There is a misconception that Sally Priesand, ordained in Cincinnati in 1972, is the first woman rabbi. Nearly forty years before, in 1935 Rabbi Regina Jonas became the first woman ordained in recorded history in Berlin, Germany. Rabbi Jonas felt called to serve the Jewish community from an early age. She studied for the rabbinate and completed a thesis on the topic, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi?”
After the sudden death of her mentor left her without anyone willing to step forward to perform her ordination, she waited an additional five years for the title “rabbi”. Jonas asked to be called “Fraulein Rabbi” as “Frau Rabbi” was a title reserved for the wives of her male colleagues.
When the Nazis took power Jonas stayed and served the Jewish community until she herself was sent to Theresienstadt. She worked there alongside Viktor Frankl and Rabbi Leo Baeck until she was sent to Auschwitz in early October of 1944. Each year her yahrtzeit is commemorated this week, on Shabbat Bereshit.
Despite her accomplishments, Rabbi Jonas’ story remains a largely untold tale. This is partially because her writings were not accessible until the fall of the Berlin Wall. What remains a mystery is why there was nearly no mention of her work after the war, even by those who worked closely with her.
Today, women rabbis are nearly ubiquitous. Yet, nearly 75 years after Fraulein Rabbi Regina Jonas’ death, much work remains to be done with regard to gender equality.
Rabbi Jonas wrote these words that remain an inspiration for our own times:
“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.”