Visiting the Regina Jonas Archive at the Centrum Judaicum
Our trip officially began Tuesday morning with participants sharing key words or phrases that captured the ideas, feelings, or intentions with which they were embarking on the first day.
Some focused on Regina Jonas—honoring her, standing on her shoulders. Others spoke more generally about women, noting their interest in the "place of women in different worlds," or "a passion for women." Several were thinking about historical memory on multiple levels—remembering, bearing witness, rethinking history. And they came to the day with varied emotions—anticipation, anxiety, optimism, seeking “internal reconciliation” and hoping to “find themselves” here.
The morning was packed. There didn't seem to be a street that didn't call forth a memory or piece of history from Hartmut Bonhoff, our impressively knowledgeable guide.
By the time we arrived at the Centrum Judaicum to meet with Dr. Simon, Rabbi Geisa Ederberg, and the archivist, we were eager to understand the story behind Jonas’s story—how were her papers discovered? How did they get there? What kind of interest did the discovery of her papers generate? The local team shared copies of various documents with us and also displayed originals, most significantly the copy of Jonas's ordination letter signed by Leo Baeck. This important letter elicited many questions and different readings. Rabbi Ederberg highlighted the phrases that suggested that this was not simply a private ordination but one sanctioned by the movement. Dr. Simon, on the other hand, noted that Leo Baeck's signature was a certification that the copy of the ordination certificate before him was an accurate copy. It was not, he emphasized, an authorization of Jonas's ordination.
Rabbi Sally Priesand was moved by many similarities between her story and Jonas's. Both lost their sponsor/mentor before finishing their training. Unlike Jonas, Sally still managed to receive an institutional ordination, but, as she told us, not without significant opposition that she was unaware of at the time. When the archivist mentioned that Jonas’s argument that it is not halakhah (Jewish law) but prejudice and lack of familiarity that stands in the way of women becoming rabbis, Rabbi Priesand smiled and said, “I always said that.”
Reflecting on our visit to Berlin's Jewish archive, Rabbi Laura Geller said that the critical takeaway for her that day was the vital importance of saved documents. While there are multiple explanations for why Regina Jonas was forgotten for more than half a century, what all can agree on is that without the small cache of documents that surfaced after the Berlin Wall fell, she probably would have been forgotten forever.