstances that defined Rabbiner Jonas’ rabbinate. Jonas first served the Jewish community under the Nuremberg Laws in Berlin and then in concentration and death camps. The ultimate destruction of Jonas’ community, gaps in time and circumstance, and archival darkness meant that women beginning their own courageous journeys toward the rabbinate had little access to the model of indomitable courage offered by Regina Jonas.     

Our privileged group of tourists will trace the journey of Rabbiner Jonas and her community from Berlin to Terezin in the company of the first of our generation’s female rabbinical pioneers. In the process, we will develop a new historical genealogy that embraces Regina Jonas. Time and circumstance will still distance us, but her courage, commitment, and learned devotion to Jewish values, belief and community in the darkest of times will be brought closer to us and our communities. 

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How to cite this page

Goldman, Karla. "The "Lost" Story of Regina Jonas." 22 July 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/berlin-prague-2014/lost-story-of-regina-jonas>.

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