Five things to know about the first female rabbi

Ask most Jews where and when the world’s first female rabbi was ordained, and they may guess 1970s America.

But they’d be off by four decades and a continent.

The first woman rabbi was not Sally Priesand, ordained by the Reform movement in 1972, but Regina Jonas, who earned the title in 1935 in Berlin.

Rabbi Regina Jonas is believed to be the first female ordained. Wikipedia photo.

This month, the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay, is hosting a film and talkback event on Jonas. Rabbi Shari Shamah will lead the free screening of the “Regina” documentary on Thursday. Nov. 14, 2019, at 1 p.m. There is no charge. The event is open to the entire community. Contact Laurie Herman at LHerman@JccMilwaukee.org or 414-967-8212 for more information.

Here are five things to know about the first female rabbi:

1. Priesand honored her.

In July, 2014, Priesand — along with other pioneering women rabbis from various movements and countries — visited Berlin and Prague trying to bring some belated recognition to Jonas, who perished in Auschwitz in 1944.

Highlights of their five-day tour, organized by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives to honor Jonas, included installing a plaque in Jonas’ memory at the Terezin concentration camp, where she was initially deported, and visiting Centrum Judaicum Archive, where Jonas’ personal papers were stored for safekeeping on the eve of her deportation.

2. Her papers were rediscovered.

Born in 1902 in Berlin, Jonas studied at the city’s Liberal Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies) and was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienmann. Leo Baeck also signed the ordination papers. But after her death, she was largely forgotten until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when her papers were rediscovered on the other side.

3. At Terezin and Auschwitz.

Jonas, a Berlin native, was ordained in 1935 and served the Jewish community in the German capital until her deportation to Terezin in 1942. Two years later she was murdered in Auschwitz at 42.

4. She met with prisoners.

During her internment in Terezin, Jonas continued to lecture, preach and provide pastoral care to fellow inmates. She also worked for a crisis intervention service set up by the prisoners.

“Her particular job was to meet those who just arrived at the station and help them cope with shock and disorientation,” said Jan Munk, the director of the Terezin Memorial, in a 2014 interview.

How to go
What: Free film class: “Regina”
More info: Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz narrates this documentary on the first female rabbi. In Hungarian, English and German with subtitles. 1 hour, 6 minutes. Suitable for ages 12 to adult.
When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
Cost: Free. Open to the entire community.
Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
Contact: Laurie Herman at LHerman@JccMilwaukee.org or 414-967-8212.

5. She argued for female ordination.

Jonas was not a follower of the Reform movement, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. Jonas combined a halakhic line of argument with a modern attitude.

Among the records discovered is her thesis: “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” In it, Jonas writes: “I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it.” On the last page she concludes: “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

Jan Richter and Toby Axelrod of JTA contributed to this story.