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Remembering Regina Jonas, the First Ordained Female Rabbi

Remembering Regina Jonas, the First Ordained Female Rabbi

Members of the Women's Rabbinic Network at a museum exhibit about Regina Jonas

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.
-- Rabbi Regina Jonas, in the German newspaper Centra-Verein-Zeitung, June 23, 1938

I’m at that point in my rabbinate where many students I taught as children are now adults. One of my first bat mitzvah students, for example, started medical school this fall. Although I can’t take credit for her accomplishment – there is no scenario in which she would not have been a high achiever – I do take pride in it.

When we were both preparing to leave her childhood congregation – she heading off to college, me to my next position – she recalled how empowering it had been to be asked to lift the Torah for hagbah (holding the open scroll overhead so the congregation can see the text that was just read). It wasn’t something either of us had seen a lot of teenage girls do. But we both believed she could do it, and she did.

So, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that a recent study by Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin showed that women who grew up with female clergy had higher levels of self-esteem as adults, leading to lower levels of depression and anxiety, and higher levels of “relationship success, job satisfaction, and motivation for personal improvement.” Women whose most influential youth congregational leader was female were more likely to be employed full-time as adults and had, on average, one year more of higher education than other women.

For me, growing up with a woman on the bimah wasn’t enough. It was essential for me to seek out mentors whose lives and rabbinates looked like the one I had – and the one I wanted. I particularly needed to find women who were full-time pulpit rabbis, but also women who had cultivated a creative life, or who had navigated being single in the rabbinate. (Shout-out to Rabbi Marci Bellows, who, as she details in this new podcast by, for, and about women rabbis, modeled all of these things for me.)

Because I’ve had such wonderful mentors, I’m committed to mentor young rabbis through the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional association of North America’s Reform rabbis, and to be part of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, where I can find support and inspiration among my female colleagues.

It is also essential to remember that our influence from the pulpit extends beyond inspiring young women to become rabbis. It sends the message that women can do anything, and particularly that women can serve in positions of leadership.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, to choose this path in the 1930s in Berlin, having never seen anyone who looked like her on the pulpit. It’s also likely that Jonas didn’t see many women in any type of leadership position to know that it even was possible. As civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman put it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

But, as Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman ordained a rabbi by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, wrote in a new children’s book by the same title, “Regina persisted” and was ordained in 1935. She taught in Jewish schools, served as a pastoral counselor in Jewish hospitals and welfare agencies, and preached in liberal synagogues in Berlin and other German towns.

Even when she was deported to Terezin in 1942, Jonas continued her rabbinic work, until she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Although her story was untold for many years, we can now add her rabbinate to the treasure trove of examples of how women can teach, counsel, and lead.

On this Shabbat, when we observe the yahrzeit (annual anniversary of a person’s death) of the first female rabbi, we aren’t just celebrating the advances made for women in the rabbinate. We are celebrating all the advances women have made because, growing up, they saw a woman in the pulpit. And it all started with Rabbi Regina Jonas.

Here are some ways to mark Rabbi Regina Jonas’ yahrzeit:

  1. Learn more about Rabbi Regina Jonas at the Jewish Women’s Archive.
  2. Read the essay about Rabbi Jonas by Rabbi Laura Geller in The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.
  3. Read Regina Persisted: An Untold Story, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas, with your children (or your students).
  4. Read Rabbi Regina Jonas’ words on page 165 of the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, and/or commemorate her life with these suggestions from Ritual Well.

May her memory be a blessing.

Photo: Members of the Women's Rabbinic Network visit an exhibit about Regina Jonas at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz serves as co-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA, and the author of The World Needs Beautiful Things (Kar-Ben 2018)Visit her website and find her on social media @rabbilrb.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz
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