Monday, February 14, 2005

The First Female Rabbi

A friend sent me the following article. I know it has nothing to do with sexual abuse/assault. I just thought it was important and wanted to share it with everyone.


A Forgotten Pioneer of Faith

By Louise Scodie

On December 27 1935, in Offenbach in Germany, a thirty-three-year-old woman called Regina Jonas became the first ever female rabbi.

Her story in itself is remarkable; the way in which her story has remained relatively hidden only serves to highlight the sad and surprising fact that, nearly 60 years after Regina's death in Auschwitz, one woman's amazing achievement can still go unnoticed and unappreciated.

Born in Berlin in 1902, Regina attended the city's centre for Jewish studies - the Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums - and qualified as a religion teacher, one of the few acceptable careers for women at the time. Yet this was not enough for Regina, and so she made an unprecedented decision to become a rabbi. Unsurprisingly, she met with considerable opposition.

Although Regina completed her course requirements - including writing her rabbinic thesis on women's ordination - the Talmud professor, Chanoth Albeik, refused to sign her ordination certificate. Undeterred, the ambitious scholar ploughed on relentlessly until Rabbi Max Dienemann, a liberal-minded rabbi who worked in Offenbach, ordained her in 1935. Thus history was made, and the way was paved for future generations of women rabbis.

Rabbi Jonas went on to work in Berlin's Jewish community, giving sermons, lectures and carrying out pastoral duties. That she continued to carry out her rabbinical duties after she had been deported to the Czech Ghetto Theriesenstadt, in November 1942, is a further testament to her undoubtable strength of spirit and commitment.

Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, who conducted research into Regina's life in the early 1990s, describes her as "the missing link in a broken chain". Regina's death at the hands of the Nazis not only spelled the end of a promising career, but it also hindered the general progress of women in the rabbinate. Indeed, Sarah believes Regina's story gives us "another way to look at the devastating legacy of the Holocaust".

She explains: "If the Shoah had not happened, and the Hochshule hadn't been closed down, who knows how many more women would have become rabbis before the ordination of Sally Priesand in the USA in 1972?"

Indeed, Regina Jonas may have been the only female rabbi of her time, but she was not the only woman who studied at the Hochshule. According to the school's annual report of 1932, she was one of 27 female students out of a total of 155.

Had these other women been allowed to progress under normal circumstances - as opposed to the Nazi regime - they might well have followed Regina's path.

Furthermore, the fact that Regina's inspiring story remains largely unknown highlights the lack of progress for women, despite the many apparent advances towards equality. Sarah recalls that when Regina's documents were unearthed in East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and her ordination certificate was presented to the Leo Baeck College, only a handful of people were present. The presentation, made by Hans Hirshberg and Dr Hermann Simon, director of Berlin's Central Jewish Institute, to the college principal, Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet, was "buried away before the main events of the evening."

For her, this lack of recognition of one woman's pioneering achievement proves that "to say women have achieved equality is a travesty - society is allowed to forget women like Regina."

This is especially sad when we consider that Rabbi Regina Jonas truly was a pioneer - she ventured into a land which was unchartered for women, fought those who opposed her fearsome ambition and great spirit and challenged the patriarchal society which would not countenance the existence of a working woman rabbi.

Indeed, right until her death, Regina never stopped fighting, or failed to inspire people and carry out her rabbinical duties.

An excerpt from one of her sermons given in the ghetto shortly before she was transported to Auschwitz in October 1944, serves as a poignant reminder of just how great her spirit and belief was: "Wherever one steps in every life situation, bestow blessing, goodness and faithfulness. Men and women, women and men have undertaken this duty with the same Jewish faithfulness.

“This also serves our testing Theresienstadt work - may it be a blessing for Israel's future and humanity."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm going to pass it on to my friends. I think it's very interesting, and an important article.

February 15, 2005 1:09 PM  

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