Program Resources

Background Information:

Regina Jonas was the first woman rabbi, ordained in Germany in 1935. She first served the Jewish community of Berlin and then continued to guide the Jewish community of the Theresienstadt concentration camp after her deportation there. After her death in Auschwitz, her story was lost for decades. In 2014, for the 70th anniversary of her death, a group of women rabbis and scholars traveled to Germany to retrace Rabbi Jonas’ journey, reading her sermons, discussing her impact, and dedicating a memorial plaque at Theresienstadt in a moving ceremony honoring her memory. An award-winning short documentary film was made by the Jewish Women’s Archive about their remarkable journey. You can also read reflections on the experience from some of the participants and coverage of the trip from around the web. To learn more about Rabbi Jonas, visit JWA’s Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Below, explore resources for learning and teaching about Regina Jonas in your community.

About These Resources

These resources are designed to help you and your community learn from and honor Rabbi Jonas’ memory. They encourage us to ask questions such as: Which stories do we tell? Which stories remain untold? Why? What is the impact of these choices on us and on our communities? The resources are designed to be modular, allowing you to choose to do all of the components, or to select the ones that are appropriate for your timeframe or setting. They include:

  • A framing activity exploring the impact historical figures have had on us personally
  • A showing of the short film “In the Footsteps of Regina Jonas” with a guide for facilitated discussion
  • An extension activity focusing on related materials from the Jewish Women’s Archive’s collections of interviews with modern women rabbis
  • Suggestions for connecting Rabbi Jonas’ story to the Torah and the liturgical cycle
  • A memorial ritual for Regina Jonas
  • Recording of an online learning program hosted by JWA exploring these resources

All of these resources are designed to be ready for you to implement immediately; however they are also designed to be flexible, and we encourage you to adapt them to meet the needs of your particular audience and community. The scripted comments and questions provided are merely suggestions, and you should feel free to use your own words.

Framing Activity

Timing: 15-25 minutes

Required Materials:

  • Note Cards (1 per participant)
  • Pens (1 per participant)

Activity:

  • Break participants into groups of approximately 4-6 people
  • Distribute a pen and notecard to each participant
  • Ask participants to reflect on the following questions and briefly note their answers on their notecard:

“Who is one historical person whose story has inspired or impacted you? When did you first find out about this person? What did you learn from this person? How were they important in your life?”

  • You may also wish to have this question written or posted where participants can see it.
  • Give participants approximately 2-3 minutes to reflect on this question and note their responses. Then, ask the participants to go around their group briefly sharing the historical figure they chose and why that person has been important for them. Give each participant approximately 1 minute to introduce themselves and share what they wrote. You may wish to use a timer or bell to keep the group on schedule.
  • After each participant has spoken, ask the participants to reflect on the following question and briefly note their answer on their notecard:

“How would your life have been different if you had never known about this person? What did knowing their story make possible for you?”

  • Give participants approximately 2-3 minutes to reflect and note their response. Ask participants to return to the full group. If you have time, you may want to ask for volunteers to share their responses to this second prompt.

Film Screening and Discussion

Timing: 30-45 minutes

Required Materials:

  • Appropriate technology for showing online streaming video (internet access, laptop, projector, screen)

Activity:

  • Share the following background information and framing ideas with your group:
  • “Today we’ve come together to learn about and honor the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas, a person whose story has inspired me and from whom I believe we all have a great deal to learn. Her story has in some ways been hidden until recently and is not very widely known, so in addition to learning about her remarkable achievements, I hope we can also think together more broadly about which stories we tell and which we do not, why this is, and what impacts this has on us and our communities.”

    “Regina Jonas was the first woman known to have been ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1935 in Berlin, and went on to serve in that community as a Judaic studies teacher and chaplain. In 1942, she was deported to Terezin, where she served as the rabbi of the camp community—teaching, giving sermons, and offering pastoral care to her fellow prisoners. In 1945, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.”

    “Rabbi Jonas’ story was mostly unknown until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it was discovered that some of her papers had survived and were kept by the Jewish community of East Berlin. Even after this incredible discovery, her story remained largely untold. In 2014, a group of pioneering women rabbis and scholars from the United States and Europe traveled to Berlin to learn about Rabbi Jonas and honor her memory, 70 years after her death. The short documentary I am going to show you now captures some of that powerful experience.”

    “As you watch the film, some questions you may want to keep in mind are: How can Rabbi Jonas and other historical figures inspire us and what can we learn from them? What has been different because we didn’t know about this remarkable person and others like her? What does it mean to find out about Rabbi Jonas now, and what can knowing her story and other previously hidden stories make possible for us and our communities? What is our responsibility as a community to make sure this and other untold stories come to light?”

