It’s not surprising that Germany was the home of the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas. Germany, after all, was once a major center for liberal Judaism. But after the Holocaust, the few Jews who remained were mainly Orthodox, and women dreaming of the rabbinate had an easier time moving to America or Israel than fighting the status quo. But just as Regina Jonas once proved she could shepherd the community through its worst crisis, Alina Treiger, the first woman ordained in Germany since Regina Jonas, has shown the energy, compassion, and wisdom to help the German-Jewish community thrive in the twenty-first century.
Regina Jonas’s story reads like the beginning of some alternate history, a “first” that was not allowed to pave the way for those that might have followed.
At age 22, in 1924, she entered the Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a progressive school that offered women a teaching degree but also served as a seminary for men. Instead of following the prescribed course for ladies, Jonas submitted a thesis arguing that women could serve as rabbis, claiming, “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.” She even went so far as to argue that their compassion and insight made women rabbis “a cultural necessity.”
The faculty disagreed, giving her a teaching degree but no ordination. She was finally ordained in 1935 by Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis. As the situation in Germany slowly grew grimmer, and with male rabbis being sent to concentration camps, Regina Jonas stepped into the breach, teaching, giving sermons, and visiting the sick in Berlin and neighboring towns.
In 1942, she was deported to Theresienstadt, where she continued to minister to the community as a rabbi. A handwritten document lays out her religious beliefs and lists twenty-four sermons she gave in the camp. Survivors remembered her wisdom and the compassion she offered. But as with most stories of the Holocaust, hers is cut short. Jonas died two years later at age 42 when she was sent to Auschwitz. Her male colleagues who survived the camps never spoke of her after the war. And her papers remained undiscovered and out of reach in East Berlin until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s only in recent years that historians have recovered the story of Jonas and begun to mourn her life and marvel at her potential. Her story also makes the current rise of women rabbis in Europe that much more important, and overdue.
If war defined the course of Regina Jonas’s life, it was peace that set Alina Treiger on her path, specifically the end of the Cold War. Growing up in the Ukraine, Treiger was acutely aware of her Jewishness; it was the reason her father was forbidden to study and was forced to work in a factory. But as far as she knew, hers was the only Jewish family in town. When the Soviet regime fell, she was surprised to discover that more than a few of her neighbors were Jews as well.
She organized a local youth group, and after two years studying at the Institute for Progressive Judaism in Moscow, she returned home to help found a liberal synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, at age twenty-one. The synagogue thrived and remains a magnet for young, progressive Jews.
Although Treiger dreamed of becoming a rabbi, she had no money for school. Then the World Union for Progressive Judaism offered her the chance to study at the Abraham Geiger College in Germany. Before the Holocaust, Germany had been the cradle of progressive Judaism, but the war destroyed those communities and the few religiously observant Jews who remained were mainly Orthodox. But in recent years, other denominations have been reestablishing themselves in Europe, and the newly minted Reform seminary was proud to welcome its first female student.
While many Germans still have a hard time believing that a woman can really be a rabbi, the Jewish community’s urgent need for rabbis has helped create a place for Treiger. After her ordination in 2010, she chose to work with communities in Oldenburg and Delmenhorst, both of which have swelled to accommodate the flood of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Even a generation after the end of Soviet repression, many of them are still negotiating what it means to engage with Judaism while simultaneously trying to find their way in a strange country. Having experienced many of the same challenges in her own journey, Treiger is uniquely suited to help them navigate through that upheaval as a community, as Regina Jonas once hoped to do.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "German Rabbis ." (Viewed on March 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/jonas-treiger>.