Building a Memory
There are many kinds of journeys: from place to place, from one time to another, from trying to forget to choosing to remember.
I am writing this reflection on a train from Prague to Budapest. It's been a long journey across many miles to another time, trying to remember what was once forgotten. My husband Dennis and I were part of the delegation of rabbis, mostly women, scholars, and lay leaders who have come to honor Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi.
In 1942, the Nazis deported Jonas to Terezin, a concentration camp where she continued to teach, preach and comfort fellow inmates. In 1944 she was sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. For a long time her memory died as well. Those who survived and knew her were silent about her legacy. Perhaps it was because she was a woman. Perhaps it was because the pressing needs of reconstructing Jewish life required as much unity and consensus as possible, and female ordination was a divisive issue. It was not until nearly 40 years later, in 1972, that a woman, Sally Priesand, was ordained, this time in America by the Reform movement. I was ordained as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974. Traveling with us were Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative woman, and Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by open Orthodoxy.
Memory also has its own journey between forgetting and remembering. From Berlin we traveled to Terezin to walk the streets Regina walked. In Terezin, the US Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad sponsored the dedication of a plaque as a memorial. A day before traveling to Terezin, we saw Regina's papers, a small pile that must have been all that survived of a much larger collection. We stared at a photograph of her, the sole image that remained. In the formal portrait, she wore a rabbinic robe and her young face was dignified and serious. I yearned for photographs of her teaching, laughing, and loving, images of a full life. But there were none.
In keeping with Jewish custom, all those in attendance at the Terezin memorial placed a smooth white stone under the plaque. As we made a pile, we re-imagined, we built a memory. We journeyed both geographically and temporally, from place to place and from past to present. With prayer and music, we brought to light what was hidden in deepest darkness: we resurrected a memory.
At the memorial we read words that Regina Jonas once spoke and, through the voices of the first women rabbis of the United States, Regina's voice came alive again. For a moment, time stood still and an echo of the past filled the room and our souls. The future was present too. With the women rabbis from America also stood the first women rabbis serving a new Jewish generation in Europe.
All through Berlin and Prague we came face to face with a renewing present and a past that asserted itself in ubiquitous memorials and on contemporary placards. On one side of the emotional seesaw we met newly ordained women rabbis who were seeking to go beyond remembering to a revival of Jewish life. Talented and visionary, they were clearly tomorrow's hope. They drew strength from the international gathering of scholars and rabbis, mostly women, joining in study and prayer. As one of the woman serving a congregation in Germany commented, "You are my dream, come to me."
On the other side, the Middle East crisis erupted into anti-Semitic hatred. The Berlin government was visibly and genuinely shocked and promised vigilance. Still one young artist living in Berlin was beginning to think of where she might go should the anti-Jewish sentiment escalate.
As so we journeyed somewhere between caution and promise, between holding on and letting go, between memory and beginning. In biblical tradition, whenever God remembers, something new happens. God remembers Noah and a new covenant is affirmed. God remembers Rachel, and she gives birth to Joseph. All of us on this amazing journey remembered Rabbi Regina Jonas. We do not know yet what new beginning awaits.
I always understood time travel as science fiction, but as we journey in space, so we journey in time, inhaling the old and breathing out new life. All of us who took this extraordinary pilgrimage did so not to return to the past, but to discover the times, events, places and people that still live in us and, knowingly or not, shape our future.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Building a Memory." (Viewed on December 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/rabbis/regina-jonas-remembered/building-memory>.