Who's your Rabba?

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Jonas, Regina - still image [media]
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Regina Jonas in a photograph presumed to have been taken after 1939. Her stamp on the back of the photograph bears the compulsory name of "Sara," which all Jewish women had to bear after 1939 and reads "Rabbi Regina Sara Jonas."

Institution: Stiftung "Neue Synagoge Berlin - Centrum Judaicum," Berlin


Raised as a Reform Jew by an ardent feminist, it was drilled into me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted. An astronaut, a doctor, the President — whatever (though I’m sure an underemployed freelance writer slacker mom wasn’t what my highly accomplished mother had in mind.)

Schooled as I was in the sections of the Equal Rights Amendment, I didn’t study a lot of Torah; Reform Jews in the 70s read Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You And Me to their daughters instead of the Pirkei Avot. I didn’t yet know the marked differences in the assimilated American lifestyle of my family and the daily rituals observance performed by Orthodox Jews or the separation between men and women in all facets of home, prayer and work.

I met my first female rabbi back in 80s (She was young! She played guitar! She didn’t have hair growing out of her ears!) and I figured any Jewish woman could become a rabbi as long as she stayed in Hebrew school and liked to wear robes, but that’s not true for the stern patriarchy of the Orthodox: While women are revered, most of the men in charge don’t believe women should study Torah, let alone teach it. I never really considered becoming a rabbi (it’s a calling, and the phone’s never rung) but I like to think if my family had been more religious, as contentious as I am, it would have been my first career choice.

While women have been ordained in the Reform and Conservative Movements for decades (the photo is of the first ordained female rabbi, Regina Jonas), Orthodox women have continued to be rejected by the religious governing body.

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