The First Female Rabbi

Stand for Israel  |  November 5, 2019

Rabbi Regina Jonas
Rabbi Regina Jonas

In the archives of the infamous Theresienstadt concentration camp, there exists a handwritten entitled “Lectures of the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas.” The list of lectures includes such topics as the history of Jewish women, the Talmud (Judaism’s Oral Tradition), the Bible, pastoral issues, and general thoughts on Jewish beliefs, ethics, and festivals. Until late in the 20th century, however, the world had not only forgotten about these teachings, but about the trailblazing woman with the tragic end who gave them.

Born in Berlin, Jonas pursued a career in teaching, but did not find this to be fulfilling. So she also began taking seminary courses for rabbis, graduating as “Academic Teacher of Religion.” Writing her rabbinical thesis on why a woman should be ordained — basing it on biblical sources — Jonas was repeatedly denied before finally being ordained in 1935, as Germany devolved under Hitler’s anti-Semitic rule.

While many rabbis fled Germany, Regina stayed, as the country’s Jews deserved rabbinical support. Despite being unable to safely hold synagogue services, and while being forced into hard labor, she kept up her chaplaincy, teaching, and holding of discreet services.

That all ended seventy-seven years ago today, however. On November 5, 1942, the Gestapo arrested Rabbi Jonas and sent her to Theresienstadt concentration camp. There, she kept up her holy work — preventing suicides among other prisoners, meeting the trains full of Jews to help them cope with the shocking and depressing new surroundings, and giving sermons and lectures on the Bible.

For nearly two years Rabbi Jonas kept up her work, before she was sent to Auschwitz in October of 1944. There, like more than a million other Jews, she was murdered. Her life and work were forgotten before being rediscovered in the 1990s, and today this first female rabbi inspires us all with her bravery in the face of evil.

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