  • After the film has concluded, facilitate discussion for the full group. Possible prompting questions include:

    • “I’m interested in your reactions to this film and this story. Would anyone be willing to share their first thoughts or reflections?”
    • “What questions did this film or the story of Rabbi Jonas raise for you?”
    • “Was there anything in the film that you found particularly surprising? Was there a particular moment you found especially moving? Interesting? Inspiring?”
    • “Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the first woman to serve as a Rabbi in Berlin since Regina Jonas, commented that many of the men who had studied and served alongside Regina Jonas in the 1930’s survived the war, and yet did not speak about Rabbi Jonas. Why do you think this was? In general, why do you think the story of Rabbi Jonas has remained so little known, even after the discovery of her papers? What impact has this had?”
    • “What does it mean to you personally to learn about Rabbi Jonas’ story? What does it mean to your community?”
    • “Dr. Deborah Dash Moore suggests that learning the story of Regina Jonas can change how we think about broader questions of Jewish history. Do you agree? What assumptions about Jewish history can learning about Rabbi Jonas challenge?”
    • “Do you think is it important for Rabbi Jonas’ story to become more widely known in the Jewish community and the world in general? Why or why not?”
    • “Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement, commented that discovering Rabbi Jonas was like “reconnecting with a long-lost relative.” What was it like to watch the present day woman rabbis and teachers, many of them pioneering in their communities, learn about Rabbi Jonas?”
    • “The fact that she was the first woman in history known to receive rabbinic ordination gives Regina Jonas’ story particular importance, beyond her remarkable specific achievements. What, if anything, did you learn about “firsts” or pioneers, the challenges they face, and the importance of their legacies from the story of Regina Jonas?”
    • “After seeing this film and participating in our discussion, is there anything specific you would like to learn more about? Are there any actions you want to take as next steps after what you have learned?”

Extension Activity

Timing: 15-25 minutes

Required Materials:

  • Appropriate technology for showing online streaming video (internet access, laptop, projector, screen)

Activity:

  • Share the following background information and framing ideas with your group:

“In the film, “In the Steps of Regina Jonas,” Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first woman ordained as a Rabbi in the Reconstructionist Movement, refers to herself and other women who have become rabbis as Regina Jonas’ “legacy”. The Jewish Women’s Archive, in partnership with the Story Archive of Women Rabbis, has created an incredible online collection of clips from video interviews with many pioneering and leading modern women rabbis who have followed in the path of Regina Jonas. In this exhibit, you can hear clips of these leaders discussing their journeys to the rabbinate, their work, challenges they have faced, what inspires them, their successes, and more.”

  • Show some or all of the following relevant clips from the exhibit. Introduce each clip briefly. Following each clip, use the suggested questions to facilitate discussion.

Rabbi Tina Grimberg

“In this clip, Rabbi Tina Grimberg reflects on the first time she met a rabbi after having grown up in the USSR.”

  • Show clip of Rabbi Grimberg.


[You may wish to note that it seems that Rabbi Grimberg isn’t aware of Rabbi Jonas, since she describes Rabbi Eisenberg Sasso as the second female Rabbi in Jewish history, when she is actually the third, after Regina Jonas and Rabbi Priesand.]

  • “What does this clip tell us about the importance of role models? How can role models help us to redefine our sense of what is possible for ourselves and our communities?”
  • “Rabbi Grimberg remarks that she noticed Rabbi Eisenberg Sasso was ‘a young woman with a child.’ Do you think it was particularly important for Rabbi Grimberg to see a woman in the role of rabbi?”
  • “How have your perceptions of rabbis or other leaders shifted over time as the people filling those roles have become more diverse? How do our communities change as women take on roles from which they had previously been excluded?”

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

“In this clip, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, the first woman from the Syrian Jewish community to become a rabbi, reflects on one way in which her rabbinic education was tailored for a model of rabbi that didn’t quite fit her.”

  • Show clip of Rabbi Cohler-Esses


  • “What does this clip tell us about the importance of role models? How can role models help us to redefine our sense of what is possible for ourselves and our communities?”
  • “Rabbi Cohler-Esses’ story powerfully illustrates one way in which the model of ‘what a rabbi does’ which was being presented to her was based on the assumption that the rabbi was a man with a wife who was willing and able to assume all household, family, and hosting responsibilities. In what other ways are our images of who a rabbi is and what they are supposed to do gendered?”
  • “How have your perceptions of rabbis or other leaders shifted over time as the people filling those roles have become more diverse? How do our communities change as women take on roles from which they had previously been excluded?”
  • “Regina Jonas believed that women who became rabbis should remain unmarried. What may have influenced this belief? What challenges do leaders, of whatever gender, face in balancing their responsibilities to their communities with other parts of their lives?”

Rabbi Gesa Ederberg

“In this clip, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the first woman to serve as a rabbi in Berlin since Regina Jonas, reflects on her feelings of connection to Rabbi Jonas.”

  • Show clip of Rabbi Ederberg

  • “What does this clip tell us about the importance of role models? How can role models help us to redefine our sense of what is possible for ourselves and our communities?”
  • “Rabbi Ederberg notes that both she and Regina Jonas began their work in roles where the community was more comfortable with a woman leader - such as teaching and pastoral counseling - and were only later able to move into other areas of rabbinic work, such as preaching and officiating services. Have you noticed such patterns in your life or in your communities? What allows for these patterns to shift over time?”

Connecting Rabbi Jonas’ Story to the Jewish Year

Although Rabbi Jonas’ exact date of death is not known, based on the time of her deportation to Auschwitz, the Shabbat on which we read Parashat Bereishit has been chosen as her yahrzeit (memorial) date. This is especially appropriate because as the first woman rabbi, Rabbi Jonas represents an important new beginning in Jewish history, just as Parashat Bereishit tells of the beginning of creation and the beginnings of humanity. Therefore, the time around that Shabbat is a particularly powerful occasion for programming or teaching honoring Rabbi Jonas’ memory. If you are teaching or speaking about Regina Jonas near that date, you may choose to incorporate any of the ideas below for connecting her story to timely themes in the Torah and liturgical cycle.

Btzelem Elokim Bara Oto: Creation in the Image of the Divine

In Parashat Bereishit (Genesis 1:27), we are told:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

Gd created the human in the Divine image, in the image of Gd, did the Divine create the human; male and female did Gd create them.

This verse emphasizes that each human being, of whatever gender, is a reflection of the image of the Divine. Rabbi Regina Jonas herself powerfully reflected on the idea of the fundamental divinity of all people and the implications of this idea for her choice to pursue the rabbinate in her writings in the women’s page of Central-Verein-Zeitung (June 23, 1938), a German Jewish newspaper:

“I hope a time will come for all of us in which there will be no more questions on the subjects of “woman”: for as long as there are questions, something is wrong. But if I must say what drove me as a women to become a rabbi, two elements come to mind: My belief in the godly calling and my love for people. God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.”

Bereishit—Beginning and Beginning Again

The Torah starts with two different stories of the creation of human beings: one in which men and women are created equal, in God’s image, and one in which Eve is made out of Adam’s rib, as a companion to Adam. Beginnings can be messy—it’s hard to tell the story of something completely new, to articulate something unprecedented. It’s hard to identify which step in a complicated process was the real beginning. But the step we call the beginning, and the words we use to describe it, change the whole story. Many of us are familiar with the story of Sally Priesand, the first American woman rabbi, ordained in 1972. But the story of women in the rabbinate actually starts earlier than that, with the ordination of Regina Jonas.

Jonas felt called to serve the Jewish community from an early age and studied for the rabbinate, but after her mentor died, she spent the next several years struggling to find someone willing to ordain her. Throughout the Holocaust, she served as a spiritual leader to various congregations in Berlin, and continued to preach and counsel even after she was sent to the camps. But after her death, she was forgotten for decades, unmentioned by those who had known her, until the fall of the Berlin Wall gave us access to her writings. Was the Holocaust the only reason why she was forgotten for so long? Were we simply not ready for the idea of a woman rabbi yet? And what do we gain when we choose to begin the story of women in the rabbinate with her?

Genesis: Learning the Stories of our Mythic Foremothers

Parashat Bereishit begins the book of Genesis, which includes the stories of our foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. In reading the stories of these mythic female role models, we can learn so much about our community, its history, and ourselves. Many of us draw on their stories for inspiration and connection to Jewish women’s spiritual and interpersonal experiences. Similarly, learning about and honoring  the memory of our foremother Regina Jonas provides us with the opportunity to expand our understanding of our community, its history, and the possibilities for our future as individuals and a Jewish community, and to connect to and be inspired by the Jewish women from whom we are spiritually descended.

Sukkot—The Ushpizin

Parashat Bereishit is immediately preceded by the holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. On Sukkot, there is a Jewish folk tradition of Ushpizin, inviting guests into the sukkah, both actual, live guests and symbolic ones whose stories can inspire us and offer a chance for reflection. Traditionally, the symbolic visitors have been biblical and historic figures like Abraham and Moses (with modern, feminist additions like Miriam and Esther), those who found refuge and insight in the wilderness or who led the Jewish people through moments of intense vulnerability and hardship.

Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as a rabbi, is a contemporary example of someone who led her people through such a moment. During the Holocaust, as more and more male rabbis were deported to concentration camps, Regina Jonas became spiritual leader to several congregations in Berlin before she herself was deported. Even in the camps, she continued to teach, preach, and counsel her fellow prisoners. In this, she was part of a larger effort of Jewish leaders working to preserve the Jewish community and Jewish tradition in the worst of circumstances. As we make our way through Sukkot and into Simchat Torah, what would it mean to invite Regina Jonas into the sukkah, honoring her as a crucial Jewish leader? The Sukkah reminds us of our fragility and the temporary nature of our existence. What would it mean for us to remember Regina Jonas’ fragility as a victim of the Holocaust whose life was cut short and whose story was forgotten for so long alongside our memories of her heroism and strength?

Do Not Go Near a Woman—Making the Invisible Visible

This week, we begin again the cycle of reading the Torah, the stories at the core of our Jewish identity. Before God spoke to the Children of Israel at Sinai, Moses told the people to prepare themselves, admonishing them, “Do not go near a woman.” (Ex. 19:15) Commentators have wondered: Since Moses seems only to be addressing the men; does this mean that women weren’t present at Sinai, weren’t part of the covenant between God and the Jews? The feminist theologian Judith Plaskow points out that these are Moses’ words, not God’s; the women may be invisible to Moses, invisible to the historical record, but they were surely present. This week, we commemorate the yahrzeit of Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as a rabbi, who perished in the Holocaust and was forgotten for decades, made invisible, before she was restored to her rightful place of honor in Jewish history.

During the 45-year period when her story was lost, women fought for the right to be ordained, but without access to Jonas’s story, they had no role models for how to do so. When we forget our history, our stories, every person seeking inclusion is perceived as an exception: the woman who wants to lead services, the deaf person who wants to participate fully in Jewish learning, the autistic child who desires a bar mitzvah, the gay couple who wants to be welcomed into the community. It’s hard to make broad and lasting change through a series of “special cases.” It’s only when we know our full history, when we make the invisible visible, that we as a community can work together and build on each other’s efforts to make sure we’re all standing together at Sinai.

Memorial Ritual for Regina Jonas

Near her chosen yahrtzeit, Parashat Bereishit, or at any other time of year you may choose to memorialize Regina Jonas using some or all of these ritual suggestions.

  • Share some of Rabbi Jonas’ own words, from this undated sermon given on the occasion of Yizkor, the memorial prayer recited several times a year on major holidays:

“We are living today in a time of trial by fire, testing the strength of our love for children, gratitude, the mutual support of family and friends in these alien conditions. Many people wanted, in spite of all obstacles, to preserve a true sense of Jewish family and peoplehood. Our sages say that the Torah was only given to Israel when the people presented guarantees, and only after they offered their children as guarantees to God. If worry and despondency seek our undoing, the we should think about Yizkor in such a way that we identify ourselves as “arevim tovim” (good guarantees), standing up for Israel, carrying on the work of our ancestors from Sinai…and to thank God sincerely that Yizkor has become the celebration of our souls.”

  • You may also wish to include other powerful teachings from Rabbi Jonas’ surviving writings, which were read at the memorial service in her honor held at Terezin on the 70th anniversary of her death.
  • Light a yahrzeit candle
  • Include Rabbi Regina Jonas’ name on your community’s yahrzeit list. Her Hebrew name was:
  • HaRav Malka Reina bat Zev Wolf v’Sarah

    הרב מלכה ריינא בת זאב וואלף ושרה

    • Recite traditional memorial prayers, such as Kaddish or El Maleh Rachamim
    • It is traditional to honor the memory of someone who has passed away, especially a teacher of Torah like Regina Jonas, by studying or teaching Torah in their honor. See suggestions for connecting her story to Torah.

    Online Learning with JWA

    Learn about Regina Jonas and her legacy, and gain tips for incorporating her story into your teaching, in this online learning program with JWA Rabbinic Intern Sarah Mulhern.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Program Resources." (Viewed on July 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/rabbis/regina-jonas-remembered/program-resources>.

